Five years after California enacted the nation’s first law dubbed “parent trigger,” the policy debate rages over whether the controversial mechanism is an effective way to improve schools.
Teachers unions and some school officials are becoming increasingly vocal about their opposition to laws like California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, which enables parents to force one of five types of major reforms on a low-performing public school if a simple majority of parents sign a petition seeking the change. Those reform options range from firing the principal and half the staff to ceding control of the neighborhood school to a charter operator.
Various forms of parent trigger laws exist in seven states.
Critics see the laws as tools for corporate-backed privatization of public education under the guise of grassroots parent empowerment. Supporters say they give parents the power to initiate change when schools perform poorly and bureaucrats fail to act.
Other states are modeling their bills on California’s law. Undeterred by defeats in more than two dozen legislatures in recent years, parent trigger proponents from Southern California are lobbying again this year in places they view as friendly to school choice — states in which leadership favors expanding charter schools, funding voucher programs and establishing education savings accounts.
Texas and Tennessee are their primary targets in 2015. Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit formed in 2009 to help pass California’s law, dismisses existing parent trigger laws on the books in those states as too weak.
Parent Revolution staffers and parents supporters attended legislative hearings in Texas and in Tennessee earlier this week championing stronger versions. They celebrated when a parent trigger bill advanced out of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The Texas Senate Education Committee debated a similar bill Thursday during a hearing that lasted several hours.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who tried unsuccessfully to pass a parent trigger bill as a state senator, has reiterated his support for shortening how long parents must wait to pull the “trigger.” He said the aggressive overhaul tool should be available to the parents of 148,000 students “trapped” at the 297 school campuses that failed to meet performance targets for two consecutive years.
"Folks need to realize that you've got to empower the parents as part of the process," said Tennessee State Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who introduced his parent trigger bill for the third consecutive year. The pair of bills by DeBerry and Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, would reduce the number of signatures required to a simple majority. Giving parents more power "doesn't spell Armageddon for the public school system,” DeBerry said.
Opponents of trigger laws say the process is too divisive and disruptive.
"A petition drive is a poor way to make drastic changes within a school setting," said Kristen Fisher, president of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association, a union representing more than 800 teachers in California’s Anaheim City School District. "It doesn't require or allow for dialogue, and it doesn't ensure positive change."
Supporters balk at labor’s opposition. “If the union wants to jump up and down and scream, let them,” said former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat who authored California's parent trigger law and last year formed the Los Angeles-based California Center for Parent Empowerment. “They have a right to, but it doesn’t mean that the law is bad.”
Just how effective parent trigger laws can be in turning schools around remains unclear.
No parents have launched a full-fledged parent trigger campaign outside Southern California, the headquarters for the two advocacy groups devoted to helping parents organize around petition campaigns.
And even in California, only a handful of parent groups have invoked the law. Parents at a few schools, including West Athens Elementary in South Los Angeles and Lennox Middle School near Inglewood, used it as leverage to negotiate minor changes with existing school leaders.
Just one school — Desert Trails Elementary in the tiny High Desert town of Adelanto — has been converted into a charter school using the law. That 2013 conversion followed a nearly two-year process that involved a lengthy legal battle and pitted parents against teachers and other parents.
Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform, a Washington advocacy group that supports charters and parent trigger laws, said she sees the need for some of that divisiveness.
“Until you have some friction, things won't change,” she said. “When it comes down to it, we really do have to clean house sometimes with the staff to really bring about change.”
Data on student performance at the overhauled Desert Trails Preparatory is limited, particularly because the California Legislature last year put a two-year hiatus on statewide reading and math rankings for all schools.
Desert Trails Preparatory’s new principal, Mandy Plantz, and the charter school’s director, Debra Tarver, are already preparing their submission to their district for a renewal of the three-year charter, using internal testing data to track improvement.
“Even if we didn’t have a trigger, we’d have to work harder than the other district schools because we have to produce,” Tarver said. “If we don’t produce, we get closed down.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.