A better ‘parent trigger’

The parent trigger — which allows parents to force radical change at lower-performing schools if at least half sign a petition — is an intriguing reform wrapped in a sloppily written law. When students are stuck in miserable schools where officials stubbornly defend the status quo, parents should be able to demand change. That should be carried out in ways that protect and inform parents and that require public transparency.

The first parent trigger petition, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, offered an example of how the process shouldn’t work. The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents’ options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn’t understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures. Meanwhile, the school district has set up a process for verifying the signatures that is harder on parents and more intrusive than is reasonably necessary.

The parent trigger was included in a hastily assembled law with the aim of winning a federal Race to the Top grant for California. That effort failed, and, for the moment, the state is stuck with the results. Most important is a public process. The petitions amount to elections; they force dramatic changes up to and including transferring the school to charter operators. Parent trigger must not become a means for private charter groups to get free school buildings through secret proceedings.

The McKinley experience shows that in order for the parent trigger to fulfill its potential, tinkering alone won’t do. Regulations by the state Board of Education, which were suspended after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed new board members, fall short as well. It will take new legislation to correct the gaping inadequacies of the first law. Those should include increasing the percentage of parents who must sign the petition to a supermajority; protections for schools that are showing meaningful improvement; requirements that schools inform all parents about active petition efforts and their right to participate; and public meetings in which parents and the community are informed about all their reform options. There must be better protections for the petitions as well: strict discipline against schools that try to discourage petitions by threatening or deliberately misinforming parents and tight rules to force school districts to respond openly, quickly and fairly to petitions, without burdensome obstacles for parents.