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.
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.