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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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