L.A. School District Defies Parent Trigger Law

Published November 7, 2014

With the Obama administration unilaterally giving states No Child Left Behind waivers, one California district is attempting to defer choice for parents who petition for their legal right to transform failing schools.

In a letter to the bill’s writer, former State Sen. Gloria Romero, the Los Angeles Unified School District recently claimed it is no longer beholden to the state’s “parent trigger” law because federal accountability mandates under NCLB have been lifted. Proponents of the bill say the claim has no legal ground.

Under the law, also called the “parent empowerment” law, a majority of parents can require reforms at a failing school by petition. The parent trigger was first passed in California in 2010 and has been passed in several other states since then. If half the parents in a failing district sign a petition, they can choose to transform the traditional public school into a charter school, replace the staff and make budget decisions (for example, by having the state oversee the district), dismiss the principal, or shut down the school district and relocate students to other schools.  

“The district’s claim has no legitimacy,” said Ben Boychuk, a Heartland Institute education policy advisor. “The federal waiver the district received does not exempt it from other state and federal laws related to accountability. In fact, the waiver’s language is explicit on that point.”

“We don’t really understand even a basic legal reasoning that LA USD would use; we can’t think of any,” said Adrienne Wallace, press secretary for Parent Revolution, a group working to transform underperforming public schools by empowering parents through grassroots community organizing. “In addition to there being no sort of recent even federal [precedent] … it has not [been] deemed unconstitutional.… It violates the spirit of the parent trigger; of the ability to use their local parent rights.”

Forcing Negotiation

 Parent Revolution has worked to transform five schools utilizing the parent trigger law, and in each instance an option under the law has been fully enacted or used as leverage to negotiate with school boards to institute parent-initiated changes. The most recent case was at West Athens Elementary School in West Athens, Calif.

“The parents organizing [forced] the district to come to the table and negotiate,” Wallace said. “The district ended up developing a school improvement plan and funded that. We saw principals working together with teachers working with parents. Some parts of the district are willing to collaborate.” 

The law was used to shut down and reopen 24th Street Elementary as a charter-hybrid school, and at Weigand Elementary an unpopular principal was removed and 21 teachers resigned.

The West Athens case is unique in that a full “trigger” of the law was never implemented.

Internal Strife, New Assessments

“It’s not necessarily a case of the district feeling threatened by the parent trigger,” Boychuk said. “Superintendent John Deasy is on record supporting the law. He’s gone out of his way to accommodate parents trying to use the law. But it’s a confusing position for the district to take, and one clearly unsupported by the federal waiver.”

District school board leaders recently clarified the parent trigger process, approving guidelines to better navigate the law in early September.  The new guidelines, which received a 5-2 majority vote, prohibit the district from advocating for or against the law while increasing public communication.

As the state creates new standardized tests, in addition to the state’s Academic Performance Index, this year, opponents of the law may try to utilize the new assessments to defer parent trigger action at failing schools.

“It’s important to remember that California’s Parent Empowerment Act is tied to the state’s Academic Performance Index,” Boychuk said. “New tests are coming, but the API isn’t going away. Districts may try to duck the parent trigger by saying the new testing regime supersedes the law. They would be inviting legal trouble in that case.” 

Trigger Proponents Kept Quiet

Only recently made public but discussed among district and choice groups since last year, the LAUSD announcement was not a surprise to all parent trigger proponents.

Wallace says Parent Revolution became aware of the issue last November but felt a formal statement would make an issue out of something that legally held no ground.

“We continued to organize and support parents,” Wallace said. “We’ve always let parents know we’d continue to support them in their work no matter what.”

Bill writer Romero disagrees with that decision.

“Last year they should have immediately blown the whistle on LA Unified, challenged them publicly, and let me know as the writer of the law,” Romero said. “They acknowledge they disagreed, but they never made it public and never sued.”

‘A Really Big Impact’

Parent Revolution will sue the district if parents are denied the right to trigger a school, Wallace said.

“We’ve never been afraid to take a district to court, which we’ve done with some of our past campaigns,” Wallace said. 

“We’ve seen, really powerfully, parents beginning to talk about their rights and that they have power to really take responsibility of their child’s education,” Wallace added. “We support parents and their efforts. Not just the process of organizing but becoming an organization and learning their rights,… how they can act as citizens. It has had a really big impact on a number of our parents.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia. 

Image by mookio chen