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South Carolina Lawmakers Consider Parent-Trigger Bill for School Districts

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A bill being considered by South Carolina lawmakers would allow the state's education department to take over a district that is mismanaged or needs to improve its schools if a majority of parents call for reform. 

The Parent Empowerment Act was introduced last year and is being discussed by the state Senate's education committee, according to a story in the Island Packet. State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, a Republican, said the bill, which he believes could pass during the current legislative session, would give parents the power to demand changes for their children at individual schools and at the district level.

Dino Teppara, a state education department spokesman, told the newspaper that under the proposed law, a "transformational" school district would replace ineffective teachers and school administrators with new leadership if a majority of parents request that change.

Parents in Jasper County, S.C., who have unsuccessfully lobbied for a new superintendent are hoping the proposed law will cure their district's ills. According to the Island Packet, Jasper County parents have held multiple rallies urging the school board to fire Superintendent Vashti Washington. They've pleaded with the state to take over the district, which has many of the lowest-performing schools in South Carolina. The state, however, can't intervene without a request from the local school board. 

Denise Davidson, a Jasper County resident who has led school district protest rallies, told the Island Packet: "If you are just talking about replacing the principal, that's not going to do anything here in Jasper County because the problem we have here in our school district is with the school board and the superintendent."

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said he has "faith in the children of Jasper County" but not in the district's current leadership. 

"The adults and leadership in the system have shown they are not managing the dollars well to produce the student-learning outcomes that other districts with similar situations have been able to," Zais said in the article.

In an email to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette Washington said: "We are proud of the improvements we have made in the district on our state report cards. ... Several of the school districts that have demonstrated improvements took more than six years to get there."

South Carolina's Parent Empowerment Act is similar to other so-called parent-trigger laws that have been adopted around the country. (For more on parent-trigger laws see my Education Week stories here.) 

In addition to school district takeovers, the proposed bill would give parents whose children attend failing schools the ability to request educational and leadership changes. Fifty-one percent of parents would need to petition in order to activate those changes, which would include removing the principal or transforming the school into a charter. Currently, all Jasper County public schools meet the state's standard for failing.

While the district earned "F" grades on federal accountability standards in each of the past two years, according to the Island Packet the Jasper County school board still gave Washington a satisfactory evaluation and extended her $165,000 contract in December.

"Some of those [Jasper County] parents are so frustrated they can't see straight," Herbkersman said in the article. "I hope they would have this tool [the Parent Empowerment Act] in their tool box." 

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