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Here's What Happens to Entrenched Public School Bureaucracies When Parents Finally Have a Say

In California, the parent trigger law is causing school reform even without resorting to charters.

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I have no mouth and I must complain
Credit: James Kingman | Dreamstime.com

California's "parent trigger" law allows parents to vote on forcing a public school to hand the keys over to a private charter company. Though the law has been around since 2010, the first public school to actually make the transition to a charter, Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, is ending its first school year this spring.

Though the law allows parents to force a full transition to a charter school, that's not all it does and it's not the only option. Parents can vote on choices that don't bring such complete changes, like merely replacing the staff or an administrator. At an elementary school in Watts, parents used the law last year to force the Los Angeles Unified School District to replace the principal but keep the same teachers.

The law has also been applied in other interesting ways. At a different Los Angeles–area school, West Athens Elementary, parents simply used the possibility of invoking the parent trigger law to negotiate some reforms from the district. Take note, educators: Parents used the threat to negotiate a shift in the budget to produce more money for some personnel. LA School Report documented how this $300,000 would be reapplied:

[Rosalinda Lugo, area Director of Instruction] also said the $300,000 — which will pay for a full-time psychologist, three days of psychiatrist social worker, a full-time attendance officer, an additional teacher assistant, and a three hour campus aide, one supervision aide, and two community representatives — is not "extra money" for the school. The funding for these jobs is being drawn from 2014-15 school budget.

"The school site council met over several days and decided to use categorical funds and some of the flexibility in the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to fund these additional positions," Lugo told LA School Report.

There is a trade-off. The school will have to lose its instructional coach next year and make other cutbacks.

Even more interesting is how the LA School Report described the process that got parents to this point. Writer Vanessa Romo spoke with a parent of a first-grader who said that the school had ignored complaints about "rampant bullying" and had been complacent about the school's poor academic performance. The Los Angeles Times evaluated testing scores for the school between 2003 and 2010 and ranked it as a "least effective school." At the time, the school earned a 635 out of 1000 points in California's Academic Performance Index (API), marking it as a low performer. But the test scores have improved up to 721—still below the state average, but certainly better than before. Parent Linda Cordero claimed the principal wouldn't even meet with parents until they threatened to invoke the parent trigger law.

Parents were able to negotiate the changes that they wanted by working directly with the school district, and did not have to resort to begging for things during the public comment sections of school board meetings. The parent trigger law provided the leverage, even when it wasn't used. LA School Report noted that two other schools in the area were in the process of gathering signatures to try to invoke the parent trigger law when the district started engaging the parents to resolve the problems.

Based on what the parents were able to change at West Athens Elementary, skilled educators should learn a valuable lesson: Parent-trigger laws are not a threat, but a tool—a tool that may even help them. It is a wedge against entrenched mediocrity and disengaged management. Unless an educator or administrator is part of the entrenchment (and certainly, obviously many are), he or she should embrace the parent trigger. How many educators complain about parents not getting involved? How many educators also complain about administrators not providing teachers the tools they need?

There's a partnership in the making here. Teachers aren't necessarily any happier with public education's administrative bloat problem. The parent trigger law can help good teachers get the tools they need to provide better education in the face of red tape from administrators. And good administrators (there are such creatures, too), can turn to engaged parents to push entrenched, disengaged educators out of their mediocre ruts with the threat that they could be replaced by parental decree, given that it's next to impossible for administrators themselves to fire bad teachers. The parent trigger law creates a triangle of influence of sorts between teachers, administrators, and parents, giving committed parents equal power over the direction of their local schools—something even elected school boards rarely have.

So that just leaves the teachers unions as relentless opponents of parent trigger laws and charter schools in general. But I would advise them to look at what the parents at West Athens Elementary accomplished. Treat this as a form of signaling of parents' interests. Parent trigger laws aren't going away any time soon, nor is the "threat" of charter schools. They have growing bipartisan political support. Finding a way to help engaged parents reform public schools instead of standing in the way will end up being key for teachers unions that want their schools to stay competitive and prevent total charter takeovers.