Charter Schools

Sometimes a School Needs an Intervention

In districts with underperforming schools, unhappy parents have few means by which to catalyze change.


For many years, the public schools in Petersburg, Va., turned in dismal academic performances. State officials did what they could to galvanize improvement. In 2006, the district and the state signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at boosting results. A similar previous agreement had failed to move the needle much.

Two years later, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that five of seven schools were still unaccredited. The next year, not a single Petersburg school made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Then Gov. Bob McDonnell said he would like to see a charter school open in Petersburg. Almost immediately Petersburg residents, clergy, and officials sprang into action—to fight the idea. They organized the Committee to Save Public Education. And they prevailed: Petersburg never got its charter school. Says Corey Carter, who tried to start one: "I couldn't even get my foot in the door to have a civilized conversation…. I was blocked every step of the way." Nevertheless, since two private outside groups, Edison Learning and Cambridge Education, were brought in to help, the system has shown improvement.

During the brief controversy State Sen. Henry Marsh wrote that charter schools are not a panacea. He was right about that much. Indeed, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recently said as many as one-fifth of charter schools across the country ought to be shut down for nonperformance.

The percentage could be too high—or too low—but the basic point is unassailable. After all, that's one of the key points about charter schools: Those that fail to perform should be held accountable—and shut down if they can't shape up. It's one of the things that makes charter schools superior to traditional schools—which are almost never shut down for nonperformance. Just look at Petersburg, where Peabody Middle School has gone unaccredited for the seventh straight year.

But Petersburg's experience also demonstrates another virtue of the charter-school movement. As The Times-Dispatch noted in an editorial at the time, the mere mention of a charter school was enough to shake the city out of its lethargy: "Petersburg's schools remained stuck near the bottom of the performance heap for years, and nobody ever formed a Committee to Save Public Education. Now they have. You can thank the charter-school movement for that."

As the charter-school movement matures, another reform is emerging—one Virginia also should take a look at. Known as "parent trigger," it allows parents unhappy with failing schools to force change upon them. (After Newtown, the idea could use a new nickname.) California was the first state to enact such a law; six others have followed, and another 13 have considered the idea. 

Details vary, but the broad outlines are similar: At schools deemed to be falling short by some official and objective measure, parents who collect enough signatures (usually a majority) force some sort of corrective action, from simply replacing the principle to outright closure.

The first successful use of such a law happened recently in California, where three-fourths of the students at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto can't read or write. More than half the parents in the largely immigrant community signed a petition to invoke California's parent-trigger law, even though (as one of them said) "parents were told they would get Immigration on them." Desert Trails will now get a fresh start as a charter school.

Because parent-trigger laws enjoy the support of the conservative Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), critics have tried to paint them as another right-wing plot to destroy public education. But that's hard to do when the people using them are everyday mothers and fathers—parents who want only to make their public schools better. And when the originator of the idea, Ben Austin, is a former advisor in the Clinton White House. And when such laws enjoy the support of the Gates Foundation and the unanimous support of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Yet teachers' unions despise the concept. The California Federation of Teachers' newsletter even called that state's parent-trigger measure the "lynch mob provision." But then, teachers' unions oppose nearly every change except the one they repeatedly have gotten: more money. Since 1970, inflation-adjusted expenditures per student have more than doubled, yet—reports The New York Times—"U.S. Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show."

Students in many school systems are doing perfectly fine, of course. And in high-performing suburban districts, parents aren't likely to start circulating takeover petitions. In urban or rural districts with chronically underperforming schools, parents unhappy with the status quo have had few means by which to catalyze change. Parent-trigger laws give them one. Granted, the process can be contentious. But as recent history in Petersburg shows, contention is better than indifference.

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  1. Almost immediately Petersburg residents, clergy, and officials sprang into action?to fight the idea.

    Clergy? Including Catholics? I wonder. As in, not wanting to add competition to Catholic schools? I know there are Protestant-based private schools in this area, as well.

    1. Yeah, I think you probably hit the nail on the head there.

    2. Baptists and bootleggers…

    3. Not many Catholics in Petersburg.

  2. I actually like the idea of a “lynch mob provision” when it comes to teachers unions.

  3. OT:

    The State Department lied about the officials who resigned after Benghazi. They didn’t; they remained on the payroll and will be back at work soon.…..ernational

    Apparently, sending four Americans to their deaths and participating in a blatant campaign of lies and disinformation is “punished” with a paid vacation. Who do they think they are, cops?

    1. No one is ever held responsible for anything.

      1. That’s because they weren’t responsible! Mistakes were made! The system is at fault!

    2. Counsellor Dean, you’re missing the big picture here: this all the fault of a youtube video and that we need to have sensible, reasonable, sensibly reasonable, and reasonably sensible restrictions on the First Amendment. And the Second. And the Fourth.

      For the children. And America.

    3. You obviously are a product of the Faux News paranoid nutcase ilk. Nothing to see here; elections have consequences; finally we have a president who will stick it to bullies and stand up for the rest of us. /MSNBC

      1. Are you being sarcastic or are you serious? I may be a little slow since I am having trouble telling the difference. Surely you are not serious.

  4. this article presumes that schools are about education and that the “customer” has any say-so about the quality of the product being paid for. Clearly, Hinkle is way off the reservation on this one.

    1. Education is one of those products where the consumer does not have sufficient knowledge to understand what is quality and what is not.

      No, only government bureaucrats can possibly know this.

      That is why decisions must be removed from those who are affected by them. Only when the decision makers hold no stake in the outcome can quality decisions be made.

      1. Exactly. Because people who spend 17 years in school don’t understand the first thing about it. Only people who spend an extra year to get a teaching credential have any idea about how schools work.

        1. No, no, no, no!

          It’s not the teachers or even the administrators who understand. All they do is follow and implement policy.

          It’s the policy writers who understand education. You know, the people who set down rules that do not affect them or their children (you really think regulators taking home six figure salaries put their kids into public schools?).

          The only way to understand something and make good decisions is to be completely insulated from the consequences of the policy that you write.

          That’s why government works so well: There are no feedback mechanisms.

  5. What’s fun is looking at reactions on DailyKos to parent-trigger laws. Barely a word said about the value, or lack thereof, of them, but plenty of pixels spilled on how it’s an evil conservative plot.

  6. Because parent-trigger laws enjoy the support of the conservative Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), critics have tried to paint them as another right-wing plot to destroy public education. But that’s hard to do when the people using them are everyday mothers and fathers?parents who want only to make their public schools better who currently run the schools have already destroyed public education.


  7. Parent trigger laws only work if you have informed parents. Unfortunately, often you just have emotional ones who want SOME type of change but don’t know how that change should come about. Want to GREATLY improve education of low income students? Tie government benefits received by the parents to the academic performance of their kids. In most schools the issue isn’t with the school or the unions (although they do their fair share of damage), it’s the attitude towards learning by the student and/or family. REGARDLESS of income level, parents who emphasize education with more than lip service produce higher performing kids. I’ve been in public urban education for almost twenty years and you can tell within the first week of school which students come from homes that value education with more than lip service.

    1. Want to greatly improve education of low income students? Give their parents vouchers so they can choose which school to send their children to.

      It isn’t the family, it’s the lack of accountability of the so-called educators and their attitude towards the students.

      I’ve been help my daughter navigate the education system (public, charter, and private) for the past 12 years, and I can definitely say that schools who value their students and treat them as individuals rather than as cogs in a big machine make the difference.

  8. Why is this article even published here? “The current government coercion isn’t working, so a new form of coercion is being tried instead”. In other words: “business as usual”.

  9. vouchers vouchers vouchers vouchers vouchers vouchers vouchers

  10. It seems schools are the latest national emergency. We have an education problem apparently. We don’t have an education problem. Test scores have not gone down. We have a usefulness problem. There are thousands of people in America who simply serve no function anymore. Some are not even capable of working unskilled jobs. Unskilled jobs are rapidly being mechanized or shipped out of the country. And to add to the misery, the people who serve no function are exactly the people who are out-breeding the useful and flooding our country from the third world, dysgenics in essence. But we cannot say the word without being “racist.” So we blame all kinds of scapegoats. The left blames corporations for supposedly “under-funding” education despite the doubled level of funding since the 70s, with no corresponding increase in test scores. The right, more justifiably, blames government and unions. Those are problems that exist, surely, but they are not the root cause of the real problem. I grew up in a low-income place, my parents were middle class but were in a bad situation. What did I see growing up. Well, my mother taught me to read, thus I grew intelligent during elementary school by reading while the school system despretly tried to teach the other children how to read. Next while I learned math and idolized Charles Darwin, the other kids, many of them Hispanic, learned to fight each other and idolized trash Americans.

    1. Thus I learned calculus in high school while they sold drugs. I believed in the cultural approach throughout my childhood, until I read The Bell Curve, and later read more literature on the subject of heredity. Twin studies were a primary aspect of this. Twins would be separated at birth, then analyzed to determine their similarities. MZ Twins would also be analyzed and compared to DZ twins for similarity. The results of these studies were somewhat depressing. People are essentially born half made. What is the point here? The point is that culture, genes, these are the real problems in America. One of my suggestions is to discourage reproduction and immigration among the useless, eliminating the cultural and genetic problems. Ideally this would be done by private individuals. My favorite charity, Project Prevention, does this kind of work and I encourage you to give generously. Every penny counts!

  11. He was right about that much. Indeed, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recently said as many as one-fifth of charter schools across the country ought to be shut down for nonperformance.

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