After several months of intense lobbying, new rules have been proposed governing the so-called parent trigger process that allows parents to challenge the operation of low-performing public schools. The draft regulations, which will be considered by the state Board of Education this week, are neither as restrictive as some had feared nor as restrictive as they should be to ensure that the process occurs in a fair and open way.
Although the proposed rules are a big step forward, several issues still need to be addressed. First, the board should consider additional rules that would make the process more public and transparent. And second, the board should call for legislation that confines this potentially innovative school reform to truly failing schools; the current definition includes too many schools that are fairly good or improving markedly.
The way the parent trigger process works now, parents at schools that meet certain definitions of low performance can force their school district to make major changes if at least half of them sign a petition. Those changes could mean replacing much of the staff, closing the school or handing it over to a charter operator. If the parents choose the charter route, they also can pick the charter operator.
The first effort to do just that was in Compton, where the reform group Parent Revolution organized a petition drive to make McKinley Elementary part of the Celerity Educational Group. The Compton Unified School District predictably attempted to block the petition in every possible way, including inventing a tortuous and unfair system for verifying the signatures. There were no rules to clarify what was and wasn't allowed. And Parent Revolution made its own mistakes with a petition that contained technical errors and a signature-gathering effort that was carried out quietly, offering no public opportunity for all parents to discuss the choices available to them. The battle is continuing in court; meanwhile, Celerity is opening a traditional charter school nearby.
Many of these problems would be solved by the proposed regulations. They would require schools that qualify for a trigger petition to notify parents of that fact, along with their options under the law. The state would be required to post a model petition online, making future petitions more likely to pass muster with the courts. The proposal lays out reasonable rules for verifying signatures by matching them to students' enrollment cards and, thankfully, does not include the outrageous suggestion by a union lobbyist on the state board who wanted teachers to have veto power over any trigger petition.
This is all good, but there is still reason for concern that low-quality charter operators could gain control of schools by starting secret petition drives. To avoid abuses, the petition-gathering process — which is, in reality, an election — should be an open one, with all parents informed about what's happening at their children's schools.