Meeting District Needs

Parent-Trigger Law Put To Test At California School

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 21, 2013 3 min read
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Your child attends a public school with abysmal state test scores and an even worse school climate.

Transfer requests that would send your child to a higher performing school are denied. Discussions—and in some cases, pleas—to the district, the school board, and the principal to make what you consider meaningful changes to improve student achievement at the school are ignored. Your family can’t afford to move or to pay private school tuition.

The next step for some parents are so-called parent-trigger laws that allow parents whose children attend chronically low-performing schools to mandate sweeping education changes intended to turn those schools around. Typically, a majority of parents must petition to enact those reforms, which can include replacing the school’s staff or hiring a private charter operator to run the school.

In July, the nation’s first school transformed by a parent-trigger law opened in Adelanto, Calif. Desert Trails Preparatory Academy‘s creation was fraught with tension, tears, truths and allegations of half-truths.

My recent visit to Adelanto and many telephone interviews with parents and educators involved in the petition drive and legal battle that resulted in the local school district handing Desert Trails Elementary School to a private charter operator often painted the portrait of two entirely different schools. (Read my stories about Desert Trails and the parent-trigger law today in Education Week.)

But what is clear is that the newly founded Desert Trails Preparatory Academy will be under extreme scrutiny, and the future of parent-trigger laws across the nation may be affected by this Mojave Desert school’s success or failure.

Lori Yuan, a former Desert Trails parent who opposed the petition drive, said while the parent-trigger law seems like a good idea, its implementation is flawed at every stage, and it has a devastating effect on a school community.

“It was an absolute melee,” Yuan said parent-trigger campaign. “It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys—not shooting guns, but the tension.”

Ms. Yuan said the parent-trigger effort simply “captured a moment in time,” and that once the final decision was made, few of the petitioners who had sought the change had students enrolled in the school. Currently about 350 former Desert Trails students are enrolled in the new charter school. That’s a little more than half of the 670 or so students who attended the school when the petition drive began in 2012.

“I never wish for kids to fail-ever,” Ms. Yuan stressed. “But I could care less what happens [at the new Desert Trails Preparatory Academy.]”

Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, the parent-trigger advocacy group that trained and organized Desert Trails parents during their petition drive, said he believes parents at failing schools will use the parent-trigger law in California as political leverage in the future.

“It’s elitist to think that parents with a different skin color than I should put up with insufferable conditions [at their child’s school] simply because they have less power,” said Austin, who is white. About 85 percent of Desert Trails’ current students are Hispanic, and 12 percent are African-American.

And while Austin admitted that parents cannot run their own schools without professional partners taking the lead, he added: “Educated and empowered parents must have a seat at the table instead of being told to run a bake sale.”

(Disclosure: Parent Revolution is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The Gates Foundation helps support Education Week’s coverage of business and K-12 innovation; Walton helps support coverage of parent-empowerment issues. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over that coverage.)

For their part, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy’s enthusiastic staff members, some of them unaware of the controversy surrounding the school’s birth, are focusing all their energy on the students. The school’s 540 students receive extra tutoring and class sizes are smaller. The school has formed a parent advisory council to ensure parents have a leadership role in establishing programs for students.

Parent engagement has been touted for years as a crucial component of any school reform effort. Can parent-trigger laws be revamped to make it a viable tool that empowers parents to turnaround faltering schools without also dividing a community in the process?

See our full coverage of parent empowerment issues.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.