Parent Trigger Shifts the Balance

Published February 7, 2013

The nation’s third invoking of a Parent Trigger, in Los Angeles, disproves the charges of many critics of the 2010 California law. Based on the first two attempts of parents to require their children’s failing schools be converted to charter schools, critics declared the Parent Trigger a mistake.

Pulling the Parent Trigger is “incredibly divisive and disruptive to the communities and schools involved,” said American Federation for Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “Too much disruption and not enough improvement will validate critics’ claims that the reform movement is more interested in destruction than creation,” wrote Time magazine columnist Andrew Rotherham. Parent Trigger laws are “divisive and unsuccessful,” wrote Rita Solnet, founder of the union-funded Parents Across America.

Here’s what’s divisive and unsuccessful: having no way to force change at your child’s failing public school. That’s what parents at Los Angeles’ 24th Street Elementary found. For three years, parents held protests, collected signatures asking for a new principal, and moved their kids to a neighboring charter school. Yet the K-5 elementary school still has a dismal record: Two-thirds of its students can’t read or do math at grade level, and it’s been that way for six years. Kids who can’t read can’t do much else, as verbal ability is the No. 1 predictor of college success, future earnings, and even interpersonal communication. Few kids ever overcome big early learning gaps, so the elementary years are crucial.

Thanks to California’s Parent Trigger law, parents now have power to force change. Earlier this month, 68 percent of parents whose children attend 24th Street Elementary submitted a petition to their school district. They want to negotiate with the district to give their children’s school stronger leadership, better academics, safer and cleaner facilities and higher expectations. And if that doesn’t work out, they will have it converted into a charter school, thank you.

The most striking thing here is the lack of division and hostility. In accepting the parents’ petition, Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy greeted them in Spanish and pledged to work to meet their needs. Notice how people start paying respect when they’re negotiating with other people who have power.

That’s what Parent Trigger laws give parents: power. A Parent Trigger stops school bureaucrats from slotting kids into schools without concern for fit or quality, and it forces administrators to address parents’ concerns. In short, parents move from pawns to kings – and that’s good for the kids because their parents are the ones who care the most about them and know them best.

Something Parent Trigger critics failed to acknowledge about its first two instances is that the division and hostility were largely incited by teachers unions and bureaucrats, not parents. The real controversy over the Parent Trigger comes from those who stand to lose power because of it. In both the previous cases, the school board stonewalled parents, and the teachers union affiliates sued parents. Because of these parents’ low incomes and social disadvantages, suing them is an extremely potent form of intimidation.

In Adelanto, in San Bernardino County, the Wall Street Journal revealed, teachers union officials went door-to-door to confront parents who had signed Parent Trigger petitions, insinuating they could be deported if they didn’t rescind their signatures.

This third Parent Trigger already demonstrates giving parents power doesn’t have to incite social discord. Giving a free pass to those who want to protect the status quo is no solution for bad schools.

[First published at the Orange County Register.]