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Editorial

California's flawed 'parent trigger'

Education reform benefits from parent involvement, but state rules on the so-called parent trigger need revision.

February 28, 2012

The first "parent trigger" petition in California, which sought to allow a charter organization to take over a Compton elementary school, ultimately failed amid bitter charges on both sides that parents had been harassed and lied to. The state Board of Education had a chance to make the process less chaotic by requiring open meetings at which both reformers and opponents would lay out their arguments, enabling parents to make an informed decision. But the board adopted regulations that fell short, so no one should be surprised that the state's second trigger petition, this time in Adelanto, resulted in similar confusion and rancor.

The trigger law allows parents to force major change at their low-performing school if half or more sign a petition. They might call for a switch to charter, closure or the replacement of staff.

Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto certainly fit the description of low-performing. Its Academic Performance Index score is well below the state goal, and its improvement has been plodding at best. Still, parents running the petition campaign didn't seek one of the usual trigger reforms. Their petition called instead for keeping Desert Trails as a traditional public school but turning over control of hiring, firing and instruction to an independent board of parents and outside education experts. In order to pressure the district to negotiate, they persuaded parents to sign a backup petition that would turn the school into an independently run charter.

The first petition was problematic. If Desert Trails remains a district school, the district takes responsibility for what happens there. It can't abdicate key instructional decisions to an outside panel. And with two petitions, it was predictable that some parents would later complain that they had not understood what they were signing. Fired up by an opposition campaign late in the process, dozens of parents rescinded their signatures, enough for the school board to reject the charter petition. The pro-trigger forces have 60 days to persuade 20 or so of those parents to change their minds again, or find new parents to sign up.

Once parents sign petitions, their signatures shouldn't be subject to changes of mind. But that's true only if there has been a sensible and transparent process to provide them with complete information. The state board should refine the rules for trigger petitions. All parents should be officially notified about trigger campaigns affecting their school; that's not the way it currently works. And before they sign anything, parents should have an opportunity to attend open forums where they can hear from both sides, ask questions, challenge assumptions and debate details. Parent-driven school reform shouldn't be subject to misinformation or lack of information, or depend on which argument was heard most recently.

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