‘Trigger’ bill would let parents, staff petition to change schools to charters

Hoping to capitalize on the momentum of November’s positive charter school vote, a leader in the Georgia House introduced legislation Tuesday to give parents the right to petition to turn their low-performing public schools into independent charter schools.

House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, has expanded a so-called “parent trigger” bill he first brought to lawmakers last year to give those same petitioning rights to teachers and school staff.

House Bill 123 by Lindsey also would enable both groups — parents and teachers — to petition to force leadership changes at schools that aren’t making the grade.

Known as the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act, the bill would, however, give final say-so to local boards of education, something some argue could drastically limit its effectiveness.

“This bill is about cutting through the bureaucracy and making local school systems perform better,” Lindsey said.

Provisions would allow parents and teachers to petition to transform low-achieving public schools into charter schools, including elementary and middle schools where less than 65 percent of students pass standardized tests in reading and math. Parents and school staff also could petition to change key school officials, including principals, as part of a school turnaround strategy.

If the bill passes, Georgia would become the eighth state in the country to pass a parent trigger law. Twenty states have considered similar measures, with most facing strong opposition from teachers groups.

Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the bill is “unnecessary.”

“The language in the bill speaks of ‘turnaround models’ for low-achieving schools,” she said. “And we feel that these schools should be given the necessary tools to evolve student achievement, not discard them.”

Officials with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) were still studying the specifics of Lindsey’s bill.

“We appreciate Rep. Lindsey’s efforts to encourage grass-roots involvement and collaboration between educators and parents,” said PAGE spokesman Tim Callahan. “Without the buy-in from these two groups, improvement in educational outcomes is difficult, if not impossible.”

In a major victory for school choice advocates, Georgia voters last November agreed to amend the Georgia Constitution to approve creation of a special state commission with the authority to approve charter schools.

“The message should have been delivered to the education establishment that the people of Georgia aren’t satisfied with the status quo, and we need to be looking at fundamental changes in public education,” Lindsey said.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, former chair of the Senate education committee, said he’s not certain what good the trigger bill does if school boards aren’t required to do what the petitioning parents or school staff request.

“That, for me, defeats what I thought was the primary purpose,” Millar said. “What does this do? What’s the point?”

Lindsey said local boards of education could not be forced to implement the edicts of petitions from parents or school staff under the current state constitution.

But he said school boards are likely to feel quite the pressure, particularly in instances where a two-thirds majority of the board must vote to deny a petition coming from 60 percent of parents.

“That creates quite a groundswell that I think most boards would take a serious look at and try to accommodate,” Lindsey said.

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Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.