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Can giving parents a voice actually improve schools?

April 03, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • Members of Desert Trails Parent Union are shown Jan. 12 carrying signed petitions as they march towards Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto.
Members of Desert Trails Parent Union are shown Jan. 12 carrying signed… (Los Angeles Times )

The latest setback for the parent-trigger reform -- when the Adelanto School District last week rejected a petition to ... well, it’s not exactly clear what the parents sought, but more on that later -- will surely be appealed in court. Parent Revolution, the group behind the trigger movement, might well have a valid challenge, since it looks like school administrators were far more careful about checking the validity of the parent signatures in favor of the trigger than they were about those rescinding their previous signatures.

But for entirely different reasons, the future of the trigger movement is very uncertain right now. Shortly after the pioneering California law was passed -- allowing parents to force one of four reforms at low-performing schools if half or more of them signed a petition -- it looked like copycat laws would sweep the nation. That hasn’t happened.

Three states have passed trigger laws -- Connecticut, Mississippi and Texas -- though it’s a stretch to put Connecticut’s law in the same category. After intensive teacher-union lobbying, parents were given an advisory role with no authority. Last month, Florida’s legislature rejected a parent-trigger bill -- and many of the people most opposed were parents. Nine other states are considering similar legislation.

So far, no parent trigger petitions have been approved and we’re not even close to knowing whether those petitions would lead to actual improvements, although Hollywood appears ready to call it a winning idea with plans for a film starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Yet the biggest concern right now about parent trigger is whether -- even if petitions were being submitted every day -- it could carry out its original intention of improving schools where parents have traditionally had little voice. Three of the options it outlines have uneven to downright bad records when it comes to improving schools. Those are: replacing half the school's staff; replacing the principal plus some more minor changes; and closing the school altogether, an option that Parent Revolution warns parents against.

The fourth option is to convert the school to a charter, and with Parent Revolution started in large part by charter organizations and funded by their supporters, it was always assumed that parent trigger would create a tidal wave of charter conversions. That now appears unlikely. The parents in Adelanto don't want an outside charter operator, and even if they did there have been no charter management groups ready to take over Desert Trails Elementary. In fact, charter organizations are showing no interest in any trigger takeovers at this point.

There are several reasons for this. Charter schools have tended to thrive under lottery systems, in which motivated parents sign their children up for a random draw that might give them a shot at a seat in a coveted school. But under parent trigger, charter schools would have to accept all students within the low-performing school's boundaries. Few charter schools have been interested in that scenario, which tends to result in less dramatic test results for them. The current woeful state of school funding makes it difficult if not impossible for charter schools to provide needed resources -- just as it's difficult for traditional public schools. And turning a deeply troubled school around is much harder than starting a new school with its own campus culture.

That leads us back to the desires of the Desert Trails parents. What they really want is the ability to eliminate teachers whom they see as ineffective. They want to be able to pick their own principal and for the school to have authority over its own budget and curriculum. Those are all understandable goals, but they're not among the options under the parent trigger law. So the parents signed a second petition calling for an independent charter school, run by parents and outside experts. Yet organizers concede that the parents don't really want to run a charter, and lack the know-how to do it.

High turnover at the school -- of students, not teachers -- is a problem. In the couple of months between the delivery of the first trigger petition and a second one with added signatures, about 8% of the school's students already had left, in the middle of the school year. Over the course of an academic year, that would mean turnover of about a third. Add on the students who graduate each year, and the new ones arriving, and Desert Trails is looking like a substantially different school every couple of years. Creating the continuity for successful parent control would be a stiff challenge; for that matter, even if there were an outside operator, the high turnover rate would always be an obstacle to efforts to improve achievement.

The hope of Parent Revolution and many of the parents at Desert Trails is to use the charter petition to negotiate a deal with the district under which the school would remain under its wing, but with substantial autonomy, including the ability to fire whichever teachers it wants. But would the district be remotely interested? It would retain the state funding for those students, yes, but it would take responsibility for the school's performance with no ability to control what's going on there. That's not real accountability. And the teachers union would almost certainly see this as the slipperiest of slopes; if it agrees to the firing of whichever teachers Desert Trails parents don't want it abdicates its role as protector of its members' jobs to the extent possible.

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