Legislature Weighs Changes to California’s Parent Trigger Law

Published May 23, 2011

The California State Assembly’s education committee has removed controversial provisions from a bill aimed at “cleaning up” the state’s landmark parent empowerment law, also known as the Parent Trigger.

AB 203, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), would have restricted the eligibility of parents who could sign petitions and required a school board to consider testimony from parents who opposed a petition in reaching a decision about a particular intervention.

‘Cleanup’ or ‘Repeal’?
The bill was only intended to clean up some ambiguities in the law, Brownley had previously said, which was passed at the end of a special session in January 2010.

Supporters of the original Parent Trigger, including the legislation’s main author, former state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), say Brownley’s bill threatens to make substantive changes and could severely undermine the law.

“We shouldn’t call it ‘cleanup legislation,'” Romero said. “They’re going to try to repeal the law.”

Under the existing law, if at least half of the eligible parents at a failing school or an elementary or middle school that feeds into the failing school sign a petition, the school district must adopt one of a handful of reform strategies: Shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter; or implement the “turnaround,” “transformation,” or “alternative governance” models of reform set forth by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top regulations.

The law also lets parents from an elementary or middle school that feeds into a failing school force reform by petition. Brownley proposed to limit the number of parents from feeder schools whose signatures would count toward the 50 percent threshold. The committee opted to remove that provision.

‘Too Early’ for Changes
Ben Austin, executive director of Los Angeles Parent Revolution and a former member of the state board of education, called the committee’s vote a victory for parents and the original intent of the law.

“I’d rather there be no bill, but [the committee] did get all the bad language taken out,” he said.

So far, parents at only one school in the state—McKinley Elementary in the South Central Los Angeles city of Compton—have attempted to use the law. Austin says the Legislature shouldn’t revise a law that has barely had a chance to work.

“At this stage, it is too early to determine what, if any, changes are necessary for this new pilot program,” Austin told legislators. “And it is premature to propose legislative ‘fixes’ to the parent empowerment law while it is still being reviewed at both the executive and judicial levels.”

The education committee voted 7-3 to pass the stripped-down bill, which now awaits a hearing before the Assembly appropriations committee.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from Southern California.


Parent Empowerment Proposals Curtailed in Three States

Legislators in Maine and Ohio have dealt significant setbacks to parent empowerment bills pending in those states, and an Indiana Republican state senator derailed that state’s Parent Trigger bill by adding last minute language to a House-Senate conference report.

Indiana State Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) said he inserted language into Senate Bill 496 to reconcile a conflict with House Bill 1002, a charter school bill that included a different Parent Trigger. House Republicans said Kruse’s amendment was a significant change, tantamount to a school board veto. They refused to approve the conference report.

“Overcoming a governing body’s resistance is why parents are using [the Parent Trigger],” said Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis).

Pilot Program for Columbus
Ohio legislators stripped a statewide Parent Trigger measure from Republican Gov. John Kasich’s proposed budget, replacing it with a pilot program limiting eligibility to a handful of schools in Columbus.

“It looked like this legislation [was] going to happen anyway, regardless,” said Columbus school superintendent Gene Harris, who volunteered her district to serve as a proving ground for the reform. “So if you’re going to do this, it makes some sense that an urban district that might have this Parent Trigger enacted in it might help to develop some reasonable process around it,” she said.

Ohio’s Parent Trigger would apply to schools falling into the bottom 5 percent statewide in academic performance for three consecutive school years. Under Ohio’s law, the remedies parents could request include charter school conversion, replacing at least 70 percent of the staff, or transferring school operations to an outside group or the state.

Maine Trigger Defeated
Members of Maine’s House education committee on May 9 voted down a Parent Trigger bill by Rep. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough).

Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, claimed the Parent Trigger wouldn’t be a good fit for the state because parents are more engaged with local schools than in places like California.

“There is a big difference between parental access, parental involvement, and parental ability to change and be part of the schools in Calais, Raymond, Dennysville, Portland,” Durost told lawmakers at a May 2 hearing. “All of us that live here know that.”

Bruno Behrend, director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for School Reform, appeared at the same hearing to explain the principles underlying parent empowerment. He disputed Durost’s testimony.

“We’ve tried 50 years of shuffling the deck chairs on district Titanics,” Behrend said. “We’ve tried more funding, and then more funding, and then other ways of more funding, and all these other things, and they haven’t worked.”

—Ben Boychuk