Parent Trigger 4.0 and counting

Parent 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.


  1. A bad law is a bad law, is a bad law.   No amount of tweaking, refining, fine tuning a “good law will it make”.   The premise is flawed in that it disenfranchises every registered voter and taxpayer who has no child in the school district in which signatures are  gathered.   Like charter shools, it is taxation without representation, and removes the authority from the elective body responsible to the electorate in a district.   Granted, school boards have  not been as independent and responsible as they should be as elected representatives, but they have  had hands tied behind their backs, with mandates, and other issues not always of their own making as well.  Too often they have allowed themselves to become rubber stamps for agendas they may not have initiated.  Majorities of parents with Parent Trigger Law, however have no responsibilityto  tax payers or anyone but themselves and perhaps  the signature gathering entity.

    There is a huge infraction of the CONCEPT of  representative governance with Parent Trigger Law.   Short of repealing it, there can be no resolution of what is wrong with it.

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  2. “Granted, school boards have  not been as independent and responsible as they should be as elected representatives, but they have  had hands tied behind their backs, with mandates, and other issues not always of their own making as well.”
    That may well be the case, but in many districts, there are no signs — none whatsoever — that this situation will change.  Many district boards and administrators simply aren’t doing their jobs, and our children can’t wait.

    “Majorities of parents with Parent Trigger Law, however have no responsibility to  tax payers or anyone but themselves…”
    But parents DO have responsibility to their children.  Did you forget about that?  It’s always easy for defenders of the failing status quo to cite the potential grievances of all of the adult stakeholders, but the children should be the primary concern.  And I’d trust parents, far more than the educrats outside the classroom, to keep children as the focus.

    Teachers have the right to trigger charter conversions.  Should we take the right away from them, too? I certainly don’t think so; they are providing a welcome source of school choice (another one was just announced last week in my own district!).  Parents, who have as much or more at stake in this than anyone, ought to have the same right to trigger a charter conversion.

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  3. “It is taxation without representation”: no it isn’t, conversion of a school to chartered status has no impact on the amount a citizen is taxed; we should only expect changes in the allocation of expenditure.
    It “removes the authority from the elective body responsible to the electorate in a district.” In this respect it only represents the equivalent of a recall petition, and with less drastic results, in that no district representative is removed from office, but rather experiences a reduction in jurisdiction. This process is not notably less democratic than that of allowing a nearly interminably reelected school board to maintain its monopoly power over a local school, regardless of the consequences for the families in that school’s neighborhood.

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  4. I know I’ve already said my piece on this deceptive, anti-democratic, harmful legislation, but I’m still chiming in with a reminder.
    The turning over of public property to private hands based on a 50%-plus-1 vote of a segment of those affected is a Pandora’s box. Mary is correct, and Jim and Bruce do not address that issue. Again, consider that concept applied to a park system, a transit system, a public hospital, a police department.
    I’m looking at the bigger picture with that comment. But even with the narrower picture, to repeat and remind again: If a school were shut down based on a vote of 50%-plus-1 of the parents IN that school, it would have major impact far beyond just the families in that school. The schools that would be receiving the displaced students (49.9% of whose families might have opposed the school closure, by the way) would be significantly impacted. The entire community would be affected. I don’t see how anyone could possibly defend that notion.
    And even with charterizing the school, there’s likely to be impact well beyond the immediate school community in numerous ways. For one thing, the financial impact of a charter on a school district is often harmful, which means that other kids in other schools suffer the impact.
    I don’t believe that a majority of teachers in a school should be able to make that decision either, but that’s another issue.

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  5. Caroline, I’ll try to address a few of your points. (1) “The turning over of public property to private hands” is actually a change of management for a set period, with renewal of the charter dependent upon the fulfillment of a contract with the community, and community representatives making that decision. In most of the parallels you suggest, I cannot think of an example; the exception is the public hospital. The King-Drew Medical Center in Watts, which was the public health response to the Watts riots of 1965 (Locke High School was the educational response), was known in the local community as “Killer King” and lost its medical accreditation with the U.S. government, and so L.A. County eventually contracted out to UCLA the management of that hospital, which is now serving that desperately needy community again after having been closed for over a year. (2) In the Celerity/Compton/McKinley case, the charter has agreed to take all of the students currently in or eligible for the school; no other option would be legal. (This also parallels what we did at Locke.) (3) The money follows the students. When parents move their children from one educational organization to another, jobs are lost in one place but created in another. If the community is more satisfied with the new providers, the funding is spent more efficiently; if the new organization fails to measure up or a better option opens, the new organization will lose those jobs it had won, but as long as more popular options keep replacing less, community satisfaction and investment efficiency continue to rise, and we should end up with a brighter future for everyone.

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  6. Bruce, you are making the assumption that those who are being served can make better decisions, in the aggregate, than those who purport to be “serving” them.  I happen to agree, but that assumption, in a nutshell, highlights the great divide in this debate.  Many traditionalists simply do not believe that parents will make the right decisions.  They will be unduly influenced by “business people”, “marketing”, billionaires, reformers with incorrect credentials, and various other villians.  All of the other debates about test scores, tweaking legislation, or procedures around approving, funding, and overseeing choice schools are just sideshows if people disagree on the basic premise of choice.  If one doesn’t believe parents will make decisions that are as good as the decisions that administrators want to make for them, then every barrier to choice simply helps protect people from themselves.  History shows that defenders of that kind of top-down status quo almost always lose in the end, but this is education, where the wealthy, the decision-makers, the insiders, and the influential almost always get what they need, even if they live in regions littered with train-wreck schools.  So we will have to be extra patient.

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  7. History, Jim? You mean like Edison Schools Inc., which was my first foray into advocacy involving corporate education reform? That’s why Edison is running successful schools all over the country now, and has closed the achievement gap, and its shareholders are happily reaping big dividends every quarter. History showed us skeptics, didn’t it?
    OK, that little exchange of sarcasm was entertaining. Meanwhile, the concept “fool me twice, shame on me” has entirely eluded the onetime Edison cheerleaders. I don’t know what to make of that. But maybe you can see why my take on what “history shows” is a little different from yours (and mine is from the reality-based world, unlike yours).
    Bruce, the situation with King-Drew Medical Center would be analogous if it were the patients had voted to turn it over to private management. Since that’s not what happened, it’s not comparable.
    We’ll believe that Celerity will take all the students when we see it. Charter schools’ record on that score is dismal, as you know. Locke may be an exception; I don’t really have a way to research it because of the fact that the school under current management is reported as five or six smaller schools, and the CDE seems to have cut back on the amount of data publicly available about students with disabilities at a school. The trusting and gullible may believe that Celerity will take all the students. All my skepticism red flags are flying (just as they were with Edison Schools, come to think of it).
    The notion that if a student leaves a school it all evens out perfectly because the money goes with the student sounds good to people who never set foot in a school, the ones who judge schools by looking at spreadsheets in their offices.  I’m really surprised to hear a veteran educator make that claim. That’s an exceptionally starry-eyed theory for someone who actually teaches in classrooms and spends time in the real world.

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  8. Caroline, my third point, about money following students, is an ideal: I know that what usually happens is that authorizing districts claim encroachments upon some of the money that arguably should be following students, and use that money to retain their staff, to the extent that they can; therefore the charter organizations usually have less than 100% of the money that taxpayers have allocated to support their students.  This can result in an ugly competition for employment, usually a good thing for workers, but usually not in these cases, because the competition between traditional and chartered schools usually leaves such a bad taste in people’s mouths that workers for the one type of organization will not work for the other, but instead seek employment in other organizations of a similar type.
    Jim, thanks, your point is well taken. My only rejoinders are (1) it can be difficult to wait in a tragically bad school, especially if your child is trapped inside, and (2) the underdogs do occasionally win out over the insider decision-makers for train-wreck schools, witness our success at Locke.

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  9. Dear Ms.  Grannan, you have written a very, very, great deal about Edison (you can stop now, if you like).  You need to address the other half of the equation.  I.e., what are my options as a parent if the local public school is dysfunctional?  Or do you deny that possibility entirely?  You seem set against any alternative to the traditional public school whatever, regardless of how poor a job it may be doing.

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  10. Michael G., I’m sure that those who were hyping Edison Schools as the miracle that would save public education are very unhappy and embarrassed to be reminded of it, but it’s important that we remember to be on the lookout for slick con jobs designed to divert public money into private pockets. So I don’t accept the suggestion that we should let that particular bygone be bygone. Sorry if it makes some people squirm.
    We should mistrust the voices that were hyping Edison as the miracle cure — and, if I may say so, give extra credibility to those who urged caution and skepticism.
    In a climate where con jobs continue to be promoted, we need regular reminders of the failed miracles promoted in the past.
    Obviously there are troubled schools. Unfortunately, there are not insta-miracles, no matter what the corporate reformers claim. Their  “solutions” are designed to harm schools, not improve them.
    As a founding member of Parents Across America, I’ve contributed to the content of the PAA website, which describes effective and research-based ways to improve schools. I’m also a strong supporter of “community schools” (like the Harlem Children’s Zone only without the teacher-bashing and union-busting) that provide social services and other supports for the whole family; there are current examples in San Jose and San Francisco. The heart of the problem is poverty and the ills that accompany it, not “failing schools” or “bad teachers” or too much democracy and too little privatization.

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  11. Michael G., I agree with Caroline that we should keep the Edison experience in mind, but for very different reasons.  It provides almost a textbook example of true accountability (as opposed to the faux “accountability” in NCLB).  Edison was not very good at running charter schools, and as that business model began to fail, they decided (rather incongruously) to “scale up” and move on to running entire districts, or at least district-sized portions of existing districts.  Philadelphia was one of the basket-case districts that decided to opt for that solution.  I had the pleasure (burden?) of working with both the pre-Edison kleptocracy and the Edison folks, and they were both underwhelming, to put it generously.  Hard to say which regime was more ineffective.  Philadelphia at that time was one of the notorious “big-urbans”, which included D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and various other appallingly inept and often corrupt districts.  (To be sure, there were also many committed educators at these districts, and they all deserve a special place in heaven for their travails.  We shouldn’t forget that children are not the only victims of these monopolies.)  Edison was not the miracle cure for these districts that its advocates expected, and they eventually largely abandoned that business.  Next, Chris Whittle and the band that couldn’t shoot strait (which, although he wasn’t an educator, was staffed below him almost exclusively by educrat “veterans” from big districts) decided to become a major “outsource” supplier of services to districts.  I kind of lost track of their “evolving” business model at that point, but from what I understand, this third iteration was not much more successful than the first two.  Now, apparently, “EdisonLearnig” is more of a conventional vendor to school districts offering various “achievement solutions” that seem a bit obscure (to me, at least).  Chris Whittle has moved on to a fifth venture (sixth, actually, if you count his original pre-charter Channel One venture to bring television into every classroom –  just what kids need). His latest thing is the Avenue World Schools, intended to bring premium, private education to students in NY, London, Singapore etc.  Maybe this venture will succeed.  One almost has to admire his persistence and salesmanship in continuing to attract investors, if nothing else.

    How does all this matter?  (Besides providing choice opponents with shooting-fish-in-a-barrel arguments from years gone by?)  In each one of these education segments, and certainly in charters, Edison tried, mostly failed, and has largely, if not entirely, disappeared from the picture.  Now, what has happened during that same time in the hundreds of failing districts across the United States?  You will find many of the same people in charge, most of the same basic practices, and almost all of the  incompetencce, indifference, and contempt for outsiders that have long characterized these monopolies.  If anything, many of these education apparatchiks are clinging more tightly than ever to their sinecures, and taking even more desperate measures to force children to stay in their schools.  The only difference is in their shrinking enrollment, as people are left with no choice but to flee the attendance area entirely.  (There is an interesting book to be written on the devastating impact these monopolies had on the decline of their cities.)

    There are no miracle, overnight cures.  No one familiar with education, or large organizations generally, would expect that.  However, these large districts often demonstrate an astonishing ability to avoid improvement.  The question raised by the Edison example is this:  The Edison people are gone.  So why are all of these other incompetents still in power, and still trying to control our children’s education?

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  12. That’s a really  brilliant post, Jim; your experience almost exactly parallels mine working at Locke High School both under traditional public management (that of Los Angeles Unified) and that of the outside group we invited in (Green Dot Public Schools). The only real difference is that my opinion of Green Dot is significantly higher than yours of Edison. But you’re right, there is no magic bullet, at least not one obtained by changing the management structure of a school; one can significantly improve the lives of students in a floundering school, but the work is hard, slow, and grinding (Alexander Russo has covered this in Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, which was released this week). Those of us who care should keep working on the problem, but may have to adjust our expectations as we go along.

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  13. I don’t think your characterization of Chris Whittle’s staff covers it, Jim Mills.
    “Chris Whittle and the band that couldn’t shoot strait (which, although he wasn’t an educator, was staffed below him almost exclusively by educrat “veterans” from big districts)”
    Some of the Edison top management, just off the top of my head:
    – Richard Barth, now head of KIPP and hubby of Wendy “TFA” Kopp
    – Chris Cerf, now Gov. Christie’s pick to run New Jersey schools
    – Benno Schmidt, former prez of Yale who I believe has remained involved in corporate education form projects of one kind or another
    – John Chubb of the Hoover Institution, who managed to retain his rep and position as an academic researcher post-Edison
    I have to go find the resume of Ana Tilton, who was in some position that oversaw the SF Edison School; along with the late Gaynor McCown, who like so many people active in the corporate education reform claimed credentials in a Democratic presidential administration –she had worked for Clinton in some capacity. I don’t see a lot of big district educrats here — in fact, I can’t think of any (maybe Tilton; will check on her).

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  14. And just in case anyone is still reading this, just for the record, Jim’s account that Edison started trying to run districts (and got a foothold) AFTER discovering they weren’t good at running schools doesn’t really jibe with history.
    Edison took on two full districts that I can think of — Inkster, MI, and Chester, PA. That was fairly early in the game, when it was still actively working to run individual charter schools too. Later, Edison got hired to do a study on how to fix Philadelphia schools (for a fee of more than $2 million). Edison’s recommendation was to turn the entire school district over to Edison. (At this point, the stock traders were paying really close attention — Edison stock was publicly traded on the NASDAQ — Merrill Lynch in particular was pushing it hard*.) Then there were some shifts in the Pennsylvania political landscape and Edison lost some highly placed friends (Gov. Tom Ridge, later Bush’s national security advisor, was its big source of support). Edison wound up with only 20-30 of Philly’s ~300 schools, at which point its stock also plummeted — that was probably its kiss of death.
    *I actively, permanently mistrust Merrill Lynch now because of following its information on Edison Schools and would highly recommend that all investors do the same. Their former analyst Lauren Rich Fine was putting out just eye-popping false information about Edison schools and achievement at that time. Truly, honestly, beware.

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