With ‘Parent Trigger’ Laws on the Ropes, Three Overhauled Schools Reopen in Los Angeles

Controversial legislation that allows parents to vote in new management at public schools is faltering everywhere but Southern California, where the law is getting its first real test

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Bret Hartman / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Desert Trails Elementary, in Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2012.

LOS ANGELES—When classes resume in Southern California in the coming weeks, three public schools will be the first in the nation to reopen under new management spurred by a controversial education law dubbed the “parent trigger.”

Parent Esmeralda Chacon is excited that 24th Street Elementary, just west of downtown Los Angeles, is bringing back a pre-kindergarten program and partnering with a local charter school operator. Parent Llury Garcia at Weigand Elementary in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles—where the principal has been ousted and 21 teachers subsequently asked for transfers—hopes her 8-year-old daughter will become a better reader. And Cynthia Ramirez expects to have more say in setting discipline policy and curriculum at her fourth-grade son’s school, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in the desert town of Adelanto, now that it has been taken over by a small nonprofit charter operator .

(MORE: Can Parents Take Over Schools?)

These parents helped lead the so-called “parent unions” that ran campaigns to overhaul their children’s respective schools with guidance and financial backing from Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit formed to promote California’s Parent Empowerment Act. Known as the parent trigger law, the legislation allows a majority of parents at an underperforming school to force major changes ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to ceding control to a charter operator.

When the law was passed in 2010, Former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, its author, compared it to the civil rights movement five decades before, and envisioned bipartisan support for parent trigger laws spreading to state legislatures across the nation. The 2012 Hollywood movie “Won’t Back Down” aimed to build legislative momentum, but the box office flop only seemed to draw more critics. Three and a half years later, Romero’s grand vision seems remote as opposition grows to any bill that even resembles a parent trigger. No group has succeeded in invoking a parent trigger law—or even made a full-fledged attempt—outside of southern California.

Only seven states have a parent trigger law on the books, with some versions weaker than others. In 20 states, bills to create or expand such laws stalled or died in legislatures this past spring; only one became law. Teachers unions, school administrators and even some parent advocacy groups have been fighting what they see as a corporate takeover of public schools under the guise of parent power, pointing to Parent Revolution’s financial backers, which include the Bill & Melinda Gates, Broad, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations. (Some of these foundations are among past and present supporters of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) Critics fear that parent triggers will transform the school system into an assembly line of identically run schools that focus on test scores at the expense of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

(MORE: Parent Trigger’ Laws: Shutting Schools, Raising Controversy)

“The terms ‘parent trigger’ and Parent Revolution have just become so toxic,” said Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which helped pass a milder form of parent trigger in her state. “Anyone who mentions it, my gosh, people just come at them. And it’s not fair to the parent who just wants a good school.”

The laws have become part of a broader debate over the proliferation of charter schools, private school vouchers and everything else now dubbed “education reform,” a vague term used by self-identified reformers to describe nearly any attempt to challenge the traditional public school system.

“I don’t know if we’re so much caught up in the parent trigger battle going off or more caught up in an even larger battle between the education establishment and education reformers, and this is just another battleground in that war,” said Oklahoma State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, whose parent trigger billcleared the State Senate in March but never made it to a vote in the House. “It had been branded so significantly, it was no longer about the bill,” said Florida State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who failed to advance her parent trigger legislation in late April. Even after an amendment gave local school boards greater veto power, the bill died on a tie vote in the State Senate for the second straight year.

(MORE: Parents Should Be Allowed to Choose Their Kids’ Teacher)

It hasn’t helped that the first few attempts at invoking a parent trigger led to fierce hostility and feuding within schools, with parents turning on one another and accusations of harassment, intimidation and fraud flying on both sides. “If you have a school that’s struggling, in most cases, the parents, the district and the teachers are working really hard to try and fix it,” said Kathleen Oropeza, a Florida mom who co-founded the nonprofit FundEducationNow.org and fought against parent trigger bills in the last two legislative sessions. “I don’t feel like adding parents fighting against parents and parents fighting against teachers is helpful. It’s the kids who get hurt.”

Undeterred by the bills that stalled or died in 2013, Parent Revolution spokesman Derrick Everett said that “laws as novel as the parent trigger process have often taken multiple legislative sessions to both get the law ‘right’ and get it passed.” With its nearly $5.5 million budget and some 45 staffers, Parent Revolution has helped create 13 parent union chapters in the greater Los Angeles area, according to Everett. But only three have invoked the trigger. A fourth parent union, at Haddon Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, voted to pause its trigger push and instead compromise with the district for less drastic reforms.

Supporters and opponents alike will be watching closely how these schools perform in the coming years.

(MORE: Can Computers Replace Teachers?)

Samuel, in Connecticut, urges parents to avoid political drama and choose for themselves the types of changes they want for their schools. “Parents have got to say, ‘We’re not going to get caught in the fray,’” Samuel said. “You have to make it work instead of letting politics run the show.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

MORE12 Education Activists for 2012

9 comments
linda.j562
linda.j562

These poor parents don't even realize that they have given away their local school to private organizations. Soon they'll find out.

For California parents, here is some advice, known to the parents of high-achieving students:

The educational success of your child depends greatly on what you do. In regard to the school, find out where the high-performing schools are and then try to get your child in. In California, if you work in an affluent school district, you can apply for your child to go to the local schools. If your babysitter is in a good school district, your child might be able to attend school in that district. Also, look into parochial and private schools. If your child is talented, he might receive a scholarship. And of course you can move. I live very near two cities with excellent school districts. Both these cities have some low income housing.

In California, there are many, many excellent schools. My own sons went from public school onto Harvard and Stanford. Unfortunately, it's up to parents to find these schools and to find a way to enroll their children. This might be "unfair" but that is our system. Turning over your local school to a private organization won't help your child.

becauseitssmarter
becauseitssmarter like.author.displayName 1 Like

California has the most embarrassing schools I have ever had the misfortune to come in contact with.  I am forever grateful that my kids had their K-8 years in another state.  Growing up where I did, and then bringing up my kids in yet another region of the nation, I have to say I couldn't even begin to have imagined just how bad some schools in this country truly are until I came here.  If I'd known, I would have moved somewhere else, at least until my kids graduated. 

RugeirnDrienborough
RugeirnDrienborough like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Critics fear that parent triggers will transform the school system into an assembly line of identically run schools that focus on test scores at the expense of teacher autonomy in the classroom."

Are these the same people who insist that the public school system as it presently exists is an assembly line of identically run schools that focus on test scores at the expense of teacher autonomy in the classroom? This movie looks awfully familiar.

GwenSamuel
GwenSamuel

well written article. Just need to clarify a quote. This is Gwen Samuel. Based on MY experiences I stated “The term ‘parent trigger’ has just become so toxic,” said Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which helped pass a milder form of parent trigger in her state. “Anyone who mentions it, my gosh, people just come at them. And it’s not fair to the parent who just wants a good school.”

Read more: http://nation.time.com/2013/07/26/with-parent-trigger-laws-on-the-ropes-three-overhauled-schools-reopen-in-los-angeles/#ixzz2aElQZpDZ

TobyKinnear
TobyKinnear

@GwenSamuel Since I started with my online business I earn $62 every 15 minutes. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don't check it out w­w­w.W­O­R­K­7­0.ℂ­o­m

AndrewBarba
AndrewBarba like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Interesting piece. Like so many laws, thoughtfulness in the details make the difference between effective versus disruptive policy. I hope to hear more regarding the 3 schools' performance in the coming year.

RekkaRiley
RekkaRiley

@AndrewBarba Indeed. 

Honestly, this whole idea makes me nervous because from personal experience, seeing my classmates' parents and realizing exactly where their bad attitudes came from, I simply don't believe most parents actually have the knowledge or judgment necessary to make decisions like this.  Just like how few parents actually have the skills necessary for homeschooling their kids, but they insist on trying anyway and the children end up paying the price. 

Sure, some parents might actually have those skills and knowledge to succeed that way, but the actual number is very, very small.  However, everyone likes to think that they are a part of that small group, and they won't listen to any evidence to the contrary.

One parent's particular child is never going to be the only one affected, and parents in general tend to have a very myopic view of what is or is not the best solution to the problem.

Sadly, the most often "best" solution is "whatever benefits my child and my child only, to hell with the rest of them!"

There are just way too many ways this idea to get out of hand.  What happens when a parent wants to fire a teacher on little evidence of bad performance, simply because they didn't like how that teacher graded their child's paper?  What happens when a bunch of parents who think math and science are worthless decide the school should focus more on language arts and social studies?  Or sports?  

What happens when parents start trying to pick what would be best for other peoples' children based on their own personal biases?

Last time I checked, you have the right to decide things for YOUR children, NOT anybody else's!

BruceWalberg
BruceWalberg

@RekkaRiley @AndrewBarba 

Telling us we are not equipped to handle the job is the same BS the teachers unions have been spoon feeding us for years. Yet the kids get dumber and dumber every year. Hmmm. It will not Kill anyone to try something that is centered on the kids instead of what's good for the union teachers. The government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. They barely have a grasp of what a good idea looks like.

RekkaRiley
RekkaRiley

@BruceWalberg @RekkaRiley @AndrewBarba 

I never said the government has a monopoly on good ideas.

I never said that parents are never equipped to handle the job.

What I did say is that the number of parents who can handle the job of administrating an entire school is a lot smaller than an individual might think.  Something like Sturgeon's Law (I might have the name wrong):  "90% of X is total crap, but the remaining 10% is worth dying for."

Parents tend to have a very myopic view of what is "best" for children in general, based almost entirely on what is best for that particular parent's child.  They can't see past their own child's needs enough to decide what is really best for several hundred students whose parents may have very different ideas about what is right for their kids.

Every parent has the right to decide what is best for their child and THEIR CHILD ONLY.  You don't have the right to tell me what media I should allow my children to view, what language I choose to speak at home, or what academic standards I expect from them.  In return, I have no right to dictate to you how you should educate your children.

We already have a serious problem in this country with math curriculums being designed by people who hate math and want to make it more like social studies, and people who design language arts curriculums to involve discussing non-existent symbols in literature instead of learning the English language. 

Do we really want to make this worse by allowing parents who may not have the experience or background necessary in a particular subject to decide how it should be taught?  It might work if the parents in question were engineers designing the math/science courses, or bestselling authors teaching English, but how many average parents can claim that level of expertise in the subjects required to graduate?

Part of what makes the job of managing a school so difficult is that the managers in question have to juggle the needs of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students.  That's no small feat, and not many people (sadly, that includes a sizeable number of school admins themselves) have the management skill necessary for that.

The fact that so few parents respect the idea of education at all makes it worse, because they pass that lack of respect to their children who then turn around and treat even the best teachers like utter crap, driving more of the good teachers out of the profession entirely.  I graduated in 2007, I WATCHED that happen, and it was horrible.  

If there are parents out there who think they can do a better job, as either a teacher or a managing a school, I encourage them to go back to school if necessary and apply for the job!  We need as many teachers and better admins as we can get!  So if these parents think they can do a better job, then why haven't they actually applied for the jobs themselves?


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