Photo by Mike Davis

Photo by Mike Davis

Educators in California will be watching closely this year to see whether the so-called “parent trigger” law approved by the state Legislature exactly two years ago amid predictions that it would effect radical changes in schools across the state, will have any significant impact on the California education landscape.

So far it has not.

Parents at the nearly 700-student Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, halfway between San Bernardino and Barstow, are expected to file a petition today with a long list of demands, from requiring a dress code for teachers, to linking teacher evaluations with student test scores. If those demands aren’t met, then they will file another petition seeking to turn Desert Trails into a charter school.

Only the second action of its kind, the Desert Trails petition, the result of organizing by Parent Revolution, a pro-charter advocacy organization, is likely to attract renewed attention to the”parent trigger” law. So far the law, formally titled “The Parent Empowerment Act,”  has failed to live up to expectations that it would transform the dynamics of education reform across the state, as well as underscored the challenges of how to successfully involve parents in transforming their schools.

It also points to the perils of counting on any one piece of legislation—from California’s multi-billion dollar K-3 class size reduction program to the federal No Child Left Behind law—to yield definitive results.

The law gives a majority of parents at a maximum of 75 low-performing schools, as defined by test scores, the power to sign a petition to force major change in their school, including converting it to a charter school, replacing teachers or principals, or closing the school altogether.

At the time of the law’s passage, then-Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, the bill’s author, predicted a “whole new era of engagement.”  Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, declared that “for the first time anywhere in America, parents have been empowered and entrusted with the legal right to force dramatic change at their child’s failing school.”

Until today, parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton were the only ones to even file a “parent trigger” petition, let alone force a transformation of their school. But that effort, also organized by Parent Revolution, foundered in one of the most high profile education controversies in the state last year. The issue ended up in the courts and forced the State Board of Education to spend an inordinate amount of time on the issue, including enacting new regulations to implement the law.

The failure to transform McKinley into a charter school triggered a major change in strategy by Parent Revolution. As Austin acknowledged in a Huffington Post article late last year:

Parent Trigger is a necessary precondition to kids-first change. But it is not sufficient. In and of itself, Parent Trigger cannot transform our schools for the 21st Century because of vexing challenges related to policy, partnerships and politics. We must accept with humility that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to defining a kids-first policy agenda.

Since Compton, Parent Revolution has organized parents into chapters of a new organization Parents Union at 14 schools in the Los Angeles area, said Austin. Parents will lobby on their own for changes to their school.

“The theory of change is just different,” Austin said in an interview with EdSource last week. “We assessed what worked, and what didn’t.”

In Compton, he said, “we were the ones who picked the school, we picked not only the transformation option, but the charter school as well. That is not good enough. The organizing force has to come from the parents.”

Significantly, Austin said, parents at most of the schools his organization is working with are not interested in turning their school into a charter school, but rather want to focus on improving their existing schools, he said.

Nonetheless, he insisted, the “parent trigger” law has the potential to be extraordinarily powerful, a tool that parents can wield in negotiations with school authorities. “In the parent trigger context, an empowered body of parents can sit down with their district, and with their teacher’s union, and be taken seriously.” With the law behind them “they can for all intents and purposes fire the school district if they don’t get what they want.”

He said most of the parent groups are not actively organizing to transform their schools in the major ways allowed under the parent trigger law, but are aiming for “smaller reforms.” But he said, “sometimes smaller issues lead to bigger issues,” and “we are helping parents use their  power on behalf of their kids” in promoting what Austin calls a “kids first” agenda.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial, “This is a far cry from what parent trigger advocates had in mind when the law was passed. Then, the idea was that petitions would provide a revolutionary path for quick and radical change.”

What is not known is whether parents at other schools around the state are using the parent trigger law to advance reform in their school, or whether Parent Revolution has the field pretty much to itself.

One reason the law has not lit a fire of activism among parents across the state may be that the actions permitted under the law may need to be preceded by a much deeper level of parent involvement, as Mark Warren and Wendy Mapp from the Harvard Graduate School of Education argued in an op-ed article in the San Jose Mercury News:

We need a way to develop ongoing and meaningful participation by parents if we are serious about creating and sustaining effective change in public schools in low-income communities. True reform requires a process of participation where parents can learn about educational issues, hold meetings to discuss reform options and improvement plans, and create relationships where they can work together with teachers and administrators to create deep and lasting change in schools.

For a fuller description of the Desert Trails action, see this article plus photos in the Wall Street Journal.


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  1. I think overall it sounds decent, it could potentially be abused, but I don’t know the details.

  2. Caroline Grannan says:

    Excellent overview. A couple of points: The Los Angeles Weekly’s highly partisan (to put it mildly) account states strongly that the Adelanto parents don’t want to turn the school into a charter.

    Also, by the way, this is at least the third attempted Parent Trigger, not the second. Parent Revolution was also running a lagging Parent Trigger effort at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland-Tujunga (LAUSD), as reported by the L.A. Daily News and elsewhere. It is, of course, unknown how many other attempts have not been reported in the press. A history of failed attempts doesn’t make for good PR, so of course Parent Revolution is only laying claim to the highly publicized McKinley one, but they’re not giving you the full story.

    Parent Revolution has knocked itself out to run this Adelanto effort to avoid all the criticism it invited in the Compton parent trigger fiasco, including the fact that it openly orchestrated the entire campaign at Compton’s Mckinley Elementary without any involvement at all by McKinley parents, and openly intended it to simply turn McKinley over to a pre-selected charter operator. The L.A. Weekly account says Parent Revolution made special T-shirts for the Adelanto parents and told them not to identify themselves as being from Parent Revolution. (“Signature-gathering guidelines posted in Diaz’s living room stipulate: Identify yourself as a member of the Desert Trails parent union, not Parent Revolution. When the moms go door-to-door, they wear T-shirts with their own logo.”)

    I can’t access the Wall Street Journal article as I’m not a subscriber, but I’m told that it lists smaller classes as among the Adelanto parents’ demands. That’s a noteworthy point, as the Adelanto campaign is (again) framed as an all-out attack on teachers and especially teachers’ unions. Yet smaller classes are a top priority for teachers and teachers’ unions — while the forces of corporate education reform that fund Parent Revolution are now pushing for LARGER classes (specifically Bill Gates).

    And, by the way, the outcome of the 2010-2011 Compton fiasco should be fully described. As reported in both the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times, the charter operator pre-selected by Parent Revolution, Celerity, wound up opening a new school (in fall 2011) a couple of blocks from McKinley. According to the L.A. Times, only 1/5 of the McKinley parents have transferred their kids to the charter they were supposedly triumphantly demanding.

    Here’s a link to the L.A. Weekly’s article, which is pretty much a caricature of partisan advocacy journalism but is still informative:

    http://www.laweekly.com/2012-01-12/news/parent-trigger-adelanto-california/

  3. bettereducation says:

    Parent Trigger was limited to only a handful of schools under the law so it’s more of a pilot program. We’re still seeing how it works – it’s a very new law. And it’s not just about whether a school is turned around, it’s that parents now have leverage in their schools that didnt exist before. It’s hard to quantify that benefit. Also, the law has spread to many other states and has even been formally brought up in the context of NCLB reauthorization.

    The state has been defunct in the area of education for a decades. Don’t expect a pilot program to turn all that around in two years.