Q&A: What Do Parents Need to Know About the ‘Parent Trigger’?

Published November 13, 2010

California’s parent empowerment law, known as the “parent trigger,” is less than a year old, but the idea is already spreading across the nation to states such as Connecticut and Georgia. The law was the brainchild of a Los Angeles-based activist group called Parent Revolution.

Under California’s law, passed in January 2010, if 50.1 percent of qualifying parents sign a petition, the school must initiate one of four turnaround plans prescribed by the federal government.

School Reform News recently spoke with Parent Revolution’s deputy director, Gabe Rose, about the organization’s work on the parent trigger law. You can also listen to the complete interview with Gabe Rose.

School Reform News: What is the Parent Revolution and what was its involvement with the parent trigger law?

Gabe Rose: The Parent Revolution is a nonprofit organization which was founded on the premise that our schools are failing because they aren’t designed to succeed. They’re designed to serve adults and special interests instead of children, and the only way to ever really change that is to give power to the only people who care only about children, which are parents.

The parent trigger law was born out of that idea, that if we’re real about creating transformative change in public education, that’s never going to happen unless we transfer power from the people got us into the mess we’re currently in, to parents, who don’t have a conflict of interest.

SRN: How did the parent trigger become state law so quickly?

GR: When the state’s Race to the Top [enabling] legislation was moving last year, we approached legislators who were carrying the bills. At first I think there was a little bit of skepticism. This was the first time parents have ever had this sort of power in the history of America. There was no such thing as the parent trigger in any state, before we passed it here in California.

So it was very new, and it was certainly an idea that took some getting used to. Even folks who spent a lot of time and money trying to stop it couldn’t figure out a way to do so because there’s just no good argument for why parents shouldn’t have power to help improve their children’s low-performing schools.

SRN: The state board of education has written rules about what the parent petitions should look like. What are the regulations intended to do, and how do we know parents won’t get rolled over by the bureaucracy?

GR: The regulations establish the rules of the road and fill in some details left unsaid by the legislature when it passed the law.

There are important rules that had to be spelled out to help parents organize around this. How do we count to 50 percent plus one? What are actually my options? What can I choose under this law? What rights does the school district have to overrule me? Do they really have to listen to what the parents say?

So there is a whole range of things the regulations had to deal with.

We feel good the permanent regulations are making their way through the bureaucratic process and are going to address these issues in a well-thought out manner.

SRN: What guarantee do parents have that a district won’t come back in a couple of years and undo their efforts?

GR: The parent trigger gives parents the option to choose what type of transformation they want. You can transform a school into a charter school. You can keep the school within the district and force them to wipe the slate clean and bring in a whole new staff, or you just fire the principal and make some other small changes. Or you can vote to close the school entirely and send the students to higher-performing schools nearby.

That’s unfortunately not a great option here in L.A., where there often aren’t [any] higher-performing schools nearby.

There is a provision in the law that gives districts the ability to override the parents’ choice of turnaround options if they cannot implement that option. I think the legislature somewhat reasonably thought that was necessary.

The law does say in order to overrule the parents, districts have to prove that they literally cannot implement that option—not that they don’t want to or they think it’s not a great idea. The implementing regulations the state board passed make it very clear that unless it’s impossible to do so, districts are required to follow what parents choose.

SRN: And if the district tries to renege later?

GR: That’s something parents have to consider when they’re choosing among the different options. So, if parents choose to go with a charter operator, that charter operator is going to have control of the school. Obviously, then, the parents are trusting that charter operator to transform their school … and presumably choosing a charter operator with a track record of results.

If they want to stay with the district through one of the in-district reform options, that’s a risk they’re taking. You can’t control that.

[However,] the [law] doesn’t say, “For 10 years you have to keep things static.” Parents can always pull the trigger [again]. They can and should hold the new operator just as accountable as the old one.

That’s always our message to parents when they’re organizing: Organizing doesn’t stop when you transform a school.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.