In California, a majority of parents at a failing school can now force district officials to make dramatic changes, including staff turnover and closure.
The “parent trigger” was signed into law in January by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as part of a package of changes aimed at boosting the state’s chances in the federal Race to the Top competition.
California didn’t make it to the R2T finals but the trigger idea is building steam, said Ben Austin, executive director of the Los Angeles Parents Union, which fought for the concept in its Parent Revolution campaign.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it’s the most radical transfer of power to parents in the history of America,” Austin said before speaking to a Denver audience on Thursday.
A group of black and Hispanic lawmakers in Connecticut recently introduced a similar plan in an attempt to close that state’s wide achievement gap between white and minority students.
And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced plans for England’s own parent trigger.
“The reason we’re winning is because it’s really hard to argue with what we’re doing,” Austin said, “which is giving parents real power to advocate for their own kids.”
Under the California law, if 51 percent of parents living in the neighborhood around a failing school sign a petition, the district must enact one of four school turnaround strategies favored by federal officials.
That includes school closure, replacing the principal and at least half of the staff, bringing in a charter school operator or transforming the school via changes such as a longer instructional day and year.
To be considered failing, a school has to meet criteria such as being among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state.
“The idea for us is that parents, above and beyond all other stakeholders, are in the best position to make decisions about their kids,” Austin said. “Up until now, parents have not had any real power of any kind.”
The idea for the parent trigger came from the year that Austin and Shirley Ford, a lead organizer for the parents’ union, spent gathering the signatures of teachers at LA’s Locke High School in Watts.
A California law allows teachers to bring in a charter operator to run their school if a majority of the tenured faculty signs a petition.
Austin said most teachers signed the petition to reform Locke, among LA’s worst-performing schools, because they wanted their students to have a shot at a better education.
“With the last ten percent of teachers, the conversation had less to do with kids,” he said. “I remember thinking how different these conversations would be if parents had these rights, as well as teachers.”
Green Dot funds about 80 percent of the work of the Los Angeles Parents Union and its Parent Revolution campaign, sparking concerns that its goal is to “charter-ize” the nation’s second largest school district.
Not true, said Austin, who pointed to other funders include the Service Employees International Union.
“When you’ve got a district where 50 percent of our kids aren’t graduating, 90 percent of our kids aren’t going to college, and we’ve got 800,000 kids,” he said, “you simply can’t serve all kids or even a large percentage of those kids with charter schools.”
But good charter schools give parents’ leverage, Austin said, because parents can threaten to leave their traditional neighborhood schools for charters if things don’t improve.
“What we said to the district leadership is, look, there is no deal to cut, you’ve just got to learn how to run a better school than a high-quality charter school,” he said. “And parents, unlike bureaucrats, have a sense of urgency because you can’t freeze-dry kids, they need a good education now.”
No California school has pulled the parent trigger yet, though parents are organizing around a number of campuses.
Austin said the parents union, which is drawing attention from big foundations interested in reform, such as Gates and Broad, probably could pay signature-gatherers to accelerate triggers across the state.
“But if we did that, all this would be is a trick,” he said. “What we’re going to do is to train parents to do this themselves and to own this process all the way through.”
Meanwhile, Austin said he hopes to work with California teachers’ unions on a “reform-friendly” version of union-district contracts that parents could support if they decide to pull the trigger.
Two of the four trigger options keep a failing school as a district-operated school, rather than closing it or chartering it.
The goal, Austin said, would be to work with a union to create a contract that the teachers’ union and the parents’ union could agree on – and present together to the district housing the failing school.
“The code we’ve got to crack for in-district reform … is to give districts charter-like authority to operate their schools but to do it completely in-district,” he said.
“That’s the only way this is a scalable proposition … if we cannot figure that out, we will have failed.”