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By W. Gardner Selby August 27, 2015

Texas parents given sway if a school must reorganize after two years of poor results

Stumping for governor, Greg Abbott suggested parents with children stuck in struggling schools be given a way to petition for changes in leadership.

In his campaign's book spelling out Abbott's desires, the Republican hopeful said: "No child should be stuck in an under-performing school; no parent should be powerless to improve their child's school."

Under existing law, Abbott said, parents were limited to petitioning to repurpose a campus or close it or place it under alternative management only after the school has been rated "academically unacceptable" for five straight years.

Under Texas law, schools can be restructured or closed faster than that--but not via a parental petition.

In 2013, we rated False a claim that under state law, it takes six years to shutter a failing school. At the time, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman told us it takes six years of "unacceptable" academic ratings before the Texas education commissioner is absolutely required to shut down a campus.

Still, spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said then, the commissioner can close a school for purely academic reasons after three years. That's "two years of academically unacceptable ratings plus one year in which the school fails to successfully implement a reconstitution plan," she said.

The state education code states that "after a campus has been identified as unacceptable for two consecutive school years, the commissioner shall order the reconstitution of the campus." That process, Ratcliffe advised, typically includes replacing faculty members. If the commissioner isn't satisfied with the progress under the reconstitution plan, he or she can order "repurposing" of the campus, install new management or order it closed. So, the commissioner could close a school after three years.

Back to Abbott: His recommendation was to enable the parents of a majority of students at a school to petition the education commissioner after a school has been identified with a failing rating at least two consecutive years — to repurpose the campus, close it or place it under new management.

In the 2015 legislative session, the Texas Senate by 25-6 sent the House a proposal along similar lines. Senate Bill 14, authored  by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would have shaved the years parents would have to wait to submit a change-the-school petition to three years, the Texas Tribune noted in an April 2015 news story.

In Senate debate, Taylor called the existing five-year time frame for parents to take action too long and too lenient for schools performing too poorly. Taylor, the Dallas Morning News reported, originally wanted to shift to a two-year time frame, but accepted a colleague's amendment to increase the period to three years after senators noted the large number of schools that improve their state-issued ratings after two failing years.

Taylor said at the time: "We have some schools that are chronically failing and, unfortunately, many parents don't have the ability to move away from that campus. This gives those parents who are informed and involved the opportunity to change that campus for their own children.

After the Senate's approval, though, SB 14 died in a House committee. Asked why, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, told us the May 19, 2015, committee hearing on the legislation proved a disaster for its prospects. "It didn't come close to getting out of the committee," Aycock said by phone. Separately, its House companion, House Bill 1727, didn't draw a hearing.

We wondered if the petition feature somehow was sped up via other legislation. To our inquiry, Ratcliffe said by email that education agency staff hadn't identified any change in law enabling parents to petition for changes after fewer years. Similarly, Lonnie Hollingsworth of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association confirmed that lawmakers stopped short of adopting any speeding of the petition option--a result Hollingsworth hailed in June 2015 as a victory for education advocates. "The reason it failed is it is a bad idea," Hollingsworth said by email.

Abbott's office did not comment per progress on this promise. On Aug. 6, 2015, we rated the promise Broken.

It turned out there was more to the story.

After we published that update, we heard from Ellen Williams, an Austin lawyer-lobbyist expert in school law, who pointed out that Aycock carried into law another proposal potentially giving parents some new sway when a school must be reorganized because of consistently disappointing results.

Legislative records show Aycock's HB 1842, "relating to the intervention in and sanction of a public school that has received an academically unsuccessful performance rating for at  least two consecutive school years," was amended on its passage by the House Public Education Committee to specify an advisory role for parents and community members after the state education commissioner orders a campus identified as unacceptable for two consecutive years to submit a "campus turnaround plan."

Under the added provisions, which stuck in the proposal as it cleared the House and Senate, before a turnaround plan is submitted for approval by a local school board, the district "shall provide notice to parents, the community and stakeholders that the school has received an academically unacceptable rating for two straight years and will be required to submit a turnaround plan." Also, the proposal said, the district shall "request assistance" from parents, the community and stakeholders in developing the plan. The measure also said parents and others should have an opportunity to review the plan before its submittal to the board.

Williams, whose 2015 lobby clients included the Houston school district and groups representing Texas school boards and school administrators, told us by email: "Instead of a 'petition' process, which can be fraught with problems, parents automatically are given information and invited to help with the specifics of the turnaround plan."

We circled back to Hollingsworth, who said by phone that in his view, the requirement that districts seek parental input on the plans was wisely embraced by legislators rather than a mandate that a struggling school be turned over to alternative management such as a charter school operator.

We rate this promise, previously marked Broken, a Compromise.

Compromise — Promises earn this rating when they accomplish substantially less than the official's original statement but when there is still a significant accomplishment that is consistent with the goal of his original promise.

Our Sources

Truth-O-Meter article, "David Dewhurst says under Texas law, it takes six years to close a failing school," PolitiFact Texas, Jan. 1, 2013

News story, "'Parent Trigger' School Bill Clears Texas Senate," the Texas Tribune, April 15, 2015

News blog post, "Senate passes parent trigger bill to overhaul or close failing public schools," Trail Blazers blog, Dallas Morning News, April 15, 2015

Legislative actions on Senate Bill 14, 2015 legislative session, Texas Legislative Council (accessed Aug. 6, 2015)

Email, Debbie Ratcliffe, director of media relations, Texas Education Agency, Aug. 3, 2015

Emails and telephone interview, Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services/governmental relations, Texas Classroom Teachers Association, Aug. 5-6 and 26, 2015

News story, "Session's public education outcome leaves all sides disappointed," Austin American-Statesman, posted online June 4, 2015

Telephone interview, Jimmie Don Aycock, Seattle, Aug. 6, 2015

Emails (excerpted), Ellen Williams, lawyer-lobbyist, Aug. 6, 21 and 15, 2015

Legislation, HB 1842, 2015 Texas Legislature. Texas Legislative Council

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