Education Reform

The Legislative Momentum of Parent Empowerment

By: Bruno V. Manno, Senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Reform Focus Area

For far too long, Americans could be certain of two things about low-income students in elementary and secondary schools. First, they had a very low chance of getting a quality public education. Second, their families had little power to do anything about it.

Over the past decade, the confluence of several factors spurred by a rising tide of frustration among low-income families and others has prompted legislators to adopt policies that give parents greater control. As lawmakers in many states begin their 2012 legislative sessions, it is imperative to reflect on the advances of the education reform movement in 2011. Last year proved to be a watershed year, as lawmakers across the nation took bold moves to empower parents. These policies ranged from increasing publicly-funded school options to giving parents the right to demand an immediate overhaul of a chronically failing school to increasing parent access to information about school and teacher quality.

For example, the growing public charter school movement is empowering families with tuition-free school choices. More than 500 new charter schools opened in 2011, as parents nationwide are now enrolling more than two million students annually – a single-year increase of more than 200,000 children. Maine became the 42nd state to allow charter schools. Fifteen other states strengthened their charter laws, with 10 eliminating arbitrary caps that were preventing further charter expansion, including Arkansas, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Publicly financed scholarships – vouchers or tax credits – now allow more than 210,000 low-income families nationally to send their children to private school. Last year, lawmakers in 12 states created, expanded or restored 17 K-12 scholarship programs. In Florida, the state Tax Credit Scholarship program was recently expanded with overwhelming bipartisan support, when a decade ago the law initially passed with just one Democratic vote. These moves are all in response to parents across the country who are lining up for access to publicly funded options.

Lawmakers in 2011 also took sweeping steps to harness the collective energy of empowered parents. Texas and Mississippi followed California in passing policies that allow parents to hand over their chronically failing school to new management, administrators or teachers. These policies – “parent triggers” – seek to make traditional school systems more responsive to parents.

As more parents are empowered with choice, legislators seem willing to institute thoughtful teacher evaluation practices that are ensuring that in times of shrinking budgets and layoffs – what US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan calls the “new normal” – the best teachers remain in the classroom. In 14 states, teachers can be dismissed based upon poor evaluations which now require that teachers show evidence of student learning.

One benefit of recent teacher evaluation legislation is that parents now have more access to information about school and teacher quality. Michigan, Florida and Indiana specifically passed new laws that require parents to be notified when their child is assigned a teacher that receives unsatisfactory annual evaluations. In addition, non-profit resources like GreatSchools.org are making complex information about school quality accessible, enabling parents to compare local school options when deciding which school is best for their child.

Americans now have dozens of emerging examples that demonstrate the broader impact of this parental empowerment effort. The most dramatic is New Orleans, recently one of the country’s lowest-performing urban school systems. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, about 60 percent of the city’s public schools failed to meet Louisiana’s minimum academic standards. Following the storm’s destruction, state and local leaders rebuilt the K-12 system on the principles of empowering parents through choice and competition. Today, only 36 percent of Recovery School District schools fail to meet minimum academic standards – still intolerable but improvement worth celebrating. More than 70 percent of the city’s 40,000 public school students attend charter schools. Private schools are thriving too, with 1,700 students affording tuition thanks to the state’s voucher program.

The trend is unmistakable: lawmakers are putting parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s education. Parents are flocking to these new opportunities to have a greater voice and to choose high-quality schools. However, the fact remains that thousands of low-income students still do not receive the quality of education they need to be successful adults. Low-income students are more than two times as likely to drop out than their more affluent peers, with one million students not making it to graduation annually.

The current system remains broken for far too many students and their families. Over the next couple of years, policymakers will be under intense pressure to reverse the hard-fought advances of 2011. We must educate our public officials, encouraging them to maintain momentum and accelerate the empowerment of parents to choose the best schools for their children. Even with the incredible gains of the past year, much more work remains to be done.

Bruno V. Manno is a senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Reform grant-making efforts. The Walton Family Foundation is the nation’s largest contributor to K-12 education reform groups.

Legislative Progress Highlights

In 2011, lawmakers across the nation took bold moves to empower parents. Explore the map below to learn more about the legislative advances of some key states.
Maine Arkansas Wisconsin Tennessee Texas Mississippi Michigan Florida Indiana California New Mexico Arizona Idaho

Arizona

  • Passed voucher laws for the first time - “Empowerment Scholarship Account” - enacted in July 2011, effective for the 2011-2012 school year.

Arkansas

  • Lifted arbitrary cap preventing charter expansion.

California

  • Passed “parent trigger” laws, allowing parents to hand over their chronically failing school to new management, administrators or teachers.

Florida

  • Passed legislation that require parents be notified when their child is assigned a teacher that receives unsatisfactory annual evaluations.

Idaho

  • Instituted teacher evaluation practices that incorporate growth in student achievement.

Indiana

  • Passed legislation that require parents be notified when their child is assigned a teacher that receives unsatisfactory annual evaluations.

Maine

  • Became the 42nd state to allow charter schools.

Michigan

  • Passed legislation that require parents be notified when their child is assigned a teacher that receives unsatisfactory annual evaluations.

Mississippi

  • Passed “parent trigger” laws, allowing parents to hand over their chronically failing school to new management, administrators or teachers.

New Mexico

  • Strengthened their authorizing environment for charter schools.

Tennessee

  • Lifted arbitrary cap preventing charter expansion.

Texas

  • Passed “parent trigger” laws, allowing parents to hand over their chronically failing school to new management, administrators or teachers.

Wisconsin

  • Lifted arbitrary cap preventing charter expansion.