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.