The ‘Parent Trigger’ in California: Some Lessons from the Experience So Far

Published October 18, 2011


Conceived in 2009 by liberal activists in Los Angeles as a way to work around school boards hostile to reform, California’s landmark parent empowerment law, also known as the Parent Trigger, was passed quickly by the state legislature in January 2010 as part of a package bills aimed at improving the state’s chances of winning a federal Race to the Top grant.

Although the state did not win the grant, the Parent Trigger remains in place. But the law is ambiguous in places, and it lacks critical details about how parents may set in motion its remedies. The state board of education deliberated for a year over permanent regulations governing the law, specifying who is eligible to sign a petition; how petitions must be formatted, submitted, and validated; avenues for appeal by parents; and whether teachers must ratify parents’ request to transfer a school to an independent charter operator or management company.

In September 2011, the California State Board of Education formally approved permanent regulations governing the Parent Trigger. The regulations are expected to be published by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the state legislature considered a “clean-up” bill that could make substantial changes to the current law’s eligibility requirements and procedures for circulating and verifying petition signatures—changes that could increase burdens on reform-seeking parents and make the process less transparent. On October 8, 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed AB 203, the bill to codify many of the regulations to implement the Parent Trigger. Brown stated he wanted to give the local districts time to implement and test the state board’s rules “before considering any further modifications.”

After nearly 18 months and despite a steady stream of publicity—some of it favorable, some less so—focused on parents at one elementary school in South Central Los Angeles, the Parent Trigger has yet to be implemented successfully in any California school. In 2011 at least 14 states considered some form of Parent Trigger, building to a greater or lesser extent on California’s foundation. Several of those bills failed in part because opponents cited California’s experience with the law so far.

It’s far from clear, however, why opposition from vested interest groups should discredit the Parent Trigger or obviate the need for the remedies the law provides. On the contrary, this paper shows the Parent Trigger idea remains as sound as ever, and the Golden State’s experience suggests how the law and accompanying regulations could be strengthened to make it more attractive for parents and effective as a reform mechanism.