A package of education reforms, including the so-called parent trigger provision, was voted out of committee and sent to the General Assembly for debate Wednesday, but it faces daunting opposition on several fronts.
Among the opposing forces: teacher unions, members of the legislature's education committee who say they won't vote for it, and competing legislation that the committee's co-chairmen believe would be more palatable to lawmakers.
The parent trigger is just one of several measures in the reform bill designed to close the state's achievement gap between poor students and their wealthier counterparts, but much of the committee's debate has centered on it.
The parent trigger allows 51 percent or more of the parents whose children attend a school that has failed to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years under the federal No Child Left Behind law to petition for drastic changes at the school. Those changes could range from replacing teachers or administrators to closing the school.
Supporters argue that parents contending with failing schools often have little choice about where to send their children and deserve to have a strong role in fixing them.
"This bill doesn't say pour more money into the state's 185 failing schools," state Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Bethel, said Wednesday. "It says let's look at systems that are failing and encourage change. The parent trigger is one mechanism."
Bartlett said he and other supporters of the parent trigger bill agreed to revisions in an effort to gain support. For instance, the bill was changed to create governance committees in failing schools that would address problems, and a provision was added to delay invoking the trigger until five years had passed.
"If progress was being made, people would see the changes and there would be no need for a parent trigger," Bartlett said. "But in those systems where failure continued, we would allow parents to force change."
State Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who joined other members of the legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to introduce a 10-point plan to close the achievement gap, told the committee that parents have asked for a meaningful role. They're tired of being told to attend parent-teacher organization meetings, or to call the school's principal.
"They asked you to give them a seat at the table of change," McCrory said.
McCrory was blunt in his assessment of the opposition to the measure, saying that some fellow committee members appeared willing to compromise their integrity and principles by giving in to union pressure.
Sharon Palmer, president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, has been vocal in her opposition to the parent trigger, saying that it gives too much power to a small group of people for the price of a signature.
State Rep. Susan Johnson echoed Palmer's sentiments.
"The problem with the trigger is that it is a trigger," Johnson said. "There is no way for us to check if parents are active [in a school]."
Several other committee members voiced opposition to the inclusion of the parent trigger in the final version of the bill, but said that they felt obligated to pass it on to a full legislative vote and confident that compromises could be made in the process. The bill passed, 19-11.
Committee co-Chairman Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, voted no. The other co-chairman, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, voted yes. Together, the co-chairmen introduced a compromise bill that they said would provide more collaboration between parents and teachers.
The bill calls for the formation of 13-member committees in schools that are failing. They would be made up of seven parents selected by other parents, five teachers selected by fellow teachers and one administrator from another school.
Fleischmann said the school committees would advise principals, administrators and boards of education on a variety of educational issues, including the budget, hiring and policy.
Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, which supports the parent trigger, said Wednesday that she was confident that union leaders and legislators could be persuaded that the provision does not constitute a threat to teachers or failing schools.
"They can't be hypocrites and ask for parental involvement, but when we get too involved we're looked at as a threat," Arciniegas said.
"We want to be equal partners, not advisers."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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