Recent events at McKinley Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District have brought to light flaws in the state’s new parent empowerment or “trigger” law. This law must be fixed immediately so that the actual process for empowering parents is as worthy as the goal.
Using the new “trigger” provision, parents at McKinley were asked to sign a petition to turn their low-performing school into a charter school to be run by an outside organization. Unfortunately, this first real-world application of the new trigger provision has deeply divided the school’s community and pitted well-meaning parents against each other.
The most empowering part of the new law: It allows a petition to be circulated among parents at chronically low-performing schools that calls for a specific turnaround strategy, thereby intensifying the pressure for positive change.
Let’s be clear. Persistently underperforming schools cannot and should not be tolerated. Wherever there is a clear pattern of a public school repeatedly not providing students with access to a quality education, rapid change must happen.
The California State PTA believes all parents must be empowered to make changes at schools that result in dramatic and sustained improvements in student achievement. But for these changes to occur, the process of selecting and implementing a school turnaround strategy should be thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive of all parents, and should ensure accountability to the community.
- Public hearings and transparency. The current law does not require that accurate, independent information and analysis be provided to all parents at a school prior to making crucial decisions about the school’s future. We believe that before a petition is circulated, parents should submit an intent to file a petition to the school district. This important step would then set in motion one or more required public meetings at which information about the school’s performance and the options for turning it around could be communicated to everyone concerned.
- Independent analysis. In addition to public hearings, an independent report should be required. This report should be developed by a committee that includes parents or by an outside group with no direct stake in the outcome. It would describe and assess the various alternatives for turning around the school.
- More disclosure. Another weakness of the current law is that it allows for a petition regarding a school to be circulated by anyone, including an organization that seeks to operate a charter school at that very school site. In addition, there is no mandatory review or analysis of any promises or claims made by those circulating the petition, nor is the petition required to include information about the group or groups sponsoring it. To increase transparency we believe any affiliation must be disclosed, including whether the petitioners are associated with a parent group, union, school district, specific charter school operator, or education-management organization. The current law is also silent on whether paid signature gatherers can be used to qualify these local petitions. We believe they should not.
Here’s the bottom line: Parents must have access to as much information as possible about all options before they are asked to sign a document that could fundamentally affect the education their children receive.
We know from research and experience that the most meaningful parent-engagement strategies are those that are thoughtfully implemented and that focus on building the knowledge and capacity of parents to be full partners in education. This includes helping parents and community members build stronger working relationships with their schools and district staff and leaders through a collaborative process.
One of PTA’s fundamental, longstanding purposes is “to bring into closer relation the home and school, that parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the education of children and youth.” By focusing equal attention on planning for what happens after the so-called trigger is pulled, we increase the chances that, whichever turnaround solution is implemented, the parents and school community can work together to achieve real results for students.
Jo A.S. Loss is president of the California State PTA, which has nearly 1 million members throughout the state, including more than 250,000 in the Los Angeles area. Loss lives in Castro Valley and serves on the Castro Valley Unified School District Board of Education. For more information about the California State PTA, visit www.capta.org.