Lessons of 'parent trigger'

The so-called parent trigger option was first used nearly a year ago when parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton presented a petition to the local school board demanding that a charter management organization take over the campus. California's trigger provision, which had been included in 2010 school reform legislation in an unsuccessful effort to win a federal education grant, empowered parents to force major change at a "failing" school if half of them signed a petition.

What followed in Compton was the stuff of high educational drama — claims of intimidation from both sides, an intransigent school board that put parents through ridiculous hoops to verify their signatures and, eventually, legal defeat when the petition was found lacking on largely technical grounds. Ultimately, the charter operator, Celerity Educational Group, decided to open a school a few blocks away instead, to predictions that this would wipe out McKinley by drawing away most of its students.

But that's not what happened. Though the Celerity school quickly filled after it opened in September, relatively few of those students were from McKinley. In fact, only a third of the parents who had signed the petition — and only a fifth of those at the school — enrolled their children in the charter school. And Parent Revolution — the organization that decided McKinley would be a good poster school for the parent trigger, drew up the petitions, led the signature-gathering effort and designated Celerity as the preferred charter operator — went back to the drawing board to rethink its goals and tactics.

What has emerged is a much less splashy version of the parent trigger, but one more likely to bring about real parent empowerment and meaningful reform. Instead of choosing the schools for a possible parent trigger and engineering the petitions, Parent Revolution now leaves it up to parents to determine whether they want to initiate major reforms and what kind. It will provide information and support to parent groups that ask for it, says Executive Director Ben Austin, but it's up to the parents themselves to set their agenda, organize other parents into a committed nonprofit group and gather signatures.

The results so far are modest. A dozen or so parent groups have formed throughout the state to consider reforms, and only a couple of those are interested in abandoning their traditional public schools for charters. Some merely want a new principal; others seek to make it easier to get rid of teachers who consistently let their students down. Some yearn for basic, common-sense services such as regular communication from teachers. Not all of the groups are at schools that even qualify for parent trigger petitions — the schools have to be failing on a couple of fronts — but they nonetheless hope that an organized parent effort can strengthen their children's education.

That's a promising model for any school. Individual parents who see weaknesses at their schools can complain to the principal or even the school board, but they have little chance of making an impact. The Parent Teacher Assn. functions more as a support organization for schools than as a mechanism for change. Parents might not even know that other families share their frustrations. A well-run organization that engages parents in improving education can be a powerful force even when it is a relatively quiet one. Many parents, rather than seek to overthrow their schools, want to work with them.

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, including closing a school, replacing its staff or switching to a charter.

As intriguing as the idea was, there were troubling issues surrounding how it would work. For one thing, the law was written so that the definition of a failing school was tied to whether it met the required gains under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has been almost universally criticized for its rigid, unrealistic targets. McKinley is in sore need of improvement, but its scores on the state's Academic Performance Index have risen by more than 100 points since 2008.

The law also did not ensure that all parents at a targeted school would have a chance to be involved, or even informed. At McKinley, the signature-gathering process was carried out quietly, and many parents said they hadn't known about it. And because Parent Revolution picked the school, the reform and the charter operator and did most of the signature-gathering work, Austin now says, the petition lacked the parental buy-in that comes from a true community effort.

There's also a difference between a one-time petition and ongoing parental involvement with schools. According to Austin, one major reason that so few parents enrolled their students in the Celerity charter school is the neighborhood's transience; many families moved out of the area before the new school year started. It's a familiar scenario; in the Los Angeles Unified School District, about a quarter of the students move every year. But it also raises questions about whether a petition signed by parents should have the power to invoke such major, permanent change when many of the people who sign it will be gone by the time it takes effect.

The parent trigger still faces obstacles. Though many parents aren't seeking to do away with their existing school governance, the only leverage they have against an obstructionist system is the threat that they might demand one of the more sweeping changes, including switching to a charter. The problem is that charter operators have shown that they are not for the most part interested in turning around failing schools, preferring to open new ones. School boards therefore could call the parents' bluff — and that's why Parent Revolution's new tactic is all the more promising. Homegrown parent unions have a chance of becoming a long-standing force for change. Despite neighborhood turnover and the various pitfalls of reform, they send a message that as a group, parents committed to school improvement are here to stay.

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