Californians now have “rules of the road” to help navigate a landmark law empowering parents to force districts to turn around failing schools by firing staff, adding more district oversight, converting to a charter school, or closing the school.
The state board of education in July approved emergency regulations that lay out how parents may exercise their rights under the “parent trigger” law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed in January.
Under the law, if 50.1 percent of parents at a failing public school sign a petition, the local education agency must enact one of the four turnaround strategies specified by state and federal law.
Official ‘How To’
Regulations add the “how” to the law’s “what,” says Gabe Rose, deputy director of the Los Angeles-based Parents Revolution, an activist group that conceived the parent trigger in 2009.
The regulations give parents the power to choose exactly which charter or in-district partner will help turn around their school. The rules also specify how petitions must be formatted and submitted.
“We wanted to make sure the rules were clear, so parents didn’t spend months or even years organizing only to have their efforts thrown out on a technicality,” Rose explained.
The California School Boards Association objected to the state board passing emergency rules, saying the regulations went beyond the scope of the law. But Rose points out the legislature wrote the empowerment law broadly so the board could spell out the rules later.
Rose also said time is a factor.
“Parents are already organizing,” he said, referring to petition drives underway in at least a half-dozen Los Angeles-area schools. “They’ll tell you, it’s an emergency. Without rules, it’s a recipe for chaos.”
Room for Improvement
“If the law has any deficiencies, they lie in the large print giving and the small print taking away,” said Bruno Behrend, director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for School Reform and coauthor of a new report on how other states might adopt and improve the parent trigger.
“In drafting legislation, the next state should be more definitive up front and not rely so heavily on regulations after the fact,” Behrend said.
Behrend also says rules limiting petition signatures to one parent per household may undermine empowerment efforts.
“The law says if at least one-half of the parents or guardians of pupils attending a school sign the petition, it triggers the change,” Behrend explained. “But the regulations limit signers to only one parent or guardian per household. Leaving aside single parent households and some other provisions, the rules theoretically limit the signers to 25 percent, not 50 percent of the parents. It’s very unclear.”
Right to Appeal Sought
Even under the new state regulations, district bureaucrats retain substantial power to overrule the parents’ chosen option for reform, Behrend notes.
Rose agrees the law still needs improvement, including a mechanism to appeal school district rulings.
“We know there is an inherent conflict of interest when district officials are making these decisions,” he said. Rose also said parents should have a right to appeal when a district invalidates petition signatures.
The 10-member state Board of Education is expected to issue permanent regulations within the next 12 months.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.
“The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education,” by Joseph L. Bast, Bruno Behrend, Marc Oestreich, et. al. http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/28202/The_Parent_Trigger_A_Model_for_Transforming_Education.html