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Advocates Seek to Broaden California Parent-Trigger Law's Reach

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It's been five years since California became the first state in the nation to give parents the right to force school districts to transform their children's failing schools.

Now, a growing number of parent-trigger proponents are hoping to encourage more parents to use the controversial law in some form to improve their local schools. I examine what these advocates seek to achieve in two stories appearing in the most recent issue of Education Week.

The law's author, former State Sen. Gloria Romero, founded a nonprofit last year and is laying the groundwork for a public-information campaign to educate parents about their options. Meanwhile, a group of former parent-trigger organizers launched a consulting firm, Excellent Educational Solutions, to develop a more collaborative approach to overhaul failing schools. They cite an agreement reached at Lexington Elementary School in Pomona, Calif., between parents and district administrators as a sign that negotiations can yield positive results. (Read my story about Lexington here.)

California's Parent Empowerment Act permits parents to petition for changes at low-performing schools. Those changes can include replacing the principal and teachers or transforming the school into a charter.

The charter school option seems to draw the most ire from critics (teacher unions, among others) who point out that Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based parent-trigger advocacy group, and Romero's California Center for Parent Empowerment have received financial support from foundations that promote school choice, like the Walton Family Foundation. (Education Week's coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton foundation. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.)

But so far only one school—Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif. —has become a charter using the parent-trigger law. And although six other states have passed some type of parent-trigger law, California is the only state where parents have used it.

Gabe Rose, Parent Revolution's chief strategy officer, said criticism about the parent-trigger law isn't really about charters. "It's about the unwillingness to allow parents, in particular low-income parents and parents of color, to have a seat at the table and ask for something to happen [at their schools,]" Rose said.

With Alabama apparently on its way to becoming the 43rd state to allow charters, it doesn't appear like the parent-trigger law will be the primary tool used to increase the number of charter school nationally.

It's also been difficult for parent-trigger advocates to make their case that the law has led to better schools, which most equate to improved student achievement. But some parents I interviewed aren't as focused on student tests scores as they are on school safety and environment. They want to know that their children are safe and are being encouraged to learn, which is why some parents at Lexington claim victory today even before student test scores are examined.

With little resolved about the merits of the parent-trigger concept, Tennessee lawmakers took a small step toward passing their own parent-empowerment bill this month. According to a release from Parent Revolution, Tennessee's legislation, which is similar to California's parent-trigger law, cleared the state's Senate Education Committee and is headed to the Senate Finance Committee for approval.

Meanwhile, Shannon Thomas-Allen, a member of the Lennox School District Board of Education in Los Angeles, said the parent-trigger law heightens the need for school districts to empower parents to make meaningful contributions to their children's education. She said some districts bemoan the lack of parental involvement in their schools, but when parents start organizing to stand up for their rights, they're suddenly unwelcome.

Thomas-Allen was an active member of the parent union at Lennox Middle School that successfully negotiated for new leadership at that school in 2012. The mother of seven children was so energized by her work with the parent union and Parent Revolution that she ran for a seat on the district's school board in 2013.

"To grow as a district and build up the ultimate team, you have to be open and transparent with parents," Thomas-Allen said.

That's why John Rogers, a professor in UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, believes community organizing to develop stronger relationships among parents and educators would create a more effective strategy to turn around failing schools than those implemented under the parent-trigger law's influence. Rogers co-authored a research paper about the state's parent-trigger law for the journal Teachers College Record.

"I would not be surprised if parent trigger just gradually goes away," Rogers told me recently. "The interest that was focused on parent trigger at a time when there were few other options for improving schools will erode as there are more meaningful and direct policy options put forward about how to improve communities not well served by public schools."

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