Families & the Community

L.A. Gives Parents ‘Trigger’ to Restructure Schools

New rules will give parents of children in struggling schools the power to make changes.
By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 28, 2009 5 min read
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Who should decide when it’s time to overhaul a chronically underperforming school?

Soon, in Los Angeles, parents can.

Under new rules released last week by the Los Angeles Unified School District, parents whose children attend some of the lowest-performing schools in the system will have the ability to force the district to launch new reform initiatives at troubled campuses. The rules—written by Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and his team—are part of a series of regulations being crafted to govern the district’s new school choice policy, which will allow outside groups, such as charter school organizations, to operate schools where student achievement has not budged for several years.

By gathering a simple majority, or 51 percent, of parental signatures in a school community, parents can “trigger” the district to open up the targeted school for outside management. What’s more, the rules also grant that authority to certain prospective parents, such as those whose children attend schools that feed into the troubled campuses.

“This is not about wealthy philanthropists or smart academics coming up with the right way to reform schools,” said Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution, the nonprofit, pro-charter school group that lobbied Mr. Cortines to give parents authority over launching reforms. “This is simply about giving parents power. The trigger is not a recommendation, it’s not advisory.”

The so-called parent trigger, which has drawn the ire of United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers’ union, could be the first-of-its-kind reform strategy in the nation.

“I’ve not heard of anything quite like this,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “It sounds very democratic and like an attempt to be responsive to the community, which is a good thing.”

The problem, Mr. Noguera said, is that parents of children enrolled in urban districts tend not to be highly engaged in what’s going on in their children’s schools.

“This seems like it could actually be a pretty weak mechanism for bringing necessary changes to a school,” said Mr. Noguera, an expert on urban school systems. “If the district already knows it has a weak school, why wait for parents to trigger it?”

‘An Education Disaster’

The parent trigger is just one piece of a much larger set of regulations that Mr. Cortines has been working toward writing since the Los Angeles school board approved the controversial school choice policy in August. Under that policy, roughly 50 new schools slated to open across the city over the next four years and 200 existing, low-performing ones will be targeted for new management, either by a charter operator or in-house talent, such as a group of teachers. Groups will submit detailed proposals for overhauling the schools and compete with one another to manage them.

District officials have already identified the first 36 schools (24 of them are brand-new schools slated to open next fall) that are eligible for new operators and are planning to make a final recommendation to the school board in February on who should manage those schools. (Mr. Cortines did not respond to an interview request.)

The 48,000-member UTLA, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, has been threatening to sue over the policy, a position that President A.J. Duffy did not back away from last week.

“We are laying the groundwork for legal action,” he said. “Look, if this actually happens, and they give away 250 schools to multiple entities, you are going to have an education disaster in Los Angeles, the likes of which nobody can imagine seeing.”

While Mr. Duffy called the concept of parental involvement a “good one,” he said the parent-trigger provision is “potentially evil and very Machiavellian,” because of the participation of parents whose children don’t yet attend the targeted schools. “Should they have more of a voice in what happens to the school than a parent with a child who is actually there?”

Mr. Duffy also noted that it would be difficult to define what constitutes a parental community in many schools, especially those with high transiency rates. “Who’s going to run these votes? How do we know what a majority should be?”

Mr. Austin of the parents’ group said prospective parents are entitled to have a voice in what happens in a school their child could attend.

“You shouldn’t have to wait until the district gets it together to fix your neighborhood school,” he said. “You only get one opportunity to give your children the education they deserve.”

Charter Operators’ Concerns

Mr. Cortines’ rules have also sparked concerns from charter operators who say that their autonomy—a hallmark of the publicly financed schools—is threatened, so much so that many may decline to participate.

One of the biggest sticking points is the district’s requirement that outside operators provide slots to children in the neighborhood where the schools are located, essentially enforcing an attendance boundary for charters.

That could imperil eligibility for private and federal charter school grants because rules for securing those monies often require charters to do admissions by lottery, said Jed Wallace, the president of the California Charter Schools Association. Charter operators are also balking at the requirement that they use district-provided custodial and maintenance services, rather than having their usual flexibility to buy those services on the open market.

“If things stay the way they are now, we will lose the interest of most of the charter applicants, and what a shame that would be,” Mr. Wallace said.

Mr. Duffy, the teachers’ union president, predicted that the school choice policy—hailed by some as the long-awaited answer to kick-start systemwide improvements in Los Angeles—may fall apart.

“It’s just such a messy way to do school reform” he said. “The board always cites New York and Chicago, but this isn’t how they did it there. This may ultimately fall flat on its face.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as L.A. Gives Parents ‘Trigger’ to Restructure Schools

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