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'Parent trigger' limbo

The pilot program enabling parents to petition for changes at low-performing schools was a worthy idea but poorly designed. It's worth getting right.

May 03, 2011

Right now California's so-called parent trigger law, which allows parents at low-performing schools to force a change in their school's institutional structure via petition, is stuck in a sort of limbo. The one petition that has been delivered, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, is delayed by legal wrangling. Meanwhile, the state Board of Education is going back and forth on how to implement the law and a legislator has introduced a bill that could render the trigger toothless.

Blame the legislation that created the trigger. A rush job, it was tossed together in the hopes of winning a federal grant rather than being carefully crafted to improve California education. The innovative idea deserves better; it's up to the state Board of Education and new legislation to address the troubling weaknesses that seem likely to foster educational turmoil and pit parents against teachers and one another.

Under the existing law, if a majority of parents at a low-performing school sign a petition, they can force the school district to make one of several changes at the school, including replacing much of the faculty or bringing in an outside charter operator. The parents also get to choose which option goes forward, including which charter organization should take over.

Parents should be able to demand serious reform at bad schools, but they are not experts on educational solutions. Most of the options are relatively new, and there's little definitive evidence about which of them work best, if any. It can be especially confusing for parents to analyze the record of a specific charter organization, or to weigh it against others. Studies show that significant numbers of charters talk a good game but don't deliver.

It makes more sense for the parent petition to have the power to force major transformation, but for the local school board to make the actual decision on which option should prevail, taking into account the parents' preferences. Or at least, that would make sense if we could count on school boards to put students first rather than to defend the status quo. The Compton Unified School District, which has absurdly claimed it cannot verify any of the signatures on the McKinley petition, shows just how far some school officials are willing to go to avoid change.

But that's easily overcome with an appeals process. If the school district ignores the parents' preference, they should be able to appeal to another agency that doesn't have a vested interest in the outcome, such as the county Department of Education. A similar system already exists for traditional charter applicants that are turned down by hostile school boards. An appeals process offers the additional advantage of avoiding lawsuits. We hope that the state board considers these options as it draws up a complicated slate of parent trigger regulations. Also needed are rules that require a transparent petition-signing process so that parents know about all of their options; the McKinley petition was carried out in secret.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) has introduced legislation to "clean up" what she sees as flaws in the parent trigger law, but at least one of her solutions is far more troubling than the trigger itself. AB 203, which will be considered Wednesday by the Assembly Education Committee, would require school boards, when considering a petition, to give weight to the objections of parents who oppose the petition, even when a majority of parents have signed it. On the surface, this is a reasonable concession, but it could easily be used as a back door for school boards to reject valid petitions. There will seldom if ever be unanimous agreement among parents; allowing the complaints of a few to rule the day could mean that no schools would ever change.

Not all of the fixes to the parent trigger law can be made through regulation. Under the original legislation, schools can become targets of a petition if their Academic Performance Index score is lower than 800 and if they have been considered "program improvement" schools for at least three years, for having failed to raise test scores enough under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The bill mixes state goals — the API — and federal ones, and as a result covers many schools that are making good improvements but not enough to meet the definitions under the parent trigger law.

For now, parent trigger is only a pilot program; it is limited to 75 schools. Its supporters call for leaving it as it is and seeing how it works out over the years. But 75 is not a trivial number of schools; they need a process that's as well thought out as possible. And parent trigger is an idea with real merit that deserves to go beyond a pilot program; parents do need some clout in dismal public schools, where they are too often ignored. A parent trigger law that is fairer and more transparent will also be more effective — and have a better chance of becoming a permanent part of school reform.

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