Parent-trigger regs rightfully delayedHyped 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. )
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