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Parent-Trigger Efforts in California Hit Stumbling Blocks

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The parent-trigger movement that allows parents to petition to take over failing schools is hitting obstacles in California because the system to determine if schools are indeed failing is in transition.

In 2010, California was the first state to pass a so-called parent-trigger law, which allows parents to overhaul schools that are determined as failing by turning them into charters, removing the administration, or taking other measures. It's also the only state, out of six that have such laws, to successfully execute a campaign.

But now California school officials and parent advocates have different opinions about how to figure out which, if any, schools are actually failing and are subject to parent-trigger campaigns.

Two school districts—Los Angeles Unified and Anaheim City—rejected parent-trigger petitions because, they argue, the test scores are outdated. 

It gets a little bit technical: California is moving to a new accountability system, which, in part, will incorporate the results of the Smarter Balanced assessments that began in spring 2015.

Under the parent-trigger law, California has used "adequate yearly progress," or AYP—a measure under the federal No Child Left Behind law that is being phased out —to determine if a school is failing. But California froze its 2013 scores when it switched to the new testing system, meaning the test results are several years old. The latest AYP scores don't even include test results—only participation, attendance, or graduation figures.

Two school districts have argued that those test results are too old to use for a parent-trigger campaign.

In the Anaheim case, a judge ruled last year in favor of the parents, saying that the older test scores should count in allowing for parent-trigger efforts. The decision is under appeal. (Here's a story I wrote about Anaheim when I was working for EdSource last year.)

In Los Angeles Unified, district officials recently rejected a petition by the 20th Street Elementary School, saying test scores were outdated so the school did not qualify for an overhaul. Parent Revolution, a group that organized that school's parents, is using the Anaheim court ruling to dispute the district's decision.

"You can't just rule a statewide law out of existence," said Gabe Rose, chief strategy officer for the California-based group that has served as a national leader in the movement.

California isn't alone in changing accountability methods. States across the country have switched in the past few years to new testing systems. Plus, Congress last year passed the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the NCLB law and will affect state's accountability systems. 

John Rogers, an education professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has researched the parent-trigger movement, said he thinks the California cases point to a bigger issue: "The long and slow and painful death of parent trigger," he said.

Rogers said he started his research without knowing if the parent-trigger movement was working. But now he believes the parent-trigger movement has been unable to make widespread change, both in California and nationwide, as it was intended to do. See Education Week's snapshots of the parent-trigger attempts in California as of last year.

State lawmakers and board of education members have been slow to take up the issue because they don't see it as a viable threat, Rogers said.

"It doesn't have much power anymore," Rogers said. "It seems to be a sideshow to either district-level reform or charter reform. It never really made much sense."

Rose disagrees about the effectiveness of the parent-trigger movement.

"I don't think parent trigger is being uniquely ignored [in California]," Rose said. "I think the state is working very, very, very slowly on anything with accountability right now."

Meanwhile, other states have had little success in passing parent-trigger laws in recent years. As of last month, four states had introduced parent-trigger bills in 2016 legislative sessions, but no action had been taken this year.

A fifth state, Illinois, sent a bill to a legislative committee on April 5. But nothing has happened in committee on that bill so far, said Rep. John Anthony, who introduced the bill, in an email.

Rose said his group continues to have conversations with other states about joining the parent-trigger efforts. But he blames teachers' unions and other groups for stalling such plans.

"The people in power having taken power away from [parents]," Rose said.

Education Week has been tracking the parent-trigger movement since it started. Here are some of our stories:

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

Follow @ParentAndPublic for the latest news on schools and parental involvement.

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