On two coasts, furious debates are brewing over a controversial new school reform policy aimed at leveraging the power of parents to improve struggling schools. The parent trigger, as it’s called, invites furious debate wherever it goes. But it’s not going away anytime soon.
In Florida, state lawmakers have moved quickly to approve a Parent Empowerment Law. HB 1191, which passed out of committee last week, is headed to the Florida House floor soon. Meanwhile parents in the small town of Adelanto, Calif., are dealing with the fallout after they exercised California’s first-in-the-nation parent trigger law, and had their petition to overhaul a local elementary school rejected. It is just the second time the law has been exercised in the country, and the second time the effort has been thwarted.
Yet, a veritable movement is spreading to replicate the model beyond California. The concept is seemingly simple. Often called parent empowerment laws, they grant parents the ability to petition to restructure their child’s failing school if more than half of the parents at a school sign on to the change. Proponents of the law say it taps into a key community that’s been all too often locked out of the process in school reform—parents.
“What I believe this bill does, in a very powerful way, is give those parents a stronger, more meaningful voice in the process,” Florida Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, who is sponsoring HB 1191, told TCPalm.
Yet, critics of the law argue that it is being supported by a network of conservative lawmakers with ties to private interests that stand to profit off of the restructuring of poor-performing schools in low-income communities of color. They also contend that because parents are allowed to choose from a menu of reform options that includes a charter school takeover, these laws are simply ways to fast-track the infiltration of charter schools into the public school system.
“The problem is you are taking a valuable asset, our school, which was bought and paid for by the taxpayers, and handing that property to a charter management company,” said Linda Kobert, cofounder of Fund Education Now, a network of Florida parent organizations which is fighting the parent trigger law.
“There is no mechanism for the public to get that asset back. There is no guarantee that the charter school is going to perform any better, and in fact research shows that charter schools are no better than traditional public schools.”
Critics also say that they have concerns about parents’ political power being exploited by powerful political interests—that parent trigger laws enable astroturfing more than actual grassroots movements.
But lawmakers have worked to address those concerns, said Linda Serrato, a spokesperson for Parent Revolution, the California-based nonprofit that is the major national force pushing parent trigger bills across the country.
According to Serrato, the California bill’s backers did heavy lifting to incorporate the concerns of Democratic lawmakers. In Florida, the bill has split along cleanly partisan lines.
Meanwhile, in Adelanto, Calif., parents at Desert Trails Elementary School who pulled the trigger on their failing school last month are facing a crushing setback as their effort, exuberant at first, has quickly turned sour.
Last week, the Adelanto school board rejected parents’ petition to overhaul the school. The board said that even though the petition seemed initially to garner 70 percent of Desert Trails’ parents’ signatures, organizers failed to collect enough legitimate signatures to take control of the school.
Parents had turned in two petitions: one calling for in-district reforms and a second that called for the creation a parent-managed charter school, in the event that the first attempt at negotiation fell through. But since the newly formed, pro-trigger Desert Trails Parent Union filed these petitions, a bitter controversy has erupted in the small town. One contingent of parents in Adelanto insists that they are not interested in a charter school. Others who signed the petitions say that the two-pronged strategy confused them. The Parent Union now has 60 days to review the disputed signatures and re-file their petition, according to Serrato.
“We will ultimately prevail because the law is on our side, the regulations are on our side, and justice is on our side,” said Doreen Diaz, a Desert Trails parent who’s organized others around the parent trigger. She said that her group remains undeterred by the school board’s decision. “We only get one chance to give our kids the education they deserve. We have no choice but to succeed.”
Parent triggers promise frustrated parents a fast-track to salvation for their kids’ failing schools, but attempts at exercising the law have thus far left schools and communities anything but saved. In Adelanto and in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, which also exercised the parent trigger last year, parent reformers have faced a similar experience: an excited group of well-organized, Parent Revolution-supported parents file their petitions, only to have the change challenged by the local community, including fellow parents.
The initial excitement around these campaigns has given way to confusion, and disagreement over the correct way to overhaul a failing school. Nonetheless, states like Arizona, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and New York are gearing up for or are knee-deep in similar proposals to pass their own laws.
A representative for Rep. Bileca’s office said timing around Florida’s HB 1191 is uncertain. The bill could arrive on the House floor any day within the next three weeks.