DeBerry Believes Parents Need More Control of Schools, But ‘Trigger’ Bill Dead for Year

Legislation to lower existing thresholds allowing parents to take over failing schools won’t be heard by the General Assembly this year.

For the third year in a row the bill hasn’t gained traction. The Senate version, SB600 by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey cleared the Education Committee in mid-March but was set aside to 2016 on Monday by the Senate Finance Committee.

House Sponsor John DeBerry, Jr., a Memphis Democrat, told TNReport he took his House Bill 651 off notice in the House Education Instruction & Programs Subcommittee because it lacked support.

“The only people who don’t have a representative are the parents,” DeBerry said. He added the teachers and schools have groups like the National Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association to lobby on their behalf, while parents are just being thrown under the bus by the powers that be.

DeBerry said he decided to take it off notice rather than let the committee vote the legislation down. However, he added that it will be back again next year.

DeBerry told TNReport in March his intention was to give parents “some type of voice” when a school is “mis-educating and under-educating their children,” but “the purpose of the bill gets lost in all the rhetoric.”

And while there is already a parent trigger law on the books in the Volunteer State, his legislation would “make it more amenable for parents to trigger the parent trigger, so that they can more or less alter a school in the best interests of their children,” DeBerry said.

The Memphis Democrat said he was pushing his legislation because he thinks the 60 percent threshold currently required by law was too much.

“How are you going to get 60 percent of anything in America in one place, at one time, everyone sign on the dotted line?” DeBerry questioned, before adding that his legislation — which would implement a new threshold of 51 percent — would “bring it to a realistic number of people.”

Last year, DeBerry’s bill made it through the committee process before dying in the House Finance Subcommittee.

Jim Wrye, the TEA’s government relations manager, told TNReport last month that “the latest iteration of the parent trigger bill has got some real problems,” including that it “overrides the duly elected school board.”

But their biggest issue is that the parent trigger law is “already on the books,” and it would be better for parents to “utilize what’s there before we start recreating something else.”

Wrye added that the suggested threshold of 51 percent of parents at a school is “incredibly low.” He pointed out that there hasn’t been a petition drive to take over a school yet, and characterized DeBerry’s legislation as “an avenue for out-of-state folks” to push their agenda.

TEA ‘diametrically opposed’ to DeBerry — the ‘worst legislator’ on their issues

And the disagreement between state’s largest teacher’s union and one of the Legislature’s most vocal school choice advocates isn’t limited to his push for more parental control in local education decisions.

In an article from early March, Tennessee Watchdog pointed out that the TEA routinely gave more donations to white legislators — including Republicans — than they did black Democrats.

Wrye admitted this happened, but the decision on what races the organization’s money is spent on is determined by how competitive the election will be, not the race of the candidate.

However, Wrye also pointed out to Watchdog that the TEA won’t donate to DeBerry, because “he is probably the worst representative on our issues.”

DeBerry chafed at the criticism. “I’m not the type of person that’s going to follow the company line, and just because they say this is good for teachers I’m not going to ask any questions.”

DeBerry said he’s “never worked against teachers,” and has always voted “in their best interest.”

He pointed out that when “Race to the Top” was first pitched, he was skeptical of it while the TEA and others rushed to support it. “If the status quo was fine, why did they support ‘Race to the Top’?”

DeBerry said he’d never heard any complaints from his constituents about how he votes. To the contrary, he said his actions have the support of his people back home.

“If I’m the worst legislator, then obviously I support the worst parents, and the worst city, and the worst schools, and the worst people. So he’s got to make up his mind,” DeBerry said.

“I’m their representative, they support what I do. And they don’t have to ask his permission.”

Wrye told TNReport later that he liked DeBerry, who he also described as “anti-public school,” but he just didn’t think the Memphis Democrat was good on their issues.

“He’s a good guy, but we’re just diametrically opposed on a lot of basic issues,” Wrye said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.