California Parent Empowerment Efforts Showing Signs of Success

Published December 2, 2014

Nearly five years after California passed the nation’s first-ever “Parent Trigger” legislation, parents at only a handful of failing schools have taken advantage of the law’s potent remedies in the face of ferocious opposition. How are the kids at those schools doing?

The answer is not as clear-cut as the law’s supporters might like. The data we have are limited, and the outcomes are mixed. That should come as no surprise. State education officials and their friends at the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers would have it no other way.

The Parent Empowerment Act of 2010 allows parents with kids at schools with persistently low academic performance index scores to petition for certain changes, such as converting the school to a charter, replacing the principal and staff, tweaking the curriculum and extending school hours, or closing the school. If at least half of the parents sign on, the school district must comply.

Finding good data these days can be tricky. Ordinarily, we would look at reading and math scores, but the legislature last year ended the California Standards Test to clear the way for a new test aligned with the controversial Common Core standards. It did so at the urging of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, with the blessing of both the CTA and CFT.

So we don’t have school-wide reading or math scores to compare, but we do have fifth grade science scores, the last vestige of the old testing regime—and that’s only because Common Core’s Next Generation Science Standards have yet to be implemented.

Charter Achievement Successes

What do the scores show, limited though they may be?

Good news for the charter schools. The 24th Street/Crown Preparatory Academy, a hybrid public-charter school in Los Angeles, showed significant gains between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years. Before the school’s transformation in 2013, just 21 percent of fifth graders scored proficient or advanced in science. One year later, 65 percent of fifth graders scored proficient or better.

Desert Trails Prep, the first school in the state to convert to a charter under the law, showed greater gains in science, though with a smaller group of students. In 2012-13, 12 percent of Desert Trails fifth graders scored proficient or advanced in science. One year after the Adelanto school became a charter, 47 percent of fifth grade “scholars” (as they’re known) scored proficient or better.

It’s a different story for three other schools that opted for “in district” reforms under the law instead of going the charter route.

Parents at Weigand Elementary in Watts ousted the school’s principal in May 2013, which led to an exodus of teachers. Parents at Lennox Middle School and Haddon Avenue Elementary in L.A. used signed petitions as leverage to persuade administrators to make changes in the curriculum and improve school security. All three schools’ fifth grade science scores remained flat or declined slightly.

Dismissing the Data 

The objection is obvious, so let’s dispense with it already: A year’s worth of data focused on one grade level with small sample sizes from five schools isn’t exactly progress worthy of busting out the champagne.

But something is better than nothing. Until now, the best that supporters of the Parent Trigger law could muster were a few loosey-goosey parental satisfaction surveys, which the skeptics might not find especially persuasive. Hard data—any hard data—forms the foundation of a more compelling case for the law’s utility.

Or maybe not. After the L.A.-based Parent Revolution released the numbers last week, CTA spokesman Frank Wells was quick to dismiss them. “Even with more data,” he told Education Week, “we may still end up with an apples and oranges comparison based on student population shifts that come after a divisive trigger battle.” We have the union to thank for the divisive battles.

Even without union resistance, turning around a failing school is notoriously difficult. Generally speaking, 25-30 percent of turnarounds succeed, and then only after several years of grueling effort. As one analysis put it, “successful efforts at the school level must be supported by corresponding changes at the system level.”

Overcoming School Board Opposition

But changing a “system” is even more politically fraught than trying to change a school. One rap against the Parent Trigger is that parents who avail themselves of the law sow needless division. Why not go through the school board, these critics ask? The answer is, as we’ve seen time and again, is that school boards often line up against the parents. Perhaps, then, the best way to change the system—if it can be changed at all—is from within.

One of the leaders of the effort to make Desert Trails into a charter school hopes to do just that. Doreen Diaz, a mother of two former Desert Trails students and past president of the Desert Trails Parent Union, is one of 13 candidates vying for three seats on the five-member Adelanto Elementary School District board. Diaz and fellow candidate Bartolla Del Villar were plaintiffs in the 2012 lawsuit seeking to force the district into complying with the Parent Trigger law.

Diaz has no money—she couldn’t even afford a statement for the ballot—but she has hard-won experience. If she wins, it will be another step for the parent empowerment movement toward real political power.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. 

Image by Joe Gratz.