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Pulling the parent trigger

If anyone has reason to overthrow the public school establishment, it’s parents in the Compton Unified School District. Five of the district’s 35 schools are listed among the worst 5% statewide. In July, an auditor reported that the schools were run to benefit adults more than students and that the district appeared incapable of fixing the problem. And the school board recently fired its superintendent for charging thousands of dollars of personal expenses to her district credit card.

So it’s no great surprise that Compton Unified became the first school district targeted for the so-called parent trigger, which allows parents to force radical change at a particular school if 51% of them sign a petition. Among their options are replacing the school’s management or most of its staff, or turning it into a charter school. Parents organized by the group Parent Revolution, the leading force behind the parent trigger movement, delivered their petition to district headquarters last week, demanding that McKinley Elementary School become part of the Celerity Education Group charter organization.

Of the various ingredients that went into California’s sloppily assembled school reform bill last year, the parent trigger was the most intriguing and potentially the most transformative. When schools stubbornly resist looking for new ways to help students, when the board of education won’t listen and when business-as-usual means students can pretty much count on not going to college, what are parents supposed to do, short of coming up with $28,000 a year for private school?

The simple logic of the trigger, and its quick and direct empowerment of parents, rightly drew nationwide interest and praise from the Obama administration (which nonetheless rejected California’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant, which the legislation was intended to secure). Yet there were reasons for concern. As the law is written, parents can pull the trigger on schools that are by no means those most in need of turnaround. What’s more, there is little evidence that reconstituting schools or converting them into charters will appreciably improve their performance. Too little is known about how the reform will be carried out. So we’re glad that the law limits the number of schools that can launch a petition drive to 75 for now. That gives reformers a chance to show what the trigger can accomplish while limiting unforeseen consequences.

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As it turned out, the first pull of the parent trigger provided cause for both appreciation and disquiet. McKinley Elementary is a very low-performing school, in the bottom 10th of schools statewide and even among schools with similar demographics. Parents complain that the staff doesn’t communicate with them and that students who get good grades at McKinley go on to get Ds in middle school. Celerity is a well-regarded charter operator that might make significant improvements. We’re also glad to see Celerity agree, as charter schools must under the parent trigger, to enroll all students within the same attendance boundaries as the public school it would replace. Under the traditional lottery system charter schools must use to enroll students, they generally end up with fewer special-education students and children with behavior problems than similar public schools, a situation that gives them a greater chance of shining on the California Standards Tests.

Yet McKinley’s teachers have clearly been working hard to improve scores. With the exception of one year, the school has brought its test scores up and met state growth targets each year since 2004, more than 100 points in six years. There’s an inherent disconnect in a state law that punishes teachers — who would have to reapply for their jobs if Celerity were to take over — when they have met the state’s improvement criteria.

The McKinley experience also makes it clear that the parent trigger law was written with inadequate safeguards for public transparency. Apparently, neither the school district nor the teachers realized that a petition was making the rounds. Some parents have complained that they were not shown the petition or that they signed it without a clear explanation of its purpose. There was no opportunity for public discussion or for other charter operators to show interest in the school. Parents learned about Celerity because Parent Revolution staff shuttled them to visit existing Celerity schools and no others.

We sympathize with the explanation of Ben Austin, chief executive of Parent Revolution, that mounting a successful petition drive would have been difficult if the district knew in advance. Teachers, who are the most adamant opponents of the transformation of McKinley, have daylong access to students, making it easy for them to fight any attempt at change.

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During the first round of Los Angeles Unified’s Public School Choice initiative, which allows outside operators to apply to run low-performing schools, teacher groups engaged in appalling tactics, falsely warning that undocumented parents would be deported if they chose a charter, or that they would be charged tuition. Some charter operators disseminated inaccurate information about the schools as well. But instead of shutting off public debate, the L.A. school board set down new rules intended to tamp down unethical behavior during the second round of Public School Choice. That’s what is needed for the parent trigger.

Public schools are just that — public. They shouldn’t be handed over to new operators through secret agreements and petitions and campaigns that offer only partial information. All parents should have the opportunity to learn about and weigh in on any petitions, and schools should be required to notify all parents about any relevant meetings. As the movement grows, the parent trigger should not be a way for individual charter operators to take over schools by funding petition drives. And although parents should be consulted, the school district or state Board of Education should choose the reform or charter operator that would work best at each trigger school. At the same time, school staff who try to intimidate parents into rejecting the petitions should be disciplined, and reformers should be provided with a way to contact all parents at a school, something they are not allowed now.

Distaste for the messiness of democracy is an unacceptable excuse for secret proceedings. When it meets this week to consider additional regulations for the parent trigger, the state board — of which Austin is a member, though he recuses himself on this issue — should tighten the rules to ensure open proceedings. The parent trigger is a promising initiative based on the idea that parents are smart enough to have a hand in determining the future of their children’s schools. If that is the case, they should be treated as though they’re smart enough to engage in an open debate and make an informed decision.


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