House passes ‘parent trigger’ charter schools bill

The school-choice train chugged forward Tuesday with House passage of a bill to require local school boards to consider some petitions to convert traditional public schools into charter schools.

House Bill 123, sponsored by Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, rolled to passage on a vote of 97 to 74. It moves on to the Senate, where the school-choice fervor is only slightly less intense than it is in the House.

“What this bill does, plain and simple, is it puts teeth in the right to petition,” Lindsey said. “It says that the local school board must look at your concerns and statements and see if they have merit.”

HB 123 is called the “parent trigger.” It would force a local school board to consider a petition to change a traditional school into a charter when a majority of the traditional school’s student households request it. School boards would also have to consider such petitions if they’re signed by a majority of teachers and instructional staff.

If 60 percent of student households or 60 percent of teachers and instructional staff submit a charter petition, the local board could only reject it if at least two-thirds of board members vote to reject it.

Parents and teachers at low-performing schools could also petition to have the board use a variety of methods to improve school performance. Those might include removing a traditional school’s principal.

Only a handful of states have “parent trigger” laws, and they have not been widely used.

Charter schools are public schools. But they are granted organizational and instructional flexibility in exchange for pursuing specific education goals.

Many school-choice advocates, unsatisfied with traditional schools’ performance, view charter schools as an important alternative.

Lindsey has described charter schools as a sort of “safety valve,” that gives parents another option if the traditional public school their child attends is not meeting that child’s needs.

In November, after a bitter political debate, Georgia voters backed an amendment to the state constitution to make clear the state’s power to authorize charter schools.

Opponents of the push to expand charter schools have argued that they often are not superior to traditional schools.

More than nine of 10 public school students in Georgia attend traditional schools, and opponents of the charter push say it deliberately obscures the need for more investment in traditional public schools.

“I know school choice is very popular,” said state Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn. “I know charter schools are very popular. But they are not a panacea. We’re just dancing around the edges of a much bigger problem.”

A section of HB 123 would allow parents and teachers to vote by secret ballot at a meeting called to consider submitting a charter petition. Opponents of the bill feared that could open the door to a small group forcing the local school board’s decision: It’s possible a majority of those at such a meeting could represent only a fraction of the overall number of households at a school.

Lindsey said that’s not his understanding of what his bill says, but he told worried colleagues he is open to clarifying that section of it as it moves through the Senate.

State Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, didn’t need to see that clarification to lend the bill her support. Like other supporters of the bill, she said the current school system is not working for enough students.

“There is no one size that fits all, but what we have now fits none,” Stovall said.

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