By Julia Johnson
Regarding Kathleen Oropeza’s commentary “Florida parents don’t want ‘parent trigger,’ ” 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 (CS/CS/HB 867), and I must question some of their claims.
Some historical perspective is in order. In the 1990s, when Florida began assessing students’ ability to read, 74 percent of 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 had little if any say.
I don’t understand what Ms. Oropeza meant when she wrote that the bill would use parents like “cheap napkins.’’ But I do know that low-income kids were used as a cheap paycheck, and their schools were often used as a training ground for novice teachers and a repository 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 had to demonstrate they were educating children with the people’s money. 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 school board to bring in new management if the existing public school received two consecutive failing grades. If the local board disagreed, the State Board of Education would have the final say. Charters would not own the facilities, as has been falsely stated. Instead, a charter school could use public facility only as long as it delivered academic progress.
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, 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. Two years of ineffective teaching puts these kids so far behind they’ll never catch up. Again, if not two years, how many?
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 a right-wing ideologue. 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 Barack 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 is a board member of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.