In another battle over how to improve Georgia’s public school system, Georgia legislators have found a way to give failing schools a chance at charter school status.
State House representatives passed H.B. 123, titled the "Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act," to allow parents or teachers to petition local school boards to convert public schools that are failing to meet achievement standards. some have likened the legislation to a “parent trigger” bill.
“As I have said in the past, charter schools are not the silver bullet to fix Georgia’s education problems—there is no silver bullet,” said Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta). “I believe that options must exist so children across the state may live up to their full potential. This bill will further the viability of options for parents and teachers across the state.”
Lindsey, who introduced the bill, was also an outspoken proponent of the charter school amendment approved by Georgia voters in last November’s election. That amendment reinstated the governor-appointed Charter Schools Commission to enable the creation of state-controlled charter schools separate from local school board approved charters.
Though advocates of the bill say it is designed to give parents more options to enhance student achievement, opponents see it as a way to further enable the creation of charter schools.
The bill places special focus on low-achieving schools and defines them with several criteria, including failing accountability assessments or performance standards, as well as low graduation rates.
H.B. 123 also redefines who can create a petition by allowing either parents or teachers to submit a petition without regards to the other entity. Before, a petition could not be filed without a majority of both parents and teachers.
This new law eliminates that language in favor of allowing one side to forge ahead with a petition without seeking the inclusion of the other.
The bill also amends the majority vote needed to form a petition by mandating that parents or teachers obtain more than 50 percent of the signatures of their petitioning group.
Besides a charter conversion, petitioners are also given several other options to “turnaround” a failing school, including:
- Firing poor performing personnel or principals
- Complete reorganization of a school by firing all personnel/faculty and rehiring all new staff (current staff could reapply for their jobs if they haven’t received a negative student achievement score in the last three years)
- Permitting parents to move their children to other approved public schools within the district
- Employing a school monitor, master or management team
- Designing an intensive student achievement improvement plan
- Restructuring the school’s governance model and internal organization
Local school boards have 60 days to approve or deny a petition. They also have to put up a two-thirds vote to reject a petition if the petitioning group is made up of more than 60 percent of the parents or teachers.
Due to the exclusionary nature of the petitioning group as well as the potential of faculty and staff firings, the law favors parent intervention. Those opposed to the bill find that many of the provisions have the potential to cause rifts between parents and teachers.
“Our goal is or should be to comprehensively improve schools in a collaborative and sustainable manner,” Verdaillia Turner, president of Georgia’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a letter to the Georgia General Assembly.
Turner distinguishes both the charter school amendment and the "parent trigger bill" as political maneuvering as opposed to actual education reform that works from the bottom-up among parents and teachers.
“Schools have big budgets and it’s a big money pot,” she said.
Georgia School Boards Association Director of Policy and Legislative Services, Angela Palm, agrees that both parents and teachers must be involved in the process of turning schools around.
“I think if you ask one group to do it without the buy in of the other entity, it has the potential to destabilize the school,” she said. “That flies in the face of what the charter school is supposed to be.”
Palm noted that the bill restates improvement mechanisms that have already been guaranteed to local school boards. The added responsibilities of school boards to engage in a restructuring process, she said, could also come with substantial costs.
“There would be a huge expense involved if we would have to have hearings for personnel or to find a new principal.”
Georgia Charter Schools Association CEO Tony Roberts did not want to comment on the legislation.