While the Tennessee General Assembly has been generally friendly this year to legislation promoting school choice, at least one measure designed to empower parents has fizzled – at least for this year.

The so-called “parent trigger” bill would have allowed parents at Tennessee’s lowest 10 percent of schools to replace administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator if at least 51 percent of parents sign a petition to do so.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, the bill’s sponsor, asked Monday that the Senate Finance Committee hold the measure for consideration next year. The House sponsor, Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), perceived the bill did not have support for passage this year and withdrew the proposal from a House subcommittee before it ever was debated.

“My understanding was we did not have the votes,” DeBerry told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “Rather than have it voted down and give it another blow . . . that was just something I personally was not willing to allow to happen.”

Since California approved its Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, at least six states have passed similar legislation. Lawmakers in another six, including Tennessee, have been considering parent trigger proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Advocates say that parents should have a more active role in how their child’s school is managed. They consider parent trigger laws another tool for holding school and district administrators accountable. Critics, however, point out that mechanisms already exist to intervene in low-performing schools. They are wary that parent trigger laws could become a tool for corporate-backed privatization of public education under the guise of grassroots parent empowerment.

Tennessee’s legislature passed a lukewarm parent trigger law in 2002, but that law has never been evoked. Last year, the California-based advocacy group Parent Revolution targeted Tennessee to pass a stronger version that would require at least 51 percent of parents to sign a petition, instead of the current 60 percent, and requiring the local board of education to adopt the parents’ changes. That proposal stalled last year in the House Finance Committee.

This year’s bill by Kelsey was approved in March by the Senate Education Committee after a lengthy debate that spanned two meetings, but traction in the House did not follow.

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Adrienne Wallace said the organization would continue organizing parents in Memphis and Nashville and lobbying for a stronger parent trigger bill. “We’re definitely invested in supporting Tennessee’s parents,” Wallace said from Los Angeles.

Other groups, such as the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), are pleased the bill has stalled for another year.

“It’s unneeded,” said Lee Harrell for the TSBA, which represents school boards across the state. “. . . If we had 51 percent parent from any school get involved on any issue, the [local] board of education is going to get involved immediately. The idea that Tennessee parents are being ignored in these large quantities is just not factual.”

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

DeBerry, however, said parents in his home district in Memphis are being ignored. He pledged to bring the bill back next year.

“Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent many times in the Board of Education seeing parents begging the powers-that-be to make changes in their schools,” he said. “Schools have closed with parents sitting there in tears. We have seen parents camped out in the rain trying to get their child into a handful of good schools.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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