No magic bullet for schools


More than two years after California’s “parent trigger” law was enacted, things haven’t worked out the way school reformers had planned or opponents had feared. In those heady days, it was expected that parents would race to sign petitions to transform their low-performing schools. More than 20 states considered passing similar measures.

The California law allows parents to compel one of four major reforms at their children’s schools if half or more sign a petition. Right now it’s limited to 75 schools statewide, as a sort of pilot program.

But only three other states have passed parent trigger laws — Connecticut, Mississippi and Texas — and it’s a stretch to put Connecticut’s law in the same category, because parents there were given merely an advisory role with no authority. Last month, Florida’s legislature rejected a trigger bill, and many of the fiercest opponents were parents. Nine other states are considering such legislation, but even the Education Trust, a strongly reform-oriented nonprofit group, has expressed concerns about the trigger as it is currently constructed.


Hollywood appears ready to call it a winning idea, with plans for a film starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in which parents (and teachers) rise up to take over their school. But in the real world, we’re a long way from knowing whether the parent trigger can improve schools. For one thing, no petition has yet been approved; the trigger has not yet been pulled in California or anywhere in the country. And there are further reasons for concern. Three of the reform options the California law outlines — replacing half the school’s staff; replacing the principal plus some more minor changes; and closing the school altogether, an option that Parent Revolution, the force behind the trigger law, warns parents against — have mixed to downright bad records.

That leaves the fourth option: conversion to a charter school. With Parent Revolution started in large part by charter operators and funded by their supporters, it was assumed that the parent trigger would create a tidal wave of charter conversions. That now appears unlikely, at least in California. After Celerity Educational Group initially expressed willingness to take over a Compton school where a petition ultimately failed, charter organizations are showing no interest in trigger schools.

There are several reasons for this. Charter schools have generally thrived under a lottery enrollment system, in which motivated parents sign up their children for a random drawing that might allow them a seat in the school. But under the parent trigger, charter schools have to accept all students within the low-performing school’s attendance boundaries, just as regular public schools do. Few charter operators have been willing to work under that scenario, which tends to result in less dramatic test results for them. Furthermore, the current woeful state of school funding makes it difficult if not impossible for charter schools to provide needed resources — just as it’s difficult for traditional public schools. And turning around a deeply troubled school is harder than starting a new school with its own campus culture.

At Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, where the state’s second trigger petition was rejected last month, parents don’t even want a charter operator. What they seek is the ability to eliminate teachers whom they view as ineffective, pick their own principal and exert authority over their school’s budget and curriculum. Those are all understandable goals, but they’re not among the options under the poorly written parent trigger law. Many parents signed a petition calling for an independent charter school, run by parents and outside experts, but only in hopes of pressuring the school district to give in to their demands.

The district, though, has little incentive to negotiate a deal that gives parents the powers of charter operators without the actual charter. Under such an arrangement, the district would retain the state funding for the school’s students, but it would be responsible for the school’s performance without being able to control what’s going on there. That’s not real accountability.

Parents who join forces can be a powerful voice for change, but it’s unclear whether California’s parent trigger law will provide that path to empowerment. Before other states rush to emulate it, they should look for evidence that it is making schools better, while considering ways to improve on this pioneering but sloppily constructed law.