Families & the Community

Legislative Momentum Stalls for ‘Parent Trigger’ Proposals

By Sean Cavanagh — June 14, 2011 6 min read
Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, which supported a controversial charter petition in Compton, Calif., hugs parent Patricia Quintero, last year.

The momentum behind “parent-trigger” proposals, one of the hottest ideas for overhauling struggling schools, has slowed in statehouses amid political opposition and vexing questions about how those bold plans should be implemented at the local level.

Numerous states this year have introduced parent-trigger proposals, which would allow parents the opportunity to restructure or close academically struggling traditional public schools or convert them to charters.

Most of those proposals, which have drawn varying levels of bipartisan support, have stalled or died, while others have been scaled back significantly. And an effort by parents in California to use the state’s landmark parent-trigger law to convert their school to a charter has met with legal and political obstacles. (“Parent ‘Trigger’ Law Draws Attention, Controversy” Jan. 12, 2011.)

Yet backers of the various state initiatives are hopeful that some of this year’s proposals eventually could become law, and they are confident that support for the concept—which is still in its infancy—will grow as the public and policymakers become more familiar with it.

“It’s such a novel idea. It’s a bottom-up, not a top-down school reform,” said Marc Oestreich of the Heartland Institute, a conservative, Chicago-based think tank that supports the proposals. The challenge is “to get people up to speed on what these are all about,” he said. “You have to quell those fears before you can move forward.”

Statehouse Battleground

At least three states currently have some form of parent-trigger law: California, Mississippi, and Connecticut, the last of which gives parents a seat on councils that advise school boards on reorganizing struggling schools and other issues. During this year’s legislative sessions, at least a dozen states introduced some form of a parent-trigger measure, according to the Heartland Institute, which has advised legislators on the issue. Measures in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, and other states failed to advance.

Lawmakers and outside observers offer a variety of explanations for the slow pace.

Some cite the resistance of teachers’ unions, which have raised objections to California’s law. Others say unresolved controversies in California have made lawmakers in other states cautious. Still others, like Mr. Oestreich, offer a more straightforward explanation: that it often takes several legislative forays until political support solidifies around new or controversial proposals.

Many parent-trigger proposals have been sponsored by Republicans. The Heartland Institute backed the development of model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an officially nonpartisan organization that supports conservative principles, which ALEC put forward for its 2,000 members who are state lawmakers.

But parent triggers have also drawn the backing of Democrats. In Texas, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat, is a sponsor of one of the few such measures around the country that have cleared both legislative chambers. It is heading to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. The bill would allow a majority of parents to set in motion a restructuring, closure, or charter conversion at an academically struggling school, with a majority vote—though local school boards are also given a say.

“I was trying to create an opportunity for parents to get involved in turning around a failing school,” Rep. Villarreal said. “Too often, parents in these schools feel trapped.”

In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich backed a parent-trigger option for academically struggling schools around the state, but lawmakers instead included a scaled-down provision in the state’s budget proposal to create a pilot trigger program in the 51,000-student Columbus school system.

Managing Expectations

Gene T. Harris, the superintendent of the Columbus district, argued that Ohio is not ready for a statewide program, given the unresolved questions about parent-trigger proposals. Chief among those, she said: How would parents know if the available options for overhauling an academically struggling school, such as converting it to a charter, are feasible or represent an improvement over their current situation?

“I don’t want parents to get duped or fooled,” Ms. Harris said. If parents opt to convert a school to a charter, and “an outside organization says they can perform a miracle,” she said, will “they understand that might not happen?”

Despite those reservations, Ms. Harris said she supports the pilot in her district. She said she hopes it will lead to parents, teachers, and others working collaboratively in remaking schools, which would build parent confidence in them.

Ms. Harris, like some state legislators, traced her concerns about parent-trigger laws in part to California’s experience, which convinced her that state officials hadn’t considered obstacles to making the law work. “It absolutely gives me pause,” Ms. Harris said.

California’s parent-trigger measure, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, says that if 51 percent of parents in a persistently failing school sign a petition, they can force a change in the school’s structure through one of four actions: converting it to a charter school; replacing the principal and staff, overhauling the budget; or closing the school. Just 75 academically struggling schools in the state can participate.

In December, a group of parents at McKinley Elementary School, in the 25,000-student Compton Unified School District, turned in a petition to their school board asking that their school be converted to a charter. But that petition soon met with opposition and controversy. Critics questioned the validity of some of the signatures; and backers of the charter conversion accused school employees of trying to pressure those who had signed to change their minds. In February, the district rejected the petition, citing concerns over whether it met state laws for petitions, among other reasons.

The parents, who were from a majority Latino and African-American community, sued the district in Los Angeles Superior Court. That case is ongoing, but the judge overseeing it tentatively upheld the district’s rejection of the petition because of its lack of a valid date. As an alternative, the parents have moved to support the creation of a new charter school near the site of McKinley Elementary.

Proper Role

Some critics of parent-trigger proposals say that they would allow mothers and fathers who have a gripe with school administrators or teachers to organize an overhaul of the schools that has nothing to do with academic improvement.

But Linda Serrato, a spokeswoman for Parent Revolution, an organization that supported the Compton petition, disputed that idea, noting that California’s law focuses on consistently poor-performing schools. When a majority of parents agree on an academic makeover of a school, she argued, it reflects their depth of commitment.

“Parents don’t just sign petitions” without thinking it through, Ms. Serrato said. Critics wrongly assume that “parents aren’t doing what’s in the best interest of their kids. Parents want to see their kids go to college and to a good career.”

That drama has played out as California’s state board of education has sought to craft regulations that its members say are aimed at clarifying how the law should be implemented. Draft regulations address issues ranging from how to determine if petition signatures are valid to the extent to which parent-backed efforts are subject to existing state charter regulations.

Some activists say the law needs more specifics to avoid lawsuits and other disputes, while others have said they want few regulations, said state board President Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. Given other states’ interest in parent-trigger proposals, he said, the regulations will be closely scrutinized.

The law, as written, is very short and leaves a lot for the board to “flesh out,” Mr. Kirst said. For other states, “it really provides a test case of the specifics that arise.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Legislative Momentum Stalls for ‘Parent Trigger’ Proposals

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