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Op-Ed

California Gov. Jerry Brown's 'parent trigger' trap

The governor's new state Board of Education could make it more difficult to utilize the school reform measure.

January 17, 2011|By Ben Boychuk

Without question, Gov. Jerry Brown has the right to make his own appointments and craft his own policies. But his picks for California's powerful Board of Education could jeopardize one of the most innovative and empowering — if controversial — education reforms to come along in years: the so-called parent trigger that gives parents a strong say in the education of their children.

After just one day back on the job as governor, Brown named seven new members to the 11-member state school board. The new majority, The Times reported, "will dramatically alter the panel's makeup in age, geography and educational resume, shifting it from a board containing vocal advocates for a reform agenda … to one that is more closely aligned with traditional" education policies.

Gone from the board, for example, are Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution and an architect of the parent trigger, and Ted Mitchell, the former Occidental College president who championed parents' involvement, charter schools and teacher evaluations. In contrast, according to The Times, the new appointees "thrilled" David Sanchez, head of the California Teachers Assn., the powerful union that supported Brown in the governor's race and has been outspoken in opposition to charters, the trigger and other reforms.

The parent trigger is a simple law. If half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition demanding change at the school, the district must either shut it down, allow it to become a charter school or adopt one of two other federally prescribed "turnaround" models. Parents at Compton's McKinley Elementary School gained national attention last month when they became the first to use the parent trigger, petitioning the Compton Unified School District to convert their failing public school into an independent charter.

The parent trigger is so simple, in fact, that the statute contains few nitty-gritty details about how the law should work. The Legislature left it up to the Board of Education to spell out the particulars, such as how petitions must be formatted, who's qualified to sign, how quickly a school district must act on a valid petition and how parents may appeal hostile district decisions, among other things.

And that's where matters could get ugly. The temporary, "emergency" regulations the state board passed last summer offered a clear road map for parents to use the law. The new board, however, could very easily turn that road map into a labyrinth of red tape.

Simpler is better. The law should make it easy for parents to pull the trigger and force school districts to undertake dramatic changes that education bureaucracies would otherwise thwart. Compton Unified, for example, has a reputation for rejecting charter school applications.

The parent trigger also makes for a fairer balance of power, giving parents crucial leverage against well-entrenched teacher and administrator interests. Parents generally demand the best possible education for their children. The education bureaucracy has many interests that sometimes conflict; it serves parents and children while mollifying teacher unions, political overseers and career bureaucrats.

In Compton, the use of the parent trigger has been controversial. Parents on both sides of the issue say they've met with threats and intimidation. The petition's supporters freely admit they worked "under the radar" to collect signatures from 62% of McKinley Elementary parents. That has led opponents of the trigger to demand that the Board of Education impose regulations requiring more "transparency" in the petition process. But those who favor change at the school say the hostile reaction to the Compton petition shows that mandated open meetings, for example, might scare away parents from signing petitions.

Of course, it's likely that most parents will not avail themselves of any reform mechanism. Polls show that although parents think the education system is a mess, most believe their school isn't too bad. However, for those who are willing to push for change, and who find that their school administration resists it, the parent trigger is a godsend.

Parents need clarity, and the law needs time to work. Eleventh-hour attempts to impose "transparency" or other new regulations on the parent trigger should not be used to put parents at a disadvantage. That is exactly what the state board tried to avoid with its current set of regulations.

The governor has acknowledged from time to time that Californians are overburdened with rules. As Brown shapes his education agenda, he should make clear that regulation should empower parents to use the parent trigger law effectively, not protect the status quo.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News (www.schoolreform-news.com, http://www.twitter.com/schoolreform).

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