SACRAMENTO — When you throw a rock at a pack of wild dogs, how do you know which one you hit? It's the one that's yelping. That old country saying offers insight into modern-day politics. You can always tell if a law might make an actual policy difference by the interest groups that are complaining — and by the intensity of their yelps.
Every session, and for as long as I can remember, legislators propose education "reforms" designed presumably to improve the state's bureaucratic public-school system, especially for students in schools where test scores are low. Every legislative effort causes a few grumbles. But it's the rarest measure that causes a commotion.
Most reforms are like rocks that land in an empty field. They don't anger anyone because they don't challenge any vested interests. But in 2010, Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero of East Los Angeles introduced the Parent Empowerment Act, which passed the Legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Better known as the "parent trigger" law, it allows parents of students attending schools that continually fall below state and federal testing standards to force district officials to make significant changes. If 51 percent of parents sign the requisite petitions, parents can insist on a new principal or turn the school into a charter.
The law has only been applied a handful of times. But such efforts have been opposed politically and in the courts by the state's teachers' unions, which still are furious about it three years later. Newspapers report that United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the city's main teachers' union, voted to recruit a legislator to carry a bill that would "reform" the law.
Even supporters admit that changes may be useful to clarify some of the procedures for triggering school change, but they argue that anything championed by UTLA will be designed to undermine its usefulness. "There are a lot of failing schools in California and a lot of trigger candidates," said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. "Unions lose their power. It shifts it back to the parents."
It's not the small number of schools likely to be directly affected that explains the continued upset, he added, but the competitive pressure it places on every low-scoring public school. "All of a sudden schools have to do a good job," he told me. "It's competition. Now we have to get our act together."
Even though the trigger's advocates include reform-minded Democrats, the state Legislature's recent leftward shift would mean that such a law would probably never pass today. Given the power of the California Teachers Association in the Assembly, trigger foes will have an easy time finding a member willing to try to muzzle it with a "trigger lock."
Critics of the law, including academics and progressive writers, depict the trigger as a corporate-funded attack on unions. Indeed, a number of conservative-oriented foundations have funded the movement. But the anti-trigger rhetoric is astounding.
"Parent trigger is quite possibly the most ludicrous corruption of public governance and accountability on the education 'reformy' education policy table," wrote Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker in a blog. He believes it's wrong to assume that newly reconfigured schools are better than the "public bureaucracies" they replace.
Yet for parents struggling to help their kids get a better education right now, it's easy to understand their willingness to give any reasonable idea a try. What's the alternative? Trigger foes mainly argue for more money and higher teacher salaries and other status-quo reforms (i.e., more bilingual education, better teacher-to-student ratios).
Frankly, the trigger seems like a convoluted attempt to fix a convoluted system. But at least it identifies the main item lacking in the public schools today: competitive pressure. This reform may not fix most of California's schools, but it has zeroed in on some of the right targets. We know by their yelping.