This Democrat gives nod to parent empowerment in ‘trigger’ bill

I have the greatest respect for parents who get involved in education issues — especially the ones now engaged in the debate over parent empowerment legislation. However, I disagree with those who oppose the bill, and I must question the accuracy of some of their claims.

Some historical perspective is in order.

Back in the 1990s, when Florida first began assessing students’ ability to read, 74 percent of Florida’s African-American students were functionally illiterate. Educators could sign off on their schools’ poor service to minority children, yet schools that had failed these children could still collect full funding to underwrite more failure. And the parents of these children had little if any say in this system.

I don’t understand what a critic of parent empowerment meant when she recently wrote that it would use parents like “cheap napkins.’’ But I do know that low-income kids were used as a cheap paycheck, and their schools were oftentimes used as a training ground for novice teachers and a depository for ineffective ones.

Education reform has started reversing this trend. Florida’s African American fourth graders have advanced more than two grade levels in reading, and their scores on national assessments now exceed the national average. Low-income children once were practically nonexistent in Advanced Placement classes. But now Florida leads the nation in providing them access to these courses.

The genesis for this change is accountability and choice.

Student funding started becoming contingent on accountability for results. Schools actually had to demonstrate they were educating children with the people’s money. And parents had more options than the failing neighborhood school down the street.

This parent empowerment bill would embrace and expand these highly effective reforms. Parents could ask their local school board to bring in new management if the existing public school received two consecutive failing grades. If the local board disagrees, then the State Board of Education would have the final say. Charters would not gain ownership of facilities, as has been falsely stated. Instead, a charter school could use public facilities as long as it delivered academic progress and would have to vacate them if it did not.

The real outcome of this legislation would be the end of consecutive school failures because districts would be more proactive in preventing them. The end result would be eliminating the circumstances under which the “trigger’’ would be pulled. And kids would be the winners.

I would ask those parents who oppose this bill — and whose children attend high-performing schools — a simple question: If two consecutive failures aren’t enough to empower low-income parents, then how many failures should we allow?


How many would you tolerate in your children’s schools?

Another section of the bill would prevent children from being assigned to two ineffective teachers in consecutive years. Low-income children often don’t get the home enrichment of their more affluent peers, particularly with a single parent working two jobs to make ends meet. Two years of ineffective teaching puts these kids so far behind they’ll never catch up. So again I must ask, if not two years, then how many? Three?

At Melrose Elementary in Pinellas County, a double-F school, only 16 percent of kids read at grade level. Last year the superintendent said he had difficulty replacing ineffective teachers because they were protected by collective bargaining. Shouldn’t parents have more of a say in this?

These are not the questions of right-wing ideologues. I am a Democrat and a parent. But it has long bothered me that too many of us worry about protecting adults in public education at the expense of kids. That is changing with President Obama, who advocates reform, and with groups such as Democrats for Education Reform and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which unanimously backs empowerment legislation.

Parent empowerment isn’t a plot to privatize schools. It is a plot to educate children.

Julia Johnson serves as a member of the board of directors for the Foundation for Florida’s Future.

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