By Ben Velderman
WATERBURY, Conn. – Last month, a group of parents in California’s Adelanto school district succeeded in using the state’s Parent Trigger law to convert a chronically low-performing public school into a charter school.
It was the first Parent Trigger victory in the nation’s history, but analysts expect the number of “trigger” cases and laws to expand quickly in the wake of the Adelanto victory.
Some education reform activists are already declaring 2013 to be “The Year of Parent Empowerment.”
But that’s not how the new year is shaping up for Connecticut parents, who are in jeopardy of losing what little power they currently have in the state’s public schools – thanks to the state’s 2012 education reform law which is beginning to take effect.
Connecticut’s 2012 education reform law – which enables the state’s education commissioner to take control of low-performing schools – is directly undermining a 2010 reform law that gives parents in troubled public schools the legal authority to recommend “turnaround” plans.
Connecticut Parents’ Union President Gwen Samuel says that if lawmakers don’t shift the balance of power back to parents – as the 2010 law intended – they will once again become helpless bystanders in the effort to improve education in the Constitution State.
“When will parents matter?” Samuel asks.
When education reforms clash
Samuel has been calling for parents to have more control in their children’s schools for years.
In 2010, Samuel nearly succeeded in getting Connecticut lawmakers to pass a Parent Trigger law. Those efforts were ultimately blocked by the American Federation of Teachers and its state-level affiliate. AFT officials were so proud of “diffusing” the Connecticut Parent Trigger effort that they used the incident to train union leaders in other states how to block those reforms.
In the end, Connecticut lawmakers gave parents a consolation prize in the form of school governance councils, which are parent-led advisory bodies that have legal standing to recommend extensive changes in troubled schools. All final “turnaround” decisions, however, rest with the local school board.
While the school governance council law of 2010 gives parents a voice in their schools, it’s not a perfect solution. Of the 14 voting members on any school governance council, seven are parents with children in the school, five are teachers on the school’s staff, and two are community members.
(A new bill by state Rep. Michael Molgano would reduce the number of parents on the school governance councils to five, leaving them with the same amount of power as the teacher unions.)
The bottom line is that Connecticut parents don’t have much say in how their schools operate. And now parents in some of the state’s worst-performing schools are at risk of having their voices completely silenced due to last year’s education reform law.
A key provision in Connecticut’s 2012 education reform law allows the state education commissioner to take control of up to 25 malfunctioning schools, bypassing both the school governance councils and the local school board.
The collection of state-controlled public schools is known as “the Commissioner’s Network.” Schools in the network are given access to extra financial resources and can be granted exemptions from rules and provisions in the teachers’ union contract.
Samuel says she supports the Commissioner’s Network “in theory,” but is unhappy that it’s stripping parents of their power to recommend improvements in the schools.
“The Commissioner’s Network is in direct conflict with the school governance councils,” she tells EAGnews.
If this problem isn’t corrected by lawmakers, Samuel says the Commissioner’s Network will leave parents as powerless as ever.
Walsh Elementary School
The threat posed by the Commissioner’s Network came to light last month when the Waterbury Public Schools Superintendent Kathleen Ouellette submitted a formal request to have the state take control of Walsh Elementary School, one of the lowest-performing schools in Connecticut.
The superintendent’s decision caught the Walsh school governance council off-guard.
Walsh’s parent-led advisory group wants to reform the school, but only in a way that protects the jobs of the school principal and the teachers. Council members say they have seen growth from the staff and want to keep them in their positions.
However, when Superintendent Ouellette formally applied to have Walsh join the Commissioner’s Network, the school governance council’s recommendations were not included with the application, reports the Republican-American.
Walsh’s council members later learned their views were purposefully ignored because the 2010 school governance council law requires a council to be in place for three years before it’s legally allowed to make any policy recommendations.
The Connecticut State Department of Education has not made an official announcement about Walsh Elementary joining the Commissioner’s Network. If it does, that means the state – not the parent-led school governance council – will be making the final decisions about how to transform the elementary school.
Samuel says that presents a major problem.
“Once a school is reconstituted or ‘turned around,’ you can’t do it again,” Samuel says. “You get one bite at the apple. And the Commissioner’s Network will be that one bite.”
‘A conflict of interest’
Former state Rep. Jason Bartlett, who wrote the school governance council law, thinks the problem is the result of an oversight and can be solved in the current legislative session.
“We have two different laws on the books that don’t really speak to each other,” Bartlett says. “Now we have to reconcile them.”
Bartlett wants the Commissioner’s Network actively involved in improving Connecticut’s low-performing schools, but he favors an amendment to the law that would require a turnaround committee to consider a school governance council’s recommendations, even if the parent-led group hasn’t been in place for three full years.
“We need to preserve that right, that power,” Bartlett says, adding that a “top-down approach to reform doesn’t lead to sustainable change.”
“We wanted everyone’s voice to be at the table, and the Commissioner and legislators need to be cognizant of it,” he adds.
Samuel is skeptical that the Commissioner’s Network will ever produce meaningful reforms, and notes that Connecticut’s teacher unions hold a considerable amount of power over the decisions made by the Commissioner’s Network.
According to the 2012 reform law, schools in the Commissioner’s Network are managed by a six-member “turnaround committee.” The local teachers union is allowed to appoint two of the group’s members – a teacher and a parent.
The local board of education appoints its own parent representative, as well as a school administrator. The local superintendent and the state education commissioner comprise the rest of the turnaround committee.
Samuel calls the unions’ excessive involvement in making reform decisions to be a “conflict of interest.”
The teacher unions opposed the 2012 education reform law largely because of the Commissioner’s Network, says Samuel, and only gave in when they gained significant power over it through the turnaround committee.
“The turnaround committee has final say. And the unions were given backdoor access so they can get what they want,” Samuel says.
As for the more immediate problem of protecting the integrity of school governance councils, Samuel says she is working with state reps. Gary Holder-Winfield and Douglas McCrory on a bill that would require the Commissioner’s Network law to consult with parent-led councils.