Parent-trigger regs rightfully delayed

Hyped law must be written right to be effective

In order to come up to speed, the new members of the State School Board have put off acting on most items on this week’s agenda. The decision to delay final adoption of “parent trigger” regulations has set off critics, led by the law’s author, former Sen. Gloria Romero, and its biggest booster, ousted State Board member Ben Austin. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Daily News, dismissing Brown’s new appointees as “political hacks and educational has-beens,” said that “the future of education reform in California and the state’s reputation as a national leader in education is at risk.”

Such apocalyptic predictions inflate the importance of the parent trigger, ignore the flaws in the proposed parent-trigger regulations, and prejudge the new State Board through the narrowest of lenses.

The parent trigger, which the Legislature adopted a year ago to try to add pizzazz to a weak Race to the Top application, enables parents to force drastic change in low-performing schools. Even though organizers in only one school – McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified – so far have pulled the “trigger” by submitting signatures of a majority of parents, the parent trigger is hot. Legislators in several states are crafting their versions, and former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made the parent trigger one of four cardinal strategies of her new national organization Students First.

The concept is sound enough; empowering long-suffering parents trapped in lousy schools can be a powerful tool. In California, a majority of teachers have the power to convert their school to a charter. In principle, parents should have the same right ­– if they really know what they’re signing and can choose  from alternatives that are clearly better than what they have.

But as events in Compton have shown, parents behind a trigger campaign should be prepared for a long, bitter and expensive fight, because teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy, their union, and districts aren’t going to give up turf easily. It took five paid organizers from Parent Revolution to gather the Compton signatures, and there will be lawsuits over the law and claims of deceit, with countercharges by petitioners of threats and coercion. Any petition effort can expect such nastiness and litigation.

Resistance from self-interested adults is by itself no reason to back down, but to what end? It would have been a lot easier, with less hand-to-hand combat, to open a charter school in the neighborhood and invite McKinley parents to choose with their feet. Consider that as many as 130 new charter schools will open next year in California, many in urban areas with low-performing schools. There will probably be a handful of parent-trigger petitions this year and next; it will take years to reach the ceiling of 75 schools.

Austin and organizers insist the parent trigger isn’t just about converting to charter schools. But, in fact, the way California’s law is written, it will, with few exceptions, be all about charters.

The trigger-petition law and the proposed regulations limit the choices to the four unproven and much debated school turnaround options being pushed by the Obama administration in the Race to the Top competition and the billion-dollar School Improvement Grant program. Petitioners can demand to shut the school down, turn it around by hiring a new principal and firing half the existing staff, transform it with a longer school day and other strategies and a new principal, or restart it as a charter school. Parents aren’t likely to go to all that effort to close their school or fire half the staff. The transformation strategy would make little sense without more money – and the parent trigger provides none. The default choice will be charter conversion.

Lure of a decent building

Finding adequate facilities is the biggest challenge to opening a charter school, so the prospect of taking over a fully equipped school building is an advantage of the parent trigger. But many charter operators have been reluctant to take over an existing school, where all parents aren’t there by choice; they’d rather exert their right to unoccupied school buildings under Proposition 39 or rent non-district facilities. McKinley Elementary parents did find an operator, Celerity Education Group, willing to take over their school, but that could prove the exception.

There are alternatives for a parent trigger that the Legislature and the State Board could have considered: allowing parents to start a small school within a large middle or high school or setting up a parents council to solicit proposals from groups, including teachers, and choose the most interesting or innovative idea. Instead, the law and the almost-adopted regulations take a winner-take-all approach that could prove divisive.

Self-interest notwithstanding, the California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators have raised legitimate questions about the law: the mechanics of signature gathering, legal issues involving a charter conversion, the lack of openness in the petition process. The proposed regulations don’t require a public hearing before the petitions are submitted, at which all options would be explained to parents, who would have a chance to add or withdraw their signatures. (Organizers  say they have to operate secretly to protect parents’ identities; they should be given parents’ addresses and phone numbers.)

Rush to pass parent-trigger regulations

What really ticked off the CTA and others was that the State Board, suspecting that Gov. Brown might replace most of them, rushed the final 15-day comment period over Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The Board ignored the difficulty this would impose on educators with serious objections.

The parent trigger will give parents leverage for change, but the biggest benefit may come not from the few petitions signed but from the bigger threat they represent.

Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, reports that districts and superintendents who want to preempt the parent trigger have been calling him to learn about the law. Superintendents have more leverage, too, to force reform-resistant teachers unions to change – or else. “If you have a school that is ripe for parent trigger, an option is to start moving on one of the other options, such as a district-run charter,” Premack says.

If the law is to be more than hope and hype, the parent-trigger regulations must be written right. The new board was smart to take its time – and a second look.

(Great commentaries, for and against the idea of a Parent Trigger, in Monday’s National Journal. )


  1. Why is having informed parents only a worthwhile goal after the fact?  Should school principals be required to inform parents of their parent trigger rights every year by telephone?  And have a yearly meeting describing this right and the options for exercising it?  Maybe we can just limit these requirements to schools that have an API score below 800.  As written this concern is just a concession to the opponents of the parent trigger law.

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  2. Thorough commentary appeciated, though I dispute the negative characterization of critics of the McKinley Parent Trigger as merely self-interested.
    And anyone who actually, sincerely thinks the Parent Trigger is a sound concept truly needs to get out and spend some time in real-life school communities.
    It’s guaranteed that a Parent Trigger campaign would tear apart a school community even if teachers weren’t involved. Given human nature (not to mention the huge questions about the efficacy of the supposed solutions), you will never find a school community where all the parents are in harmonious agreement. And with a drastic measure like this, the controversy would be extreme and anger, bitterness, divisiveness and intimidation would be inevitable.
    The Los Angeles Weekly, an alternative newspaper that practices advocacy journalism, covered the Compton Parent Trigger campaign in illuminating detail from a vigorously pro-Parent Trigger viewpoint. But the Weekly’s coverage describes the McKinley parent community exploding into “civil war” (direct quote from the Weekly) after the petition drive. Even the Weekly, which portrays teachers as malevolent and greedy oppressors determined to doom low-income children to lives of poverty and illiteracy, made it clear that it was the McKinley parents who were fighting each other, not teachers vs. parents.
    The devastating impact on a vulnerable school community of having “civil war” ignited among the parents really can’t be overlooked.
    A few other points, and forgive me for repeating myself, but these issues need to be clarified.
    The reason it took five paid organizers to gather the McKinley parent signatures is that this was not a campaign begun or led by parents at McKinley. My source here is the coverage by the Los Angeles Weekly — again, an avidly pro-parent trigger source — whose reporters were “embedded” with the Parent Trigger drive.
    The organization Parent Revolution — an “astroturf” (fake grassroots) group started by the charter operator Green Dot and run by paid staff — searched the state for a vulnerable school to target, then sent its paid organizers out to find McKinley parents, going door to door in Compton.
    As I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog, Parent Revolution’s PR firm, the Rose Group of Culver City, has launched a damage-control campaign, but there’s only so much they can do. The effort to raise a brouhaha claiming that parent and teacher dissenters were intimidating the professionally run signature-gathering operation flopped when the press got hopelessly confused about who was being accused of intimidation against whom, understandably enough.

    It’s not just teachers and officials who are hampered by the  happy coincidence, from Parent Revolution’s viewpoint, that the response period fell during the holidays and winter break.  Parents too are busy during the holidays — the Compton community, being heavily Latino immigrant, is likely to be both religious and engaged in visits with relatives.


    The notion that parents themselves could realistically take over and run a school really needs more than a passing mention. Doesn’t this call for a little more critical scrutiny?


    The McKinley move has been described as the first use of the Parent Trigger. Yet readers of this blog know that it’s not. An effort to collect parent signatures has been going on for some time at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland-Tujunga. The effort is led by a former parent at the school, yet it’s my understanding that the Parent Trigger law doesn’t allow former parents to sign the petitions — though it does allow, rather vaguely, potential future parents to sign them. And the leader of the Mount Gleason petition drive has said that all she wants to do is get the principal fired. Since that frankly looks more like a personal vendetta than anything else, and doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere, Parent Revolution seems to be downplaying that formerly ballyhooed effort.

    The whole thing is obviously unworkable. Nobody who is familiar with the inside of a school could believe otherwise.
    An actual effort from within the school community would not require paid organizers to cold-call in search of parents to sign the petitions, as anyone with actual familiarity with a school community could attest.

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  3. Parent Trigger, charter schools, et al are all about destroying the concept of constitutional governance of ELECTED REPRESENTATION AT LOCAL DISTRICT LEVELS.  Parent Trigger campaigns are catalysts created for,  or at least invitations for Saul Alinskey type community organizing as exemplified by Parent Revolution which is a misleading euphemism designed to appear that calls for charter schools are parent originated.   The  fact is that the parent organizing is typical of Chicago Style community organizing by paid professionals with an agenda which is in essence, taxation without elected representation.

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  4. Oh, I noticed that this erroneous statement needs clarifying:
    “McKinley Elementary parents did find an operator, Celerity Education Group, willing to take over their school…’

    The parents did not find the charter operator. Parent Revolution worked with Celerity to orchestrate the process so Celerity could take over the school.

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  5. Celebrity isn’t the greatest of charter group in LAUSD. If the parents want a GOOD  charter schools that would be” Alliance College Readiness “( Judy Burton). This is a quality organization. I know many teachers that have left Celebrity because of lack structure. I hope that parents from Compton investigate all Charter before settling for a charter organization that have really measure up to many peoples high expectation for Urban Schooling.

    Parent please don’t settle when you came this far in advocating for your children, go with the best and that Alliance College Readiness. Do this for future of your children. Your school is on move, it never to late to collobrate with Compton School District and work out new plan for students achievement.

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