Friday, February 1, 2013

Dr. Herenton Pulls the Trigger

In a recent post, I mentioned that Dr. Herenton has invoked Tennessee's existing parent trigger law on behalf of the parents at two schools in Memphis.  Listening to the radio broadcast of the Board meeting, I could not make out the names of both schools, but one is Orleans Elementary School.

Orleans Elementary is on the list of school closures from Dr. Cash - originally six, now down to five since Gordon Elementary was granted a reprieve.  The initial coverage of the possible school closings listed Orleans' enrollment at 39.2%.  Orleans Elementary is located off of South Parkway, in the neighborhood bound by South Parkway, East Trigg Avenue, South Lauderdale, and Mississippi Boulevard.  The district planned to send Orleans students to Lincoln Elementary, less than a half mile away, but on the other side of busy South Parkway.

In order for the current version of Tennessee's parent trigger law to, well, trigger, 60% of the school's parents have to sign a petition, and the petition is presented to the local school board.  The local school board can accept the petition, or try to make its own progress in the particular school.  I can't quite picture Dr. Herenton knocking on doors with a clipboard, but it must have happened.  Dr. Herenton has submitted the petitions, and they will be discussed by the School Board next month.

We've seen various responses to the proposed list of school closings, mostly unhappiness with a healthy dose of anger.  Trezevant parents, unhappy to be on the ASD list, put together their own petition.  Gordon students and parents mobilized at the School Board meetings, and managed to get Gordon off of the list.  But this might just be the most formal, mobilized opposition to a school closing that we've yet seen.  Orleans parents appear to be attempting to save their neighborhood school not by begging the School Board to keep them open, but by allying with a charter management organization (it's worth noting that it's a CMO which is not currently operating any schools) to take over the school.  This is getting meta.

We have yet to understand who initiated this petition process - whether this is Dr. Herenton's brainchild or if the parents came to the mountain - I mean, Dr. Herenton.  I'll be interested to know who knocked on the doors and collected the signatures, if they were paid, and by whom.  One of the abuses of California's parent trigger law had to do with the signatures.  Here is Students First's policy paper on the parent trigger, where this issue is mentioned on page 5 under Adelanto, California.  Students First correctly states that the issue in the litigation had to do with parents who did not intend to sign the petition (it's a long story, but there were two petitions and parents were told that one was just for leverage - you can read about it here).  But the position paper fails to mention that the subject of the litigation was parents who wished to remove their names from the petition, with the court eventually requiring that their names remain on the petition.  The point is that the conduct surrounding the petitions submitted by Dr. Herenton is important.

Opposition to one school reform taking the form of implementing another school reform?  Hard to say which I like less:  school closings or the parent trigger, but I have to give credit to the Orleans parents for trying to take their fate into their own hands when faced with losing their neighborhood school altogether.  Having Orleans run by a charter school would make it impossible for the district to realize the expected cost savings and from the sound of it, the folks putting together the budget are scrambling.  Stay tuned - the School Board is going to struggle on this one - some of the Commissioners will struggle to figure out which reform they (and their corporate sponsors) like more.

Speaking of corporate sponsors, we know who State Representative John DeBerry's corporate sponsors are - Gates, Walton, etc., all the usual suspects, funneled through Michelle Rhee's Students First organization.  Its grassroots roots have proven less effective than its corporate roots when all is said and done.  When I posted on Speaker of House Harwell's shenanigans related to the Education Committee appointments, I pointed you to KnoxNews' reporting on Rep. DeBerry's suspicious appointment to the House Education Committee:  "StudentsFirst spent more than $100,000 to help him defeat a Democratic primary opponent -- the most the group spent on any campaign. DeBerry was appointed last week to the committee that will first act on the legislation StudentsFirst is pushing by House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose PAC received $5,000 from StudentsFirst. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's PAC also got $5,000 from StudentsFirst." 

Again, Here is Students First's policy paper on the parent trigger.  Despite Michelle Rhee's intimate knowledge (and interest) in Tennessee's parent trigger law, and her close connection with her ex-husband Kevin Huffman, our state's Department of Education Commissioner, the position paper fails to mention Tennessee's relatively early adoption (in 2002) of a parent trigger law.  It has only been used twice in Tennessee - until now.  And the second time is this year, assuming that the petition in Knoxville is actually submitted.  This means that this year, 2012-13, the parent trigger law has been used fully 300% more than it ever has before in all of its existence.  And that, really, out of the four times this law has been invoked, we really only know what happened in once instance - in Memphis in 2007 with the KIPP middle school.  The others are still in the initial stages.

Nothing like tinkering with a seldom-used law, that was successfully used the only time it has ever been invoked, taking local control away from elected school boards that have not shown any unwillingness to work within the parameters of the statute. 

Astonishingly, though Tennessee is not mentioned in the Students First position paper, and though prior to 2013, the law had only been invoked once, Rep. DeBerry, from his new seat on the House Education Committee, completely coincidentally, has some revisions he would like to suggest.  Those revisions, shockingly, are nearly perfectly aligned with Students First's suggestions on pages three and four:  the parent trigger should only be available to parents of students at statewide bottom 20% schools (#1 on SF list), only a majority of parents - instead of 60% in current state law - should be necessary to present the petition (#3 on SF list), four different options listed in the Race to the Top regulations should be available from which the parents can choose (#4 on SF list), if the petition is denied by the local school board, the decision should be appealable (#7 on SF list).

Nothing to see here, nothing unusual happening here.  It should be unusual, but it's not . . .

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