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Q&A: The 'Parent-Trigger' Movement Turns Five, What's Next?

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It's been five years since California passed the nation's first "parent-trigger" law, which allows parents to petition to overhaul a failing school—perhaps by swapping out its leadership or converting it into a charter.

Now parent-trigger advocates are expanding their strategies to broaden this young movement's influence, while others wonder if the idea has run its course. 

Karla Scoon Reid reported on these issues in a recent edition of Education Week. You can listen to our discussion about what's next for the parent-trigger movement, or read my interview with her, below. 

Q: Karla, you write that there are some competing visions for the future of parent trigger. What are they?

A: Well, there's a group of parent-trigger campaign veterans who have formed a private consulting group called Excellent Educational Solutions to develop a more collaborative approach that would involve all stakeholders, parents, district officials and teachers, in the process to improve low-performing schools.

But, at the same time, former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, who's the law's author, believes parents, in particular minority parents and those living in poor communities, have waited long enough for change at their children's troubled schools. So Sen. Romero founded a nonprofit last year, the California Center for Parent Empowerment, to educate parents about the law. She's waging a communications campaign to make sure parents understand their rights under the law and know how to exercise those rights.

Q: How much has this movement spread beyond California since its inception five years ago?

A: Since 2010, six states have adopted parent-trigger-inspired laws: We have Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. This year lawmakers in six more states are considering parent-trigger legislation as well.

But parents living outside of California haven't had the appetite to use parent-trigger legislation to transform their schools. Nationally there's only one school, Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., that has been transformed into a charter while another six California schools have used the parent-trigger law in some way.

Q: That's interesting: You just mentioned that there are several states that have adopted the law, have looked into adopting a law, but it's not actually getting used to turn these schools completely around. If that's the case, how is parent-trigger working in practice? Is it really achieving anything?

A: Well, it's been difficult to gauge how well the law has worked in achieving its ultimate goal, which is turning around failing schools. Desert Trails, which was transformed into a charter, has released test scores that show academic improvement but it's unclear if students who were enrolled at the school prior to its transformation made those gains. And with California implementing new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, it may be impossible to demonstrate academic growth.

Still, oftentimes test scores aren't the primary concern for these parents seeking change at their schools. These parents are worried about their children's safety, student bullying, and how staff treat their children. Parents are seeking a safe and positive environment for their kids, which will enable their students to learn. For some schools that used the parent-trigger law in some way, like Lexington Elementary School in Pomona, which I write about, parents say the school's atmosphere is much better.

Q: So it's not really being used in the way initially intended or designed but it is still making a difference?

A: Definitely. I think these parents, it really is interesting, while they want their kids to learn, they realize it's the environment that's going to give them the best opportunity to learn. So if you're getting beat up or teased, there's no way you're going to open your book. And they say that's the first step to transforming their school.

Q: Some are saying the law has run its course. What has been the response to that and what, if anything, are advocates doing to stay relevant?

A: Parent-trigger advocates are trying to keep a high profile. Parent Revolution, which is California's first parent-trigger advocacy group, was in Sacramento with parents urging the state board of education meeting to develop a single school performance indicator.

I also think the parent-trigger law's future could hinge on what impact, if any, these new groups will have in California. It will be interesting to see if Sen. Romero's effort to publicize the law will yield more parent-trigger campaigns. And I'm also eager to see if Excellent Education Solutions will be able to develop school-reform partnerships between parents and staff without fully implementing the law's measures.

You can read Karla's full series on the evolution of the parent-trigger movement here.

PHOTO: Ana Rodriguez, right, helps April Buenrostro with reading while other students work on reading exercises in Alicia Decker's 1st grade class at Lexington School in Pomona, Calif., where Ms. Rodriguez serves as a parent volunteer. —David Walter Banks for Education Week

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