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California

Ben Boychuk
Locking the Parent Trigger
California’s teachers’ union wants a veto over parents’ power to turn around failing schools.
7 June 2011

California’s landmark parent-empowerment law, passed last year, is one of the state’s few bright spots in education. But the law is under assault on multiple fronts. The greatest danger comes from state bureaucrats and untrustworthy lawmakers, abetted by teachers’ union lobbyists, who would lock the law’s “parent trigger” by attaching burdensome requirements and obtuse rules. The upshot? Parents may find they’re once again left to fend for themselves against an education establishment heavily invested in preserving its prerogatives.

Under the current law, if at least half of eligible parents at a chronically failing school sign a petition, the local school district must adopt one of a handful of reforms: close the school and let the students enroll in a higher-performing campus nearby; convert the school to an independent charter; fire half the teaching staff and replace the administration; extend school hours and revise the curriculum under a federally recommended turnaround plan; or adopt an “alternative governance” model, which could include anything from establishing a school-site council to handing over the school to the local district superintendent.

While the law’s language may be brief and fairly straightforward, its execution thus far has been anything but.

Parents at just one school—McKinley Elementary, in the Southern Los Angeles County city of Compton—have tried to pull the trigger. The good news is that those parents will get the charter school they asked for: on May 25, the Los Angeles County Board of Education approved Celerity Education Group’s application to open a charter this fall at a church, just a few blocks from McKinley. The bad news is that, thus far, anyway, the parent-trigger law hasn’t worked as intended. Celerity’s victory comes not as a result of the parent-empowerment law, but rather under the terms of California’s 19-year-old charter-school law. The parents had wanted Celerity to take over the McKinley elementary campus. Opening a new charter school, while still a victory for the parents and their kids, was nevertheless a contingency.

In February, the Compton Unified School District officials had rejected Celerity’s application for a new charter school, around the same time they rejected the parents’ “trigger” petition to hand the troubled McKinley campus over to Celerity. (The two proposals were submitted simultaneously as part of a conscious strategy: if the parents had been successful, Celerity would have withdrawn its separate charter-school application.) The officials cited a range of laughable technicalities for denying the parents’ petition, including a failure properly to attach supporting documents. As for denying Celerity’s separate bid for a new charter, the district offered no explanation. Under the 1992 charter-school law, Celerity had the right to appeal Compton’s capricious decision to the county education office—and its appeal was successful.

While Celerity appealed, McKinley’s parents sued the school district and won a temporary restraining order barring officials from disqualifying their petition signatures. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr in March rebuked Compton school trustees for violating the parents’ First Amendment rights and ordered a recertification of the petitions. Incredibly, the district then announced on March 31 that it could not verify any of the signatures. “Staff cannot be assured that in all instances the signatures are legitimate and/or the persons executing the document maintained educational rights to do so,” the district concluded in a five-page finding.

The McKinley parents expected Mohr to return with an even harsher judgment against Compton Unified. But to their surprise, the judge dealt their case a fatal blow by invalidating the petitions for lack of a date box required by state law. “The court is aware of the pain, frustration, and perhaps educational disadvantages this ruling may cause,” a sympathetic Mohr wrote in a tentative ruling issued May 18. “However, the court believes the law compels this result.”

Mohr’s ruling is discouraging to other parents who might seek relief under the parent- trigger law. After all, McKinley’s parents had pro bono legal aid from two of the top U.S. law firms—lawyers from Gibson Dunn and Crutcher vetted their petitions and attorneys from Kirkland and Ellis represented them in the lawsuit against Compton Unified. If those parents couldn’t prevail with that caliber of legal firepower, what chance do other families have?

New regulations and statutory changes could also make parents’ tasks even more onerous. After months of dithering, the state’s board of education could approve permanent regulations governing the parent-empowerment law at its July 5 meeting. More likely, however, the rulemaking process will drag on for several more months as the board entertains amendments to the current draft—which means that unions might yet win veto power over parents’ ability to convert a failing school into an independent charter school.

At issue is whether half of the faculty at a “triggered” school must ratify a parent petition seeking a charter-school conversion. The union argues that California’s 1992 charter school law requires teachers to sign off on a charter conversion; the 2010 parent empowerment act did not amend that provision of the earlier law. But parent-trigger supporters say the union’s argument makes zero sense. “Our thinking is the parent empowerment law lets parents do something they couldn’t otherwise do,” explained Colin Miller, vice president for policy at the California Charter Schools Association. “If the regulations impose both petition processes, we’re actually creating a harder process.”

While the state board considers regulations to strengthen the union’s hand, legislators are considering a “clean-up” bill authored by an opponent of the original law that could weaken parents’ power even more. Santa Monica Democrat Julia Brownley insists her bill is intended only to resolve some ambiguities in the law, which was passed at the end of a hectic special session. But an early version of Brownley’s Assembly Bill 203 would have restricted the eligibility of parents who could sign petitions and required a school board to consider testimony from parents opposed to the petition in reaching decisions about specific reforms. Though the assembly education committee stripped those provisions, parent-trigger supporters have reason to worry they could reappear in an amendment later.

Ben Austin, executive director of Los Angeles Parent Revolution and a former member of the state board of education, says the legislature shouldn’t revise a law that has barely had a chance to work. “At this stage, it is too early to determine what, if any, changes are necessary for this new pilot program,” Austin told legislators last month, before Judge Mohr’s ruling. “And it is premature to propose legislative ‘fixes’ to the parent empowerment law while it is still being reviewed at both the executive and judicial levels.” But former state senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who authored the original trigger legislation, is even more blunt. “Let’s not call it ‘cleanup legislation,’” Romero told me. “They’re going to try to repeal the law.”

Even if Romero is right, any changes to the parent-trigger law wouldn’t take effect before January 2012. And given the state board of education’s foot-dragging, it’s entirely possible that permanent regulations won’t be finished before the fall. That may provide some enterprising activists with a unique—albeit narrow—window to exploit the existing law in an ad hoc way. State board member Yvonne Chan hinted at this scenario earlier in the year. Chan is one of California’s charter-school pioneers and the founding principal of Vaughn New Century Schools in Pacoima, California. The struggle to find clarity with the parent-empowerment law reminds her of the fight to start Vaughn nearly 20 years ago in the face of recalcitrant school-district bureaucrats. Her advice: “Parents should just duke it out.”

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of City Journal.

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