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School-choice group pushes parent trigger law

First it was featured in a controversial summer movie, and now it could come to a school near you. A liberal school-choice group from California is trying to build a coalition of local education groups to pass an Arizona law allowing parents to take over failing schools.

The Legislature considered a similar proposal last session that passed the Senate by a slim margin as SB1204, but it died in the House without a hearing.

Next year’s effort appears to be headed down an equally rough road: The chairs of both chambers’ education committees are skeptical of the concept, known as a “trigger law.” It has become law in California, Texas and Mississippi, and several other states. The concept also served as the plot in the 2012 movie, “Won’t Back Down.”

The film portrays a parent trigger law as an effective way to revive failing schools, although the movie was criticized by some for providing a misleading view of public education in America.

A parent trigger law allows a majority of a failing school’s parents to petition for its closure, convert it to a charter school or replace the principal. The idea was conceived by Parent Revolution, a California group made up of former Democratic Party and union operatives who use union-organizing techniques to spread their agenda. But the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Goldwater Institute, both of which favor conservative public policy, have also embraced the idea. Goldwater Institute was the force behind the legislation this year, but doesn’t plan to pursue another bill in 2013.

“I just don’t believe this meets the needs of all of our schools in Arizona,” said Rep. Doris Goodale, a Kingman Republican, who heads the House Education Committee.

Sen.-elect Kimberly Yee, who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said the idea is a “provocative way” of helping a failing school and should be highly scrutinized, but she won’t sponsor any legislation and is non-committal on whether she would give it a hearing.

“Any type of takeover of a school has to be carefully reviewed in any type of education reform model,” Yee said.

Yee said the state already has an intervention policy, which has only been in effect since August, and she wants to see how it works over time. Last session, Yee sponsored the legislation, HB2663, which allows the State Board of Education to intervene in a failing school immediately if the board determines there is no reasonable likelihood it will improve within two years.

Yee also sits as a non-voting member on the State Board for Charter Schools. She wants to present the panel with the trigger-law proposal for a roundtable discussion to see what charter school leaders think about it.

Arizona already has a way for parents to open a charter school, which Yee said she wants to compare with the element in the trigger law that allows parents to convert a failing school to a charter.

Goodale, who held last session’s bill, said she is leery of trying to adapt ideas conceived in other states to Arizona, especially when it comes to rural schools with very small enrollments like Crown King Elementary School in Yavapai County, which had only two students in 2011-2012.

She said one parent could conceivably shut down the school, which in turn would create a host of other problems such as trying to find another school for the students and getting them there.

Ryan Donohue, deputy national advocacy director for Parent Revolution, said he is open to striking the option of shutting down a school from any proposed legislation, retaining the charter school conversion and principal replacement options.

Both committee chairs have appointments to meet with Parent Revolution in the coming weeks.

Donohue said he is having conversations with several legislators on both sides of the aisle and he is recruiting various groups in Arizona to spearhead the effort.

“If the community wants it, this is something we’re going to help them get,” Donohue said.

He said it is more meaningful to lawmakers if local groups champion the legislation.

A group that has shown an interest is the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, or Hispanic CREO, a Florida-based Hispanic advocacy group that is developing a presence in Arizona.

Christina Martinez, Hispanic CREO state director, said the organization supports any concept that would empower parents to control their children’s education, and while the group is seriously considering pursuing a trigger-law proposal, it hasn’t committed yet.

“What it’s going to come down to is who are the players, how many people are willing to help, how quickly can we mobilize a group,” Martinez said. “Parent revolution is a pretty leftist group, which is fine because we’re constantly trying to appeal to Democrats on the left side of the aisle based on the nature of the community we work with.”

Martinez said she would expect stiff opposition from teacher unions and the educational establishment if a bill is introduced, so she would want to see a solid, bipartisan coalition in place before committing Hispanic CREO.

Parent Revolution, which successfully lobbied the enactment of a trigger law in California, dropped its support of SB1204 last session after it was amended with a provision to expand a scholarship program that gives certain types of students state money to attend private schools. That measure was destined to die in the Senate Education Committee, but the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lori Klein, an Anthem Republican, got a strike-everything version heard and passed in a committee she co-chaired, Government Reform.

It passed from the Senate on a

16-14 vote, with five moderate Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it.

Jonathan Butcher, Goldwater Institute’s education director, said the organization isn’t going to be directly involved in trigger law legislation next year.

“It’s still a project we’re supportive of,” Butcher said. “I think … because it was so new, I wanted to make sure, if we could, to give it the first big push.”

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