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Austin: Give parents power to hold school districts accountable
By Ben Austin
On Nov. 16, the American-Statesman’s Julie Chang shared the compelling story of Diana De La Fuente, who, like thousands of other students in Austin, does not have access to a high-performing school in her neighborhood.
Desperate to escape their failing neighborhood school, Diana and her parents applied for a transfer to a better-performing school in West Austin. Unfortunately, their request was denied. The school district explained that higher-performing West Austin schools are becoming increasingly crowded with students fleeing East Austin and the district could not meet the needs of students in both areas of the district.
The denial of transfer requests like Diana’s leaves desperate students and families without many real and meaningful options. This should be unacceptable.
No child should be forced to attend a failing school. And, although they should have the option, no family should have to flee their neighborhood for an increasingly rare school desk on the other side of town. Sending students across town to a high-performing school cannot be the only option parents who live in communities with failing schools are given.
An innovative policy known as parent empowerment laws (or “parent trigger” laws) offer a different way to think about the educational crisis that exists in far too many communities. Parent empowerment laws allow organized parents to transform their child’s chronically failing neighborhood schools. Under a parent empowerment law, a majority of parents at any low-performing school campus can organize, sign or even leverage a petition to enact meaningful improvement by the district.
These laws give parents historic power to hold school districts accountable and push for changes at schools that continue to fail, year after year, with no progress or sense of urgency for improvement. When parents have this power, school districts are compelled to listen and address their concerns. If school leaders fail to listen, parents finally have other options.
In California, parents used the law to transform six failing schools. At each school, parents advocated changes for years, but were unable to overcome bureaucratic inertia and status quo resistance. The parent empowerment law changed that.
With the support of California’s parent empowerment law, each of the six schools have implemented an entirely different reform model intended to address the unique needs of each school. One school converted into a public charter school. Another entered into a hybrid in-district, public charter school partnership. But most were able to collaborate with their school district for in-district reform.
Texas already has a parent empowerment law on the books, but it needs to be rewritten to be useful to parents. Currently, parents must wait nearly six years of their school being rated “academically unacceptable” before they can press for meaningful change under a parent petition. This is more than an entire generation of students at that school. There are nearly 500 schools currently rated academically unacceptable in Texas. A shorter time frame is needed for parent empowerment to be a useful option for parents.
Parent empowerment offers the opportunity to create excellent neighborhood schools for all our kids, not just students in more affluent communities. It offers hope and tells previously neglected communities that their voices matter. The solutions they identify will not only benefit their kids but also their neighbors, the kids from church, and their daughter’s friends from soccer.
With parent empowerment, parents keep the option to flee a failing school, but they also have the power to stay, organize and improve their children’s neighborhood school.
Texas lawmakers have an opportunity to stand with families like Diana’s and offer new hope to families desperately wanting great neighborhood schools for their kids. Texans are on their side: A recent poll showed that Texans overwhelmingly favor this intervention by almost 3 to 1.
Next session, lawmakers should seize a rare moment in which public opinion agrees with good policy and work together to improve the Texas parent empowerment law, ensuring it works for Texas families and their school children.