The Goldwater Institute looked to a group of community organizers and Democratic operatives for inspiration for its latest school choice idea.
The institute helped draft and is advocating for SB1204, which would allow parents of students attending failing schools to close down the school, convert it to a charter school or remove the principal.
The concept, dubbed “parent empowerment” by the institute, got its start from Parent Revolution, a group that got a similar law passed in California and has helped parents in that state to organize against their failing schools.
“Most of us come out of progressive, Democratic or union politics,” said Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, who got his start in the Clinton White House and was the communications director for the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Jonathan Butcher, Goldwater’s education director, said the American Legislative Exchange Council, which favors conservative public policy, developed model legislation shortly after the California law was passed and the emergence of Parent Revolution, with whom he has worked directly and discussed SB1204.
“I think that it shows what a powerful concept school choice really is,” Butcher said. “They’re good folks working hard for school choice, too.”
Texas and Mississippi have also passed what are known in other states as “parent trigger” laws, and a few other states have watered-down versions, Butcher said.
SB1204 passed the Senate Government Reform Committee Feb. 15 along a 5-2 party-line vote.
Austin said the parent trigger concept has a history of generating bipartisan support in California and now in Florida, where a bill there has a lot of momentum, passing out of committees in both chambers of its Legislature.
“Even in Washington D.C., the idea of parent trigger has strong bipartisan support,” Austin said.
He said it has the support of the Obama administration and ranking Democrats and Republicans in the House Education Committee.
“We’re happy to work across party lines and we actually think building bipartisan support for parent trigger has been one of its great strengths,” Austin said. “Even in the polarized political environment that we live in today, it’s quite a hopeful sign that Democrats and Republicans can both come together around the simple idea of giving parents power of the education of their own children.”
Parent Revolution began as just a way to organize parents around education reform and launched on President Obama’s inauguration day, Austin said.
The group posted a video saying that if half the parents of a school organize, Parent Revolution will guarantee a great school. The video went viral and parents began organizing.
Obama began his Race to the Top initiative at the same time and the group was able to get parent trigger provisions into California Race to the Top legislation.
The group’s first parent trigger project, a Compton elementary school, became tied up in court and parents there eventually opened their own charter school in a church, Austin said.
Its latest project is Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., located east of Los Angeles.
Austin said 70 percent of the parents at the school signed petitions demanding a conversion to a charter school, forcing the school district to enter serious talks with them.
“Parent trigger isn’t an end unto itself, it’s a tool to give parents the power to force district bureaucracies to treat parents like other traditional power players in educational politics,” Austin said.
He said Parent Revolution developed curriculum in community organizing and public policy for parents who want to organize. And while he doesn’t see the organization opening a chapter in Arizona, Austin said it would be willing to train grassroots organizations in the state.
Under SB1204, if more than 50 percent of a failing school’s parents petition a governing board for one of the three changes, then the board must comply.
The bill is opposed by the public school establishment.
Janice Palmer, a lobbyist with the Arizona School Boards Association, said Arizona’s abundant school choice options make the bill unnecessary.
She said that if parents are unhappy with their schools there are remedies in place such as voting school board members out of office or going through the board to replace a principal.
“This is almost a solution in need of a problem,” Palmer said.
But while Goldwater has been successful in getting school choice legislation passed, the bill’s future is uncertain, even with a majority Republican Legislature.
An original version of the bill was held in the Senate Education Committee because the chairman, Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican and former Mesa Unified School District governing board member, opposed it, and Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, wasn’t confident in getting enough votes.
Austin said Parent Revolution no longer supports the legislation, however, because it has a “voucher” provision.
The bill has a provision that allows parents of children in failing schools to qualify for empowerment accounts. Only disabled students are eligible under current law.
The empowerment account program allows parents of disabled students to pull them from public schools in exchange for an empowermentaccount, which amounts to 90 percent of the funding that would have gone to the public school.
The money can be spent on a litany of options such as private-school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. Another bill, HB2626, also seeks to expand the empowerment account program to include students in failing schools, gifted students and children of military parents.
Butcher said he has spoken with Austin and Parent Revolution staff several times to try to convince them that empowerment accounts aren’t vouchers, but he hasn’t been successful.
Austin said his organization would still be willing to lend a helping hand if the bill passes with the provision.
“We would be more than happy to train and empower local grassroots organizations to learn how to do the kind of work we do,” Austin said.