One of the most controversial school reforms in recent years has been the parent trigger law, first enacted in California in 2010 and since adopted in some fashion in Connecticut, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The country may see its first illustration of the law in action this year.
The trigger law allows parents to take over a failing school and reopen it as an independent charter if they collect signatures from the majority of families. It’s not an easy task because of the mammoth effort required to win over enough parents and the legal challenges from resistant districts.
But we may see the first trigger law takeover ever in Adelanto, Calif., where a judge this week lifted the remaining legal hurdle facing parents seeking to gain control of their failing elementary school 90 miles northeast of LA.
If the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School succeed, they will make history.
They began their effort 13 months ago, working with a California group called Parent Revolution. Their door-to-door effort led to signatures from 70 percent of the parents in the school, but the district challenged the validity of the petition in court.
The judge’s ruling this week ends that challenge. However, school begins Aug. 20, and it is doubtful parents can reconstitute the school before opening day. The Desert Trails parents are supposed to announce their plans tomorrow.
Twenty other states, including Georgia, have seen unsuccessful efforts thus far to pass parent trigger laws. We will be hearing a lot more about the parent trigger law when a new feature film, “Won’t Back Down,” opens this fall. (One of the movie’s backers was an investor in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”)
At Desert Trails last year, two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam, more than half were not proficient in math, and nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school has not met state standards for six years, and scores place it in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide.
These parents did it,” said Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that gave the parents strategic and legal help. “They are the first parents in America to win a parent trigger campaign, the first parents in America to take control of the educational destiny of their children. It’s a big deal.”
Austin said that the court ruling came too late for the parents to select a charter operator for the coming school year and that any change is likely to come in 2013. “It would be irresponsible to open up a school in just weeks,” he said.
The idea behind the 2010 law — placing ultimate power in parents’ hands — resonates with any parent who has felt frustrated by school bureaucracy.
But others see the law as dangerous, handing the complex challenge of education to people who may be unprepared to meet it. Critics also say the law circumvents elected school boards and invites abuse by charter operators bent on taking over public schools. A group of Desert Trails parents is opposed to the trigger, and they have received help from the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
After the judge’s decision, the Adelanto school board held a meeting yesterday to figure out its next step.
Members of the Adelanto Elementary School District board held a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to hear the official word on what a judge’s ruling will mean for the district’s lowest-performing elementary school. On Monday, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled the district could not invalidate many of the signatures on a petition assembled by parents at Desert Trails Elementary School, where three-quarters of the students are unable to read and write.
The Desert Trails Parent Union was invoking the 2010 California “parent trigger” law that allows parents to enact sweeping changes at failing schools if they can collect signatures from 50 percent or more of the school’s parents. Malone’s decision means that 441 of the 466 submitted signatures still stood, putting the parents group in the end zone.
On Wednesday, the board met to discuss “the impact of the judge’s ruling and the next steps from here,” Superintendent Darin Brawley said Wednesday afternoon.
“The board has not made a decision on whether or not to appeal Judge Malone’s decision,” school board President Carlos Mendoza said in an email on Wednesday. “Nevertheless, we are disappointed by the decision. We are saddened that a law meant to empower parents has been used to empower some while disempowering others. The Desert Trails school community has come together to formulate an improvement plan for the school. We would like them to have the opportunity to implement it.”
At their meeting Wednesday, board members heard from both supporters of the parent trigger effort and opponents. Some of the opponents, Brawley said, indicated they’d transfer their students to another school if Desert Trails becomes a charter school, which is one of the options parents now have. What exactly is going to happen, however, is up to the parents, who have indicated they’ll announce their decision on the fate of the school on Friday.
Not all parent groups support the law. In its position paper against such laws, Parents Across America, a nonpartisan public school reform and advocacy group, states:
The law creates a process known as the Parent Trigger, which allows a majority of parents at a low-performing school to sign a petition to trigger one of a narrow set of options – firing all or
some of the staff, turning the school over to a charter operator, or closing the school. These
are the same options offered in the federal School Improvement Grant program, despite the
fact that none has been consistently successful in improving schools nationwide.
Although Parents Across America strongly supports true parent empowerment, we oppose
the Parent Trigger process. While the Parent Trigger allows parents to voice discontent with a
school, it gives them no opportunity to choose among more positive reforms, and fails to
promote the best practices for parent involvement from the ground up. In addition, the
process creates huge potential for abuse, disruption and divisiveness to school communities.
Parents Across America instead supports a process in which parents are authentically
involved at the ground level in developing strategies for improvement. These strategies might
include smaller classes, more parent involvement, or other reforms that have been proven to
work and are aligned with the individual needs of the school and its students.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog