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Education Reporter

Can 'Parent Trigger' Spark Real Reform?
Lydia Grant
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There is a new education union in California, but it isn't for teachers. The Los Angeles Parents Union is comprised of self-described "progressives" who have lost patience with the status quo and embraced an education idea long advocated by conservatives: parental choice. The group is behind a new "Parent Trigger" measure that was signed into law by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in January.

Simply stated, if 51% or more of parents whose children attend a failing school sign a petition calling for reform, the school must either convert to a charter school, shut down, or submit to one of three other reform plans. The Parent Trigger passed by just one vote in both the California Senate and Assembly, succeeding largely because it was part of legislation meant to make California more competitive in the federal Race to the Top (RTT) grant competition. The Golden State did not win any RTT funds, but the law stands and will provide a testing ground for parent-led reform.

Lydia Grant, a 45-year-old mother of three in the Los Angeles suburb of Sunland-Tujunga, is among the first to try to use the new law. She decided to use the Parent Trigger after spending ten years trying to persuade school district officials to improve Mt. Gleason Middle School, which has been on a federal list of failing schools for a dozen years. Grant believes the law is the "last, best hope" for parents frustrated by an "indifferent" bureaucracy that has tolerated not only academic failure at the school, but also permitted an "unsafe" environment for the kids that she says is "spilling over into the community." Her petition drive began in August and is ongoing.

Predictably, the state's education unions lobbied hard against the measure, going so far as to characterize its provisions as "mob rule," which angered the general public. The unions did win concessions, including arbitrarily limiting the number of schools that may participate to 75. There are other restrictions as well. Only parents with kids in schools deemed failures (or with kids slated to attend those schools in the future) by the California School Code are eligible to pull the parent "trigger." That means the state defines which schools are failing instead of the parents whose children attend them.

There are still more flaws in the law, according to the Heartland Institute, a free market-oriented think tank in Chicago. Though the RTT competition was central to the political conditions that enabled passage of the California Parent Trigger, it was also a source of weakness. That is because the law is tied to RTT mandates, which include some relatively toothless reform strategies. Those strategies require replacing some staff and other bureaucratic changes, but those types of restructuring have proven too modest to effect real and lasting improvements in persistently failing schools.

The greatest weakness of California's Parent Trigger law however, according to Heartland's analysis, is a provision that allows local school authorities to unilaterally veto the reform plan demanded by parents. All the local education agency (usually a school district) must do to thwart parental will is to state, in writing, the reasons why it "cannot implement the specific . . . option" recommended by the parents during a "regularly scheduled public hearing." School authorities must still act on the parent petition, but can choose their preference among the five reform options. This provision effectively eliminates the threat of school closure or conversion to a charter school. If a school board overrules the petition, parents have no appeal process to enforce their desires.

Despite those and other flaws in the California Parent Trigger law, the policy brief produced by the Heartland Institute strikes a hopeful note. The authors think the adoption of the Parent Trigger in California could be "a pivotal moment" for national school reform initiated at local levels, particularly if the law is tweaked to correct loopholes and limitations. They also believe that because this proposal came from the political left, there is an opportunity to build a coalition between progressives and conservatives around parental choice.

At least one other liberal organization is already on board. The California State NAACP voted in October to strongly support parents "in their efforts to use the Parent Trigger to transform their schools through community organizing." While the NAACP and the leaders of the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU) use the language of the Left to support parent empowerment, an Atlanta lawyer has proposed a version of the law that is at once more philosophically conservative and politically more expansive in its potential impact.

In an opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (9-7-10), attorney Glenn Delk challenged business and political leaders, parents, and taxpayers at large to "join forces to bring the parent revolution to Georgia." He proposed a version of the Parent Trigger law that incorporates many of the improvements suggested by the Heartland Institute report, along with a few tweaks of his own. In general, Delk's proposal would provide that

  1. 51% of the parents whose children attend any public school in Georgia can, with a petition, trigger one of three options - charter conversion, closing the school, or use of tuition tax credit scholarships to enable students to attend a private school;
  2. 51% of the taxpayers of a county or city can, at a specially-called referendum, vote to trigger one of the three options for all schools in its jurisdiction;
  3. the trigger applies to all public schools, not just failing schools;
  4. charter school funding equal that of traditional public schools; and
  5. parents and taxpayers may elect to close the schools and give parents a tuition tax credit-funded scholarship.

His adaptation does not permit school authorities to overrule parents; it also expands the parties who can "trigger" reform to include every Georgia taxpayer and makes every public school a potential reform target. Whether or not Delk's proposal will gain traction remains to be seen, but he believes the timing is ripe, in light of recent revelations about widespread cheating among teachers and administrators to boost students' standardized test scores. "If the Atlanta cheating scandal has shown us anything, it's that the wrong people control public education and that real accountability in the traditional public school system does not exist," he wrote.

The California Parent Trigger may prove too weak to give parents the ammunition they need to shoot for real school reform. But if the law sparks improved versions in Georgia and other states, it may finally ignite education reform from the bottom up. (School Reform News, September and October issues; dailynews.com, 2-14-10)

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