Rhee on charters, choice and parent triggers

Michelle Rhee spent this afternoon at the Florida Legislature, speaking first in front of the state Senate PreK-12 committee and then in front of the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee. Much of her testimony was spent addressing Florida’s Senate Bill 736, which is the Sunshine State’s latest effort to revamp teacher contracts and evaluations, but, in keeping with her agenda for StudentsFirst, she had the following to say about school choice and parental empowerment:

[Florida's] current charter school laws and tax credit scholarship programs address the need for more choices for families, particularly for low income parents. All types of schools that are held accountable for excellent results should be allowed to grow. The competition this creates makes the entire system better as parents vote with their feet to the best schools for their children.

I have been working with some dedicated parents in Marco Island, who have been tireless in their fight to use the charter law to create a better high school option for their children. I hate to say it, but the school district has thrown up many roadblocks, including one to deny a parcel of land the district owns for the charter school’s use. The approval process to open a charter school should be rigorous, but the districts, some of which don’t want competition, should not get to hold all the cards. This dynamic must change and districts have to be held accountable for their obligations around charter schools, such that they cannot be the limiting factor in starting great new schools.

That brings me to a provision that I understand will soon be raised in Florida, which currently has a form of the parent trigger law. Under this law, if 51 percent of parents and teachers demand a change to a failing school with their signatures, they can convert the public school to a charter school. But in order to truly empower parents, they need the right to demand a new school on their own, even if their administration and teachers are resistant to change. I believe Florida’s children would benefit if the House worked to change the language in the law — from “parents and teachers” to “parents or teachers.”

I agree with those who say we need more parent engagement in schools, but I do not believe we get to criticize parents when they then band together just because we don’t like the specific way they choose to engage. We cannot force parents into a prescribed list of preferences for the nature of their engagement, and if we are truly going to empower parents, we cannot force any parent to keep a child in a failing school.

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