I wrote the nation’s first parent-trigger law. I acted because I understood that education is the civil rights issue of our time and the key to the American dream.
I’m the daughter of a mother who attained only a 6th grade education, but who understood that education is what lifts us out of poverty.
As a Democratic senator representing the diverse, heavily Latino East Los Angeles-eastern Los Angeles County community and the chair of both the state Senate’s education and prison oversight committees, I understood that if we do not educate, we will incarcerate. California locks away a disproportionate number of Latino and African-American youths, and, nationwide, nearly 70 percent of inmates are high school dropouts.
For years, California’s education department routinely released data on schools with disturbingly high—indeed, morally shameful—percentages of children who fail to score at even basic levels of academic proficiency. These are schools identified as chronically underperforming and in need of intervention, but all too often they were simply ignored, forgotten on bureaucratic lists. Nothing was ever done for them. Ironically, many of these schools were named for civil rights heroes, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Nonetheless, they were left to languish year after year, most parents unaware of their status. In the 15 years since I was first elected to the legislature, some of those same schools have appeared on the lists again and again.
I am a product of the civil rights movement. I graduated from a high school where I was “counseled” that college was beyond my reach—after all, I lived in one of those zip codes, at the end of a dead-end road in a mostly rural county. But with a mother who had faith and inspiration drawn from the late John F. Kennedy, a farmworkers’ movement, and an intense love of learning, I rose to become the Senate majority leader of the state of California.
I'm the daughter of a mother who only attained a 6th grade education—but who understood that education is what lifts us out of poverty."
I never forgot my roots. I drafted the language of the Parent Empowerment Act—popularly known as the parent-trigger law—in 2010. Ben Austin, who is now the executive director of the organization Parent Revolution, suggested the idea of such legislation to me. I immediately wrote the language for the bill, understanding the transformative power it held for parents of kids who are trapped in failing schools.
It allows parents whose local school has been identified by the state as chronically underperforming—failing, in my view—to petition to force change at that school, including changes in school administration and teaching staff, or bringing in a charter school operator.
At the same time my bill was moving through the California legislature, American parents were increasingly demanding greater school choice, revolting against arcane school assignment laws more reflective of an 18th-century feudal society than a 21st-century global, mobile society.
In no other part of American life do we tie parents to the land, define them by zip code, and empower government officials who are strangers to families to make fundamental, life-altering decisions on behalf of their children based on five digits of geographic identity. The zip code has become the definitive great divide, a profound separation between high-poverty, minority youths and the American dream.
Undoubtedly, if sweetheart contracts didn’t enable effective teachers to bypass struggling neighborhood schools, and if bureaucrats actually used the federal laws at their disposal to transform such schools, I never would have had to write the parent-trigger law. But that was not the case. Lists of failing schools, representing hundreds of thousands of kids in California, were simply released and promptly ignored. Few people even knew about the lists, and those who did weren’t outraged.
So I looked back to the foundations of our democracy and gave parents the right to take on their own government when it refused to act on behalf of their children. Thus, parent trigger was born.
I understood that power never concedes power without a fight. Parents attempting to use a law written for them have discovered that the adults in the education system who enjoy paychecks, pensions, and perks at the expense of kids will fight back to protect themselves.
But we’re not in Kansas anymore. From Topeka and Brown v. Board of Education to Compton and Adelanto (two California communities where parent-trigger petitions were filed) and Los Angeles today, parents have been given the unalienable right to truly become the architects of their children’s educational futures.
As of today, some 20 states have considered enacting legislation like the little law I wrote in California. Sure, the original law I wrote has flaws, but they can be remedied.
But the power of parent trigger is true to the principle for which it stands: We, the people, have the right to petition our government for change, and when it fails to act, we have the power—with our own “John Hancock"—to tell government to get the hell out of our way. Our children’s futures are at stake, and we will no longer be complacent or silent.
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Why I Wrote the Nation’s First Parent-Trigger Law