Disarming the Parent Trigger

FEB. 16, 2011

Last week Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointments to the state Board of Education disarmed the “parent trigger” law that went into effect only in January 2010. The parent trigger gives a majority of parents at a public school the right to demand a change of leadership or bring in a charter school operator – well, sort of.

The law is meant to facilitate a transfer of power through parent and community organizing, but is limited to only 75 public schools out of the approximately 10,000 in the state.

Under the law, if a majority of parents in a failing school sign a petition, they can trigger a forcible transformation of the school—either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to his credit, was supportive of school choice and appointed many reformers and charter school supporters to the State Board of Education. But they were all removed and replaced when Jerry Brown was elected governor and assumed office in January.

Newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, former Democratic Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, has recently described the law as “vague where it should be specific and specific where it should be flexible,” and appears to be trying to take the teeth out of it. Torlakson and state education officials recently said that it would be too difficult to write clear regulations based on the law because of the vagueness, and are now working on “cleanup” legislation, headed up by Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (Santa Monica), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. Both Torlakson and Brownley voted against the bill containing the parent-trigger provisions.

The “parent trigger” law was passed last year while former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero was still chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education. Romero, a staunch charter school advocate and proponent of President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, described the parent trigger as a “tool of last resort,” and said that school authorities have ample opportunity to address parent concerns before the parent trigger is pulled.

Schools are eligible for triggering if they have failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” according to state standards, for four consecutive years.

Unfortunately, the compromise reached by legislators and reformers limited the number of schools to 75, which barely scratches the surface of need. As of November 2010, 1,300 of California’s 10,000 schools qualified for triggering.

The law was designed to force districts to take drastic action to fix failing schools if a majority of parents petitioned for the overhaul. Options for changing the school include closing a school, firing all staff and re-hiring new teachers and administrators, or turning the school over to an education management firm or a charter operator, shifting the power from district officials, administrators and teachers’ unions to parents.

California teachers’ union officials and opponents to the law have charged that some schools are being targeted by charter school supporters, and insist that the law was created by entities with a vested interest in pushing charter schools.

But more and more parents say that ideas like this “trigger” wouldn’t be so popular if there was a more reasonable and flexible approach to school choice. They add that, if such schools didn’t continue to fail year after year, trapping students, then solutions like the parent trigger would not be so popular.

Fighting for this and other education reforms, the Parent Revolution is an organization that advocated aggressively for the parent trigger law. “Parent Revolution believes that our schools are failing because they aren’t designed to succeed – they are designed for grown-ups, not children.  The only way to make this happen is to give power to the only people who care only about children – parents,” states the Parent Revolution website.

Many believe that the California public school system is starting to reap what it has sown, that having to use public policy to keep children and parents from leaving poor-performing schools is a growing problem with long-term consequences. This fight has ignited the attention of thousands of parents, active voters on the need for the reforms. The parent trigger, the reformers say, is one way to be heard.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the fight between parents and unions is escalating, with teachers’ unions accused of nefarious disinformation campaigns: “In 2010 before a vote on whether to turn Los Angeles’s Gratts Primary Center over to a charter operator, a flier circulated warning parents not to support the charter option porque pueden ser deportadas—’because you might be deported’.”

“They’re afraid to sign the petition,” said one Los Angeles-area mother who was collecting signatures for a charter conversion. “Some teachers, parents, principals have mentioned that if they sign the petition it’s gonna be for the school to be closed, which is not true,” reported the Journal.

School boards, administrators, teachers, the state PTA and representatives of low-income families, as well as Parent Revolution, had asked the state board of education to take more time to get the regulations right.

And, Torlakson agreed to bring the stakeholder groups together to hammer out the issues, ultimately giving direction to the Board.

But adding Brownley into the fray sends a different message. Torlakson has been closely aligned with the CTA, and together with Brownley, led the opposition to the parent trigger law last year.

The documentary “Waiting For Superman” highlighted that charter-school lotteries cannot accommodate the thousands of parents and students hoping for a place at the table of school choice. In a similar way, the thousands of parents supportive of the parent trigger also demonstrate that parents adamantly reject their children’s failing schools and are weary of politics driving the issue.

The parent trigger may impact the children at only 75 failing California schools. But it’s only a Band-Aid on a gaping wound in an education system that has focused entirely on taking care of the adults employed by the school districts, while leaving too many kids uneducated or undereducated.

– Katy Grimes

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