Refining ‘parent trigger’

Under California’s “parent trigger” law, parents at underperforming public schools can force dramatic changes in management if half or more sign a petition. It’s a well-intentioned law that school reformers have applauded, but it is desperately in need of certain fixes. The most recent example involves a rule that was intended to bring more openness to the process — but which in practice appears to disenfranchise some parents.

The issue came up in last month’s successful campaign to transform 24th Street Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the least controversial, most vigorously supported trigger effort so far, more than two-thirds of the parents at the persistently low-performing school signed a petition to require major change. But unlike the state’s first such petition, which demanded that a school in Compton be turned over to charter operator Celerity Educational Group (it was ultimately unsuccessful), the petition by the 24th Street parents merely called on charter operators and others to submit competing proposals to run the school. Only later, on April 10, did the parents vote on the proposals; the option recommended by parent leaders, a charter/L.A. Unified hybrid, won.

But not all parents were allowed to vote. In accordance with regulations passed by the state Board of Education, only those who had signed the petition could cast ballots in the follow-up election. The board had complicated, well-intentioned motives for denying more than one-third of parents the right to participate — but those reasons ultimately are unpersuasive. In the end, the decision on the future of 24th Street Elementary was supported by 29% of the parent body.


The charter/district hybrid appears to have a strong educational plan that will almost certainly improve the lot of the school’s students. That’s the strength of the parent trigger: When administrators are unacceptably slow to improve even the most dysfunctional schools, parents can take charge. But banning parents from the second round of decision-making simply because they chose a different option during the petition drive — the option of not changing the school — is unfair, and certainly unlikely to draw parents together and engage them in their newly managed schools. It’s akin to telling people who voted for the losers in a primary that they can’t vote in the runoff election.

We’re disappointed that in the three years since the parent-trigger went into effect, the Legislature hasn’t moved to clean up several aspects of this somewhat sloppily crafted law. Trigger petitions should be limited to truly low-performing schools — they aren’t now — and the entire process should be more open from the start. We still believe in the trigger’s potential for improving schools, but it would be much more successful if the law were more thoughtfully written.