Empowered Families Can Transform the System

Forum: Pulling the Parent Trigger

California passed a “parent trigger” law in January 2010. A few months ago, parents in Adelanto, California, became the first parents in American history to win a parent trigger campaign.

After years of systemic failure at Desert Trails Elementary, in 2011 parents with children at the school formed an autonomous organization, the Desert Trails Parent Union, and went door-to-door, working alongside other parents, to develop an agenda for change and get the word out about this new legal right they had. Desert Trails parents met with teachers, the principal, and the deputy superintendent of the school system to create a list of objectives for improving the school. At the heart of the list was one simple idea: that all decisions, from staffing to budget to curriculum, should be driven by the best interests of their children.

In response, the defenders of the status quo launched a campaign of lies and intimidation against parents who signed the petition. Parents even uncovered direct evidence of fraud and forgeries.

This past October, a superior court judge concluded a yearlong legal battle, confirming that parents have the right under the parent trigger law to transform their school, while ordering the school district to abide by the parents’ petition. This followed a July court decision that was also in favor of the parents.

Two court decisions, two judges, and two victories for parent power.

In early January, the Adelanto School Board approved the parents’ recommendation for a highly qualified, nonprofit charter-school operator to begin transforming Desert Trails Elementary School in August 2013.

Public Support

Even in this era of partisan gridlock and paralysis, politicians across the political spectrum find common ground around the simple notion of giving parents power over the education of their own children. Last November, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, a Democrat, shared a Washington, D.C., stage to laud the parent trigger movement for moving the issue of education reform past partisan bickering to focus squarely on the needs of kids trapped in failing schools.

Meanwhile, a 2012 Gallup Poll showed 70 percent of respondents favor parent trigger laws as a long-term education reform solution.

A vocal minority of detractors also spans the political spectrum. Detractors on the right contend that the parent trigger gives parents too little power. They argue that the parent trigger is too difficult, laden with bureaucratic hurdles, limited in its options, and ultimately unscalable.

What these detractors overlook is ongoing work with the California State Board of Education to create a regulatory framework around the parent trigger process that removes unwarranted barriers and codifies the legal steps leading to the successful transformation of a failing school.

When the parent trigger was signed into law in 2010, the president of the California Federation of Teachers famously called it a “lynch mob” law. Major elements of the education establishment still believe parents do not have the formal training or knowledge required to have direct, legitimate power within the public education system, and that parents should step out of the way and let the experts do their jobs.

Yet we need outside pressure from parents. No movement in the history of our country has been able to achieve the scale and transformative change needed in public education without a powerful, informed grassroots movement pushing for it. In the absence of an organized parent effort applying pressure to the system, bureaucratic inertia and skewed political-incentive structures determine how decisions are made. Having passionate, committed people working on the inside on behalf of kids is necessary but not sufficient if the goal is change that puts kids first.

The question, then, centers not on whether we must build a parent movement for change, but rather on the most effective and empowering way to go about it. Empowering parents to levy a direct and immediate impact on the lives of the children in their community is the answer. Therein lies the importance of laws such as the parent trigger, which give parents a government-sanctioned mandate to organize and take control of the educational destiny of their children.

The parent trigger provides parents with options other strategies may not. One of its greatest advantages is enabling parents in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities to generate change at their neighborhood school. With the school-choice alternative, for example, parents wanting the best education for their child often need financial means and knowledge of the educational options to make an informed choice of another school, resources not always available in low-income communities.

Additionally, the parent trigger is focused solely on public education. It is our belief that the work of real and lasting change must take place in our public school system.

Parents enduring a parent trigger campaign are transformed. Some, like the parents at Desert Trails, are forced to endure lengthy legal battles, a process most of them have never experienced. Others, including the parents of 24th Street Elementary School and also Haddon Avenue Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), find a responsive school district that wants to collaborate with them in changing their school. No matter the intensity of the campaign, it is transformative.

Many of these parents, for the first time in their lives, feel real power, not only over their child’s destiny but over their own as well. These parents, and parents like them, are the key to the future of public education in America. Each parent trigger campaign focuses on changing the conditions of a particular school. In that sense, each campaign is unique. The common thread is empowering parents to make decisions about their child’s education, knowing they have the legal capability to do so.

Parents Want Good Schools

Parents don’t care if a public school is a traditional district school or a charter school; they just want it to be a good school. In California, the parent trigger law gives parents a seat at the decisionmaking table. It empowers parents to transform a failing school through community organizing. According to the law, if 51 percent of parents with children in a school agree to change the direction of the school, the school board must listen.

Parent Revolution created the parent trigger based on our conclusion that the public education system is failing because it’s not designed to succeed. It doesn’t serve the interests of children, because it’s not designed to; it’s designed to serve the interests of powerful adults. The fundamental idea behind the parent trigger is to effect an unapologetic transfer of raw political power from the defenders of the status quo to parents, which is necessary because parents have wholly different incentive structures and a far greater sense of urgency than those who hold the power in the education system.

None of the bold reforms and technocratic fixes of any ideological stripe, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for empowered parents. When parents organize into independent, autonomous organizations like parent union chapters, they have the power to hold all those within a school district, as well as the school, accountable to serve the interests of their children rather than the interests of adults.

The parent trigger movement is not a substitute for other reforms. It is a necessary precondition for their ultimate and sustained success. Parents can have direct input into teacher evaluation and efforts to improve teacher quality. Parents can participate in decisions regarding the academic programs and recreational opportunities being offered to their children. Importantly, parents become a highly visible and integral part of the daily life of the school, interacting with teachers, students, and administrators in a new way.

As the parent trigger movement grows, it will be important to understand what success looks like. Successful parent empowerment means sustained, organized, and ongoing engagement by parents, whether through parent union chapters or otherwise. Successful outcomes may range from negotiated improvements to ensure safer school conditions or improved special-education policies, to charter conversion or school leadership changes.

Over the coming 12 to 18 months, as successful conversions take place at schools using the parent trigger, we are confident the new school leadership will bring significant improvement in student learning and achievement. In Desert Trails, the parents selected and the school board approved a high-quality nonprofit charter operator with significant, measurable academic success in the other school it operates.

Power to the Parents

In January 2013, more than 150 parents and children from the 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles presented their parent trigger petition to the superintendent of the LAUSD. In February, the LAUSD board unanimously approved their petition, allowing the parents to move forward in selecting a new operator for the school. Eight organizations, including the district, are now putting together proposals to transform this chronically failing inner-city school.

Six states have followed California’s lead, enacting parent trigger laws of their own, and more than a dozen states are considering doing the same in 2013.

In the coming weeks and months, parents throughout California and across America will follow in the historic footsteps of the Desert Trails Parent Union. As they organize on behalf of their children, 2013 will become the year of parent power.

This article is part of a forum on parent trigger laws. For another take, please see “There’s a Better Way to Unlock Parent Power,” by Michael Petrilli.

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Austin, B., and Petrilli, M.J. (2013). Pulling the Parent Trigger. Education Next, 13(3), 50-56.

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