Published Online: December 21, 2010

Parent 'Trigger' Law Draws Attention, Controversy

Ismenia Guzman, right, a parent at McKinley Elementary school delivers petitions on Dec. 7 to Compton Unified School District Superintendent Karen Frison, to file California's first "Parent Trigger Law" to force the district to make changes to turn around their failing school in Compton, Calif.
—Damian Dovarganes/AP

Education advocates and organizations are watching intently as events unfold in Compton, Calif., where parents upset about their children’s failing school became the first in that state—and apparently in the nation—to invoke a “parental trigger” law that will force the school to become a charter by the 2011-12 school year.

Not all parents agree on the charter school conversion, and some are trying to block it, arguing that the other parents’ actions were not taken in a public enough way and were influenced by outside groups.

Now, the California state board of education is involved. It is trying to open a dialogue between both parent groups and asked the attorney general to investigate the accusations of an underhanded process.

The Dec. 7 petition by a group of parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton could add momentum to a push in other states for similar legislation, in the view of Robin Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

California’s parent-trigger law, passed in January, allows 51 percent of parents at a school that has failed to meet “adequate yearly progress” requirements for three consecutive years to sign a petition that prompts one of four actions: converting to a charter school, replacing the principal and staff, changing the budget, or closing the school entirely.

Mississippi passed a similar law in July, and Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia also are considering parent-trigger laws.

“The fact that the parent trigger allows parents a role in choosing new management for the school puts the onus on parents to be very wise consumers,” said Ms. Lake. “It will take some community education and support to make sure parent groups have the capacity to make informed choices.”

One opponent of the California law, Frank Wells, a spokesman for the Southern California Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, said he is concerned because the law does not require a review of the parents’ petition process.

“There are parents on both sides of the issue here,” Mr. Wells said. “Some parents who signed the petition are now saying they weren’t educated on the issues when they signed the petition and would like their signatures removed.”

Concern in Compton

One measure of the controversy surrounding the decision: On Dec. 15, the California school board asked the state attorney general to investigate complaints about the parents’ petition process. One parent said she thought she was signing a petition to beautify the school, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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For its part, the Compton Unified School District, which includes McKinley Elementary, announced that it would launch a new parent-empowerment initiative. Karen Frison, the acting superintendent of the 27,000-student district, said the initiative would allow for a community conversation about the parent-trigger law, the petition process, and the four options parents have.

Mr. Wells said the state board’s action show that it “is aware of what’s going on here” and responding to grass roots concerns.

Parent Revolution, a pro-charter parent coalition based in Los Angeles, led the charge for the California parent-trigger law and helped the Compton parents with the petition, which received the signatures of 62 percent of those with children at McKinley.

Before the petition was filed, some parents toured schools run by the Celerity Educational Group, the Los Angeles-based charter school group later selected by parents to convert McKinley to the status of a largely autonomous public school.

“Parents are waking up to the fact that their schools are failing because they are run on an agenda designed for adults,” Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, told the Associated Press.

McKinley Elementary serves nearly 500 students in grades K-5 in one of the poorest areas of Southern California. The enrollment is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African-American, and 80 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

McKinley ranks in the bottom 10 percent of schools on the state’s academic-performance index. On the California Standards Test, fewer than 25 percent of its 5th graders are at grade level in English, math, and science, despite recent gains in school scores, which were credited to a state reform effort led by teachers.

It is unclear if the Celerity Educational Group intends to rehire any of the current McKinley teachers. Some teachers have said the parent-trigger law could pit teachers against parents.

Celerity Educational Group did not provide a comment as of the time of publication.

Aftershocks

At a news conference on Dec. 14, one week after the petition was filed, some parents accused McKinley teachers of harassment and intimidation. Parents who signed the petition said they had been told by teachers that the charter would not accept children with special needs; under state law, such a refusal would be prohibited.

Michelle A. Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor who heads a new advocacy group called Students First, attended the news conference to support the Compton parents and suggested that Compton Unified administrators should set rules for acceptable and unacceptable behavior by McKinley employees.

In response, Ms. Frison, the acting superintendent, said, “We do not harass our parents or guardians. We will not allow harassment to become an aspect of our learning environment.”

Because the McKinley parents are believed to be the first to use such a parent trigger, the national implications are unknown.

One point everyone watching the Compton situation seems to agree on is that schools are better off when parents are involved in their children’s education.

“For parents who feel disempowered and unsure of how best to help their student succeed, the question of whether the parent trigger is a good tool—well, the jury is out,” said Cynthia Kain, a spokeswoman for the NEA. “What we know helps failing schools get back on track are strong leaders, committed educators, and engaged parents.”

Vol. 30, Issue 15

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