More power for parents is at the heart of Scott's education team proposals

Parents know best.

That theme echoes throughout the 20 sprawling pages of reform ideas that Gov.-elect Rick Scott's education team unveiled this week.

Parents should get state money to pick their own schools, public or private. Parents should decide what reform model is best to jump-start their school. Parents should be able to remove their child from an underperforming teacher's class.

"The parent is the ultimate accountability," said Patricia Levesque, a close adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush and a leader of Scott's education transition team. "They know what's best for their child. To substitute someone else's judgment … is wrong."

Scott's unprecedented plan to offer private-school vouchers to all parents has drawn national attention. But the long list of recommendations released by his team this week shows he has other ideas to shift power to parents.

Some are relatively simple. One would require districts to send financial reports to parents that show how much money is spent at their school, on what and to what effect. Another would give parents annual reports that show the academic gains their child is making — and what gains they should be making based on models of "predicted growth."

Two other ideas are whoppers.

The first: a "parent trigger" that would allow a majority of parents at a struggling school to force the school to be restructured — and then to select a solution. The proposal doesn't include details yet, but California lawmakers passed a law last year that allows parents to turn their school into a charter school. Last week, parents at a Compton, Calif., elementary school became the first to ask for a change.

The second: a requirement that parents must consent to putting their child in a classroom with a teacher whose evaluation concluded he or she was "ineffective."

Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said she knew of no other states or school districts that had such a policy. The closest thing: Rhode Island adopted a policy this year that does not allow a student to have two teachers in a row who have been rated ineffective.

Jacobs called the Scott team's idea "fascinating." But, she wondered, why not just get rid of the bad teacher? (Both Scott and Republican lawmakers are expected to push for revised teacher evaluations and a quicker way to fire bad teachers.)

In the meantime, the ideas have the potential to pit parents against educators.

"There are a lot of things that in theory sound good, and you can't argue against a parent being involved," said Pinellas School Board chairperson Carol Cook, a former teacher. "But there's a fine line between their involvement and taking control of the educational process."

"We're taking all of the educational instruction out of the hands of educators," she continued, "and putting it in the hands of the legislators or parents, with no regard to what educators believe is educationally sound."

Cook worried struggling teachers wouldn't get a chance to improve. Or that principals might pad an evaluation instead of imposing a virtual death sentence on a struggling teacher's career.

"I don't know any profession where you have a bad year … and you're gone," Cook said.

Florida PTA president Jean Hovey said she needed to learn more about the idea before rendering a verdict. But she didn't dismiss it, adding that it might be good.

"Parents need to know if a teacher's not up to par," she said.

Levesque suggested Scott's education agenda reflects his experience in the business world, where the customer is king. That way of framing issues, though, is likely to put educators on the defensive.

Who really wants to say parents don't always know best?

Pasco County principal Kathy Rushe was one of the few contacted for this story who would go that far. "Absolutely not," she said.

Some parents take action because they don't like to see their children disciplined in school for not completing work or for being disrespectful, said Rushe, principal at Trinity Elementary. Sometimes the school has to teach responsibility to kids when the parents haven't done so.

Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart had another concern: Schools are big business, he said, and if parents pick and choose their schools, teachers, schedules and so forth independently, that could wreak havoc on school operations.

On the other hand, said Luikart, a former teacher and administrator, if Scott's intent is to create more involved parents who can help make schools better, "more power to him."

"Schools have been trying to do it for a long time."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

More power for parents is at the heart of Scott's education team proposals 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 10:09pm]

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