Parent Trigger 4.0 and countingParent Revolution, ACSA find common ground
The State Board of Education has set aside most of Thursday to listen to arguments over draft regulations on the state’s contentious parent empowerment law known as the Parent Trigger. The 21 pages of regs are now in the fourth iteration in seven months. It’s a bear to read, with underlined text, bold underlined text, bold double-underlined text, and now shaded double-underlined bold text plus strike-through text – recording the history of changes like an archeological dig. Odds are there’ll be at least a fifth version – all this without confronting some of the bigger issues that only a change in law, not regulations, can resolve.
The good news is that over the past month key adversaries on the issue closeted themselves away to work through most of their differences. Representatives of Parent Revolution, the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), the California School Boards Association, and the California Charter School Association will ask the State Board to incorporate their compromise language, drafted by ACSA legislative advocate Sherry Skelly Griffith, in the next version. The Board would be wise to seriously consider their request.
The Parent Trigger law allows a majority of parents in certain schools facing federal sanctions for low performance – and the majority of parents in feeder schools to those schools – to demand structural changes, like converting a school to a charter school or transforming it through a slew of reforms, some controversial (firing the principal and rewarding teachers based on student performance) and some not (more teacher training and a longer school day, assuming there’s money). It’s a powerful tool for frustrated parents in unresponsive districts.
The Legislature passed the Parent Trigger early in 2010, with ambivalence, in an effort to increase chances that the state would win Race to the Top money, and so wrote into state law the four remedies that the federal government demanded for turning around bad schools. Congress will probably drop or expand those limited options when it reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind law. But they’ll remain in California law regardless. That’s one problem with the Parent Trigger law that only a change in state law can fix. Another is that it’s vague, open to interpretation and dispute.
The law was intended as an experiment, limiting the number of Parent Trigger conversions to 75 schools. So far, under the State Board’s emergency regs, one parent group has “pulled the trigger.” The phobic reaction of Compton Unified school officials and the school board to the parents of McKinley Elementary and their non-profit organizers, Parent Revolution, should give the State Board pause. A Superior Court judge already has slapped down the district for tactics it used in demanding parents verify their signatures, and could overturn the district’s rejection of the petition on technical grounds.
No appeals process
The latest draft regulations, as expected, go into the signature verification process in detail, suggesting that the district verify parents’ signatures with forms already on file and then contact parents if there’s a problem. (The ACSA-Parent Trigger group wants the signature verification method to be mandatory and the verification language to be tighter.) But the draft regs contain no appeal process to challenge the district’s decision; building this in also may require amending the law. One court has already made it clear that it will step in if parents’ First Amendment rights are violated.
The State Board’s challenge is how to write regulations to deal with districts that defy the intent of the law or, potentially, parents signing a petition based on bad information or false accusations.
The draft regulations would require that parents be notified at the start of the school year that the school is eligible for a Parent Trigger petition and that the options be explained. Outside organizers, like Parent Revolution, would have to be identified on the petition. The regs suggest that the parents be referred to a State Department of Education website explaining the restructuring alternatives, although the Department wouldn’t be required to create the site.
The regs would prohibit threats, harassment, and intimidation against parents, school staff, organizers, and community members; there have been allegations of abuse in the McKinley case. The ACSA-Parent Trigger group would go further and ban the use of school and district resources in influencing a decision. They would also require signature gatherers to abide by school hours and sign-in regulations. They would put a deadline on further signature gathering once the petition is submitted. And they would require that petitions include the names of lead petitioners, whom the district could contact to help verify signatures of parents – a smart suggestion that could alleviate tensions between parents and the school.
The draft regs require no informational hearing at any point in the process. There is a need for one, but the challenge would be how to ensure a meeting would be run fairly and objectively, assuming a breakdown in trust between parents and the district. Having a third party, like a county office of education, run a hearing or oversee the signature verification would require a change in law.
Parents can pick choice of reform
Parent petitioners have the right to demand which structural change the district should adopt, whether it’s closing down the school, converting to a charter, replacing half the staff and the principal, or adopting the broad “transformation” strategy with a menu of reforms. The McKinley parents have presented a charter petition for Celerity Education Group, which runs charters in the Los Angeles area, to take over their school.
Under the draft regulations, a school board could choose another option but it would have to say so in writing. Parent Revolution wants to impose a high legal burden to override the parents’ preference. ACSA and other groups want to give districts more discretion. Regardless, the proposed charter school would have to go through the normal process for approving any charter school.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson created a large group of more than a dozen parties to guide the Department in revising the regulations for the State Board. It met twice. A similar group could be created to suggest revisions to the Parent Trigger law that regulations alone couldn’t fix. Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has created AB 203 for that purpose.
But Ben Austin, a former State School Board member and executive director of Parent Trigger, has made it clear that his group doesn’t trust that Brownley, who opposed the original law, would be a fair arbitrator. And he suspects that the California Teachers Association would attempt to weaken the law. For now, the action lies with the State Board, with the courts, the Legislature – or both – lying in wait.