California’s Parent Trigger Law Approved with New Regulations

Advocates of the law say that it gives parents the power to turn their kids' schools around. But teacher's unions disagree.

By Julianne Hing Jul 15, 2011

After a contentious year of organizing, protests and even courthouse legal battles, California’s parent trigger law now has brand new regulations that will enable parents who are dissatisfied with their childrens’ struggling schools to have them turned into charter schools.

On Wednesday the California Board of Education finalized regulations which clarify how the state’s new Parent Empowerment Act, known commonly as the parent trigger law, should be enforced.

The law allows parents whose kids are enrolled in a struggling school that’s failed to meet its federal Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP goals, for at least three consecutive years and been in "corrective action" status as stipulated by No Child Left Behind for another year after that, to choose an outside charter school group to come take over the school if they can get 51 percent of other parents to sign a petition calling for a takeover. Under the law, parents are allowed to choose which charter school operator they’d like to take over the school.

Other states have proposed similar legislation but last year, parents at McKinley Elementary School in Los Angeles’ Compton Unified School District became the first in the country to take advantage of the striking new education reform law when they filed a petition that they said showed a majority of the school’s parents wanted the charter school operator Celerity Educational Group to come take over the school.

Almost immediately though, there were reports of misconduct on both sides; parents said that McKinley teachers pulled parents aside and urged them not to sign the petition, while some parents said they were misled into signing a petition they did not support. After the state board of education called for an investigation and the district challenged the validity of the signatures that had been turned in, the pro-charter school parents’ group sued the school district. In February, a judge granted the parents a restraining order against the district, LA Weekly reported.

The law’s been met with stiff opposition from charter school skeptics who contend that wiping out a traditional public school and bringing in privately run, publicly funded charter schools cause more upheaval than they bring progress. Among the most vocal critics of the parent trigger law are the state’s teachers unions.

The new, finalized regulations require the state to create a website outlining the steps to activating the parent trigger. The state will also now be responsible for creating and making available a template petition for parents to access, in order to avoid the controversies that occurred in Compton. The new regulations also call on parents to disclose the financial and organizing support they’ve received from groups while organizing other parents. Pro-charter takeover proponents are barred from paying parents to sign the petition, and when people have been paid to collect signatures, they must report that information to the state.

The financial disclosure provisions are a crucial part of the regulations which seek to address previous criticism that has plagued the parent organizing groups. Parent Revolution, the main organizing network that has activated Compton parents and is organizing around the state, receives financial support from the Broad Foundation, which is a major player in the education reform arena. The Broad Foundation pushes a school reform agenda that encourages test-based accountability of teachers and schools. The Broad Foundation has been instrumental in nurturing the nation’s charter school movement.

The finalized regulations were approved with support from the California Teachers Association, the Los Angeles Times reported, a group that had previously fought the law.

The state’s poorest performing schools are concentrated in the state’s poorest neighborhoods, which the student communities are predominantly black, Latino and immigrant. California’s parent trigger law has become another battle in the country’s contentious education reform debate, which centers around dramatic policy overhauls aimed at closing the achievement gap between poor students of color and their wealthier and white counterparts.

Parent Revolution, the parent organizing group that has been the force behind McKinley’s parent trigger experiment, hailed the finalized regulations.

"The regulations do a lot to protect parents," said Linda Serrato, a representative with Parent Revolution. Serrato said that the regulations helped clarify the charter school takeover process and would help eliminate much of the confusion and controversy that had plagued McKinley parents’ attempts at demanding changes at the school.

Serrato said while there are 1,300 schools in the state that are eligible for parent action under the law, for many parents, having a school turned into a charter school is the option of last resort. "Parents are weighing their options and saying, ‘These are the options we want to see. Is there any way we can do it if not through parent trigger?’" Serrato said. "Often they look at in-district options before anything else.

"The idea of parent empowerment is a new idea," Serrato said. "We’ve got school districts, school administrators, school boards, teacher unions, all these different groups that have an entity in here, but no one has ever stopped to assume that parents should have an equal say."

According to Serrato it’s the parent unions, as Parent Revolution calls them, which are now taking the forefront in the school reform work to demand change in failing schools.