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Eye on the News

Ben Boychuk
Triggering School Reform in California
Parents push for their legal rights to better schools, but the education establishment pushes back.
3 March 2011

Compton, California seems an unlikely place for black and Latino parents to unite for fundamental education reform. But the Los Angeles–area city known best for its political corruption, racial division, and gang violence is the first proving ground for California’s Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the “parent trigger.” A Wall Street Journal article recently called the parent trigger “the radical school reform law you’ve never heard of,” but people are hearing about it now—and California’s education establishment, from South Central to Sacramento, is doing everything possible to stop it.

Under the law, if at least half of eligible parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition, the school district must undertake one of several prescribed “intervention models.” The district can close the school and let students enroll in a higher-performing public school nearby; convert the school into a charter school, which would operate with greater autonomy from local and state regulations; or implement the “turnaround” and “transformation” requirements set forth under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s education-reform program, which would involve replacing staff, extending school hours, and revising the curriculum. Parents have the first choice of which intervention model should be used. If a district determines that it cannot carry out the particular reform that parents want, officials must adopt one of the others.

California’s Democrat-dominated state legislature narrowly passed the law in January 2010, as part of the state’s effort to win a piece of the $4.35 billion in federal funding for Race to the Top. California failed to win any money, but the landmark law remains on the books. The law caps the number of schools subject to the parent trigger at 75 statewide, even though at least 1,300 out of California’s 9,000 public schools would qualify—that is, they have missed federally mandated Average Yearly Progress goals for four consecutive years, as established under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. A school with a California Academic Performance Index score below 800—a measure the state calculates by taking students’ standardized test scores and comparing them with students sharing similar demographic and academic characteristics—is considered failing.

In early December, 61 percent of parents of McKinley Elementary in the Compton Unified School District, taking advantage of the law, signed a petition to convert McKinley into an independent charter school. Without question, McKinley Elementary qualifies as a failing school. Ranked among the bottom 10 percent of California schools, McKinley has met its AYP goals only once since 2003. Not that the rest of Compton Unified district is any better. A state audit in July painted a picture of a district mired in dysfunction, where school personnel routinely “exhibit a lack of civility and respect” for parents and “the focus . . . is primarily on adult issues and not on student needs.”

District apologists, however, oppose applying the parent trigger to McKinley, pointing to its API score of 684, a 26-point improvement from 2009. “The parent trigger law was never intended to apply to a school making gains like these,” the Compton Education Association, the local teachers’ union, said in a statement on February 23, the day after Compton Unified trustees rejected the parents’ petition. In a unanimous vote, the school board denied the McKinley parents’ petition on the thinnest of pretexts: some of the signatures may not have been valid; a few signatures were duplicated; the petition had some embarrassing typographical errors; and parents didn’t attach supporting documentation properly. For want of a staple—and other minor technicalities spelled out in a seven-page staff report made public only a few minutes before the meeting began—the school board deemed the petition “insufficient.” There was no discussion.

“The district reviewed the petition not to verify the signatures, but to disqualify them,” said Jeff Senik, an attorney representing the Compton parents, who have filed a lawsuit against the trustees. A partner with Kirkland and Ellis, Senik said he is confident the district’s decision will not hold up in court.

Even before the McKinley Elementary parents submitted their petition, officials’ “lack of civility and respect” was on full display. Two parents filed formal complaints in January with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming some teachers had threatened and intimidated their children over the parents’ support for the petition drive. Once the petition was filed, the district escalated its campaign of misinformation and intimidation.

Abetted by the state and local teachers’ union and the PTA, the district charged that parents had been badgered or tricked into signing the petition. About 10 parents withdrew their signatures as a result. District surrogates also claimed parents were dupes for charter schools. In fact, the McKinley parents did get help canvassing neighborhoods from the Los Angeles Parent Revolution, a liberal activist group with ties to Green Dot Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization that runs over a dozen charters in the Los Angeles area. But they chose Celerity Education Group as their charter-management organization, not Green Dot.

When Compton Unified couldn’t persuade enough parents to withdraw their signatures to sink the petition campaign, officials adopted a more coercive approach. In late January, district officials informed parents that they would need to appear at the district office for a “short interview” and sign a form verifying their petition signatures. Otherwise, the officials said, the signatures would be disqualified. In their lawsuit, parents called the district’s ultimatum “burdensome and intrusive.” A judge agreed and on February 3 granted a temporary restraining order against the district, barring officials from requiring parents to verify their signatures in person but stopping short of suspending the verification process entirely.

Now opponents of the parent trigger want to exploit the Compton controversy to eviscerate the law. The California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, and other education-establishment groups are demanding extensive verification rules for parent signatures, mandated public meetings where school district officials would control the agenda, and supermajority requirements for petitions that Democrats would otherwise reject as undemocratic.

One problem with the law, for its supporters and opponents alike, is its brevity. At less than 600 words, the statute contains few nitty-gritty details about how the parent trigger should work in practice. The legislature left it to the State Board of Education to spell out tedious but essential details, such as how petitions must be formatted, who’s qualified to sign, how quickly a school district must act on a valid petition, and how parents may appeal adverse district decisions. The board passed temporary, “emergency” regulations last summer and was poised to approve permanent regulations at its January 12 meeting—but then new governor Jerry Brown intervened.

Less than a day after taking the oath of office on January 3, Brown sacked seven members of the 11-person board. Apart from being appointed by Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ousted board members had something else in common: all were vocal supporters of the parent trigger. Out went the business-minded reformers—almost all of them Democrats critical of the education status quo. They included Ted Mitchell, president and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Ben Austin, a former advisor to Bill Clinton and L.A. mayor Richard Riordan as well as executive director of Parent Revolution, the group assisting the Compton parents. Taking their place were more conventional Democrats, reflecting the constituencies that helped return Brown to the governor’s office after a 28-year hiatus: Carl Cohn, the former superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District; James Ramos, chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in Southern California; and Patricia Ann Rucker, chief lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. Michael Kirst, an emeritus professor from Stanford who advised Brown on education during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, replaced Mitchell as board president.

Also in the mix is California’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, whose job is to carry out the policies the board sets but who also has a prominent voice in setting the policies. As a state assemblyman from the East Bay town of Antioch, Torlakson—a former California Federation of Teachers executive—voted against the parent trigger “on philosophical grounds.” Torlakson explained he doesn’t believe parents should have so much power over a vital public asset. Torlakson and his chief deputy, Richard Zeiger, told state board members at their February meeting that the draft version of permanent rules for the parent trigger may not align with state law. “The law is difficult,” Zeiger said. “It’s vague where you want specificity, and specific where you would want a little more flexibility.”

Torlakson’s solution, which the board endorsed, is to rewrite the parent trigger law. Such “cleanup” legislation is not uncommon. The problem is the people doing the cleaning up. The lead author of the new bill is Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). As currently written, Brownley’s bill would make what the legislative counsel’s summary calls “technical, non-substantive changes” to the parent-empowerment law. She previously offered a watered-down version of the parent trigger in 2010, which would have given parents the right to petition not for a school overhaul, but merely for a hearing to air their grievances before district officials. Given district officials’ behavior, such grievances would likely have been ignored. Both Torlakson and Brownley insist, “Parent empowerment is here to stay.” If that’s true, they should ensure the law and the rules supporting it remain faithful to the original framework.

“The parent trigger law is about empowering parents, not about empowering bureaucracies to find technicalities to disenfranchise parents and defend an indefensible status quo,” Parent Revolution’s Austin said following the Compton Unified vote. That means parents shouldn’t have to seek the help of one of the most powerful law firms in the United States to vindicate their rights. That also means parents should be protected against harassment from district officials and their surrogates. Districts should be held to tight deadlines for evaluating parent petitions, and signature verifications should be straightforward and unobtrusive.

And given the institutional advantages school districts already hold over parents, it’s hard to see why parent groups should be forced to be more transparent than school district employees. If parents must file notice that they are engaged in a petition drive to convert, reform, or close a school, they deserve access to the data and resources a district or its union surrogates might use to oppose such an effort.

Above all, parents need clarity. Education “experts” often discuss policy using mind-numbing terminology indecipherable to lay people. They have a vested interest in everything except whether kids succeed. By itself, the parent trigger may not turn around low-performing schools, but it can help reframe the way parents and policymakers approach education reform. It cuts through bureaucratic jargon and gives parents a clear and powerful means of bringing about change. It’s no wonder lawmakers in more than a dozen states are contemplating their own versions.

For the time being, California’s parent-trigger law remains in force with or without regulations. Even if the legislature passes Brownley’s “cleanup” bill and Governor Brown signs it, the new law wouldn’t take effect until January 2012. In the meantime, parents in the city of Carson and the L.A. suburb of Sunland-Tujunga are busily circulating petitions of their own as Compton’s parents prepare for their first court date on March 22.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.

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