Tennessee is home to many laws that are rarely, if ever, exercised, such as disqualifying people from public office for participating in duels or making it a crime to import a skunk.
But there’s another one seldom used here. State law allows parents or teachers to boot the management of their school and replace it with another.
While the law has no fancy name in Tennessee, the idea is known in different parts of the country as a “parent-trigger law.” Here, the measure gives members of community power to petition their school be taken over as a publicly funded but privately run charter school.
The law has been in play twice in Tennessee since it was written and lumped into the state’s 2002 charter school law. The first time was in Memphis in 2007, when a charter operator contracting with the school system used teacher petitions to jump-start an application to convert a school it was already working in. The conversion was approved, and the school reopened the next year as KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School.
The most recent attempt to pull the trigger is in Knox County, where charter operator Genesis Rock is planning to hand the local school board a stack of parent petitions to convert a struggling middle school after several failed attempts to convince the district to OK the charter.
Under state law, 60 percent of parents or teachers need to sign petitions to transform the school into a chartered one. The school district could still reject the conversion without giving petitioners a right to appeal to the state Board of Education.
State Rep. John DeBerry has a happy trigger finger. His Democratic district is in the heart of Memphis, a city where less than one-third of students are at least proficient on standardized math, English and language arts tests, with rare exception. There some 69 of 212 schools — roughly a third — are ranked among the worst 5 percent in the state.
“We’ve become so desensitized and so used to words like ‘failing schools’ and talking about teachers who don’t teach, students that don’t learn,” said DeBerry. “We act like that’s the way God wants it.”
He wants to make it easier to parents to spur change in their schools by lowering the petition threshold to 51 percent of parents from any of the state’s worst 20 percent of schools. He also wants to weaken school boards’ grip on rejecting charters or parents’ requests for a turnaround program, by requiring the state to hear any appeals.
Even though he wants the law easier to use, parents should treat it like a last resort, DeBerry said.
“When they have begged everybody, and talked to principals and administrators and have done everything they could as taxpayers to get things changed and they’re told they have no say so, they have no voice, shut up — that’s when parents need a trigger to change it,” said DeBerry, who expects stiffening the current law will face an uphill battle at the Capitol.
Lawmakers are also considering other hot topics around changing the state’s education system, such as making it easier for charter schools to win approval if rejected by school boards and allowing parents to send their students to private schools using tax dollars.
DeBerry is in lockstep with StudentsFirst, a national education reform group that also has stiffer parent trigger laws on its Tennessee wish list. While DeBerry acknowledges having received more than $112,000 in support from the group during his re-election campaign — largely in the way of canvassing, donations and phone banking last year — he said pushing a stronger parent trigger option has always been on his agenda.
StudentsFirst is spearheaded by controversial national reform spokeswoman Michelle Rhee, the ex-wife of state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who is also interested in stronger parent trigger laws.
“I certainly think if people brought a stronger law we’d take a look at it,” Huffman told The City Paper. “I think the idea is to give parents more voice, and parents who sometimes feel ignored and disempowered, to give them the chance to feel a sense of empowerment.”
The latest local talk about exercising the law came as West Nashville parents began exploring the idea during the ongoing controversy over the Metro Nashville school board’s denial of Great Hearts Academies proposed charter school. Interested parents were concerned the district’s central office had too tight a grip on school decisions.
“Obviously, your preference is [that] your principal is given the maximum amount of latitude to address the needs of population without having to go through a parent trigger,” said Emily Evans, the Metro councilwoman who organized informational sessions to learn more about parent trigger laws.
If a groundswell of parents or teachers signs petitions saying they want change at their school, the district should be inclined to listen and be proactive to turn the school around, she said.
“I think the reason’s it’s not regularly used is because it’s considered a last resort, and you’d rather not use it,” she said.