Anthony: School takeover proposals have pitfalls that should concern Texans

April 10, 2015 |



Houston Chronicle – April 10, 2015

As surely as fire ants return with spring rains to Texas, legislative proposals aimed at addressing “failing” public schools in Texas have resurfaced at the Texas Capitol.

Billed as school turnaround measures, these proposals represent the growth engines of a business model premised on privatizing the operation of public schools. One such proposal is the “parent trigger.”

Texas is one of seven states with parent trigger currently on the books. Our state authorizes a simple majority of parents by petition to repurpose the campus, turn it over to a charter operator, or close it.

Currently, the principal and a majority of teachers on a campus are automatically replaced after two consecutive years of low performance. The parent trigger can be used if the campus remains academically unacceptable three years later. Proposals before the Legislature would shorten this time period to two years of consecutive low performance without waiting to see the impact of turnaround efforts.

While making for a great sound bite, aggressively shortening the time line radically expands the number of campuses subject to the parent trigger (225 at two years; 65 at three years). It short-circuits fixes for these campuses that have worked in fewer than four years in all but seven cases.

More significantly, this measure would not result in most campuses being turned around any faster. Even if a campus were turned over to a charter after two years, the campus could not be turned around in fewer than two more years.

The legislation is also rife with opportunities for mischief by groups outside the community. Once parents sign a petition, they have no ability to revoke it, even if they were misled or misinformed. California found it necessary to implement ethics provisions to prevent payment or rewards for signatures, and to require disclosure of paid signature gatherers. This raises real questions about who exactly is empowered by the parent trigger.

While the parent trigger is the retail, one-at-a-time version of school takeover, the “Opportunity School District” (OSD) is the wholesale model.

The OSD is described as an “emergency room” for low-performing schools. There is just one problem with this metaphor. In other states where this model is used, the school, unlike the patient, never comes out of the operating room.

The OSD is a state-takeover district modeled most closely on similar entities in Louisiana and Tennessee. The OSD would be separate from the state education agency, run under contract and tasked with removing campuses identified as “low-performing” from their local school districts and handing them over to private charter operators. This is ostensibly a short-term fix to restore them to academic stability so that they can be returned to local control.

But return to local control is the exception, not the rule. Only two schools handed over to a private charter operator in Louisiana have ever been returned to local control.

Tennessee’s law was changed after initial adoption to provide that once a campus goes into the Achievement School District, it must remain there for at least 10 years – the term of a charter contract – and potentially much longer.

If our real goal is to turn around chronically low-performing schools and return them to local control, we should authorize the commissioner of education to directly manage a small number of schools, prioritizing those with the longest records of low performance, and provide him with the resources to accomplish that goal.

There is a fundamental difference between creating high-quality charter schools as alternatives to a neighborhood public school and replacing the only neighborhood public school with a privately run school. Once this happens, the community has lost its ability to influence how the school is run through local school board elections and will have no alternative to dealing with a private company or state agency.

Texans should take a long, hard look before allowing a manufactured sense of crisis to compel action from which there may be no turning back.

David Anthony is the CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas.