Is California’s ‘Parent Trigger’ Schools Movement Finally Growing Up?

With powerful outside help, parents are dramatically restructuring Los Angeles' predominantly Latino 24th Street Elementary School. Will the school give the controversial 'parent trigger' technique the makeover it needs?

By Julianne Hing Apr 15, 2013

It was an election, but it could have passed for a party. Last Tuesday morning, parents from Los Angeles’ 24th Street Elementary School gathered at a public park two blocks west of the institution to set up pots of tamales and gigantic piñatas in the shape of "2" and "4." Sharp white voting tents gleamed on the grass, and workers from Parent Revolution, a national school-reform advocacy and lobbying group, prepared games and snacks for the afternoon.

With organizing support from Parent Revolution, more than 350 parents had signed a petition in favor of using the so-called parent trigger, a controversial tactic designed to overhaul public schools with chronically low standardized test scores. As we’ve previously reported, the parent trigger became an option for Californians three years ago. The state assembly passed the so-called Parent Empowerment Act by a one-vote margin in an effort to win a federal Race to the Top grant. Cash-strapped California didn’t receive a grant from the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion program, but the vaguely written parent trigger law–the first in the nation–still went into effect.

At 24th Street Elementary School, a total of 359 parents were eligible to vote for one of four parent-trigger proposals because they’d signed the petition calling for the election. They represented 69 percent of the school’s student body according to Parent Revolution.

At Tuesday’s election 190 signees cast votes. By an overwhelming majority they chose a plan that allows Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to head up pre-K through 4th grades and taps Crown Prep charter school–which already runs a middle school on 24th Street’s campus–to take over grades five through eight.

The pre-kindergarten portion of the agreement is significant. LAUSD is not legally required to provide pre-K but under the new plan the district will offer a seat to every eligible student. Also under the plan, which the LAUSD board is expected to approve this week, select parents will sit on the hiring committee for the redesigned school. 

United Teachers of Los Angeles, the local teachers union, did not respond to a request for comment. LAUSD said it would not comment until after this week’s school board vote.

Amabilia waits in line to register her vote. (Photo by Jorge Rivas for


Parents and the Machine

At 24th Street, 80 percent of the students are Latino, 18 percent are black, and nearly half of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. According to California State Department of Education data, 82 percent of third graders and 71 percent of fifth graders there weren’t reading at grade level in 2011.

It took Amabilia Villeda, mother of three 24th Street students and a parent trigger leader, less than a minute to cast her ballot in favor of the overhaul. In an interview that had translated from Spanish to English, she said she’s been fighting for the right improve her kids’ education for years.  

"It’s not just parents that live in Beverly Hills or those that live in Santa Monica who have a right to a good education because they have money," she said. "We too have the right to the same education because all children deserve an equal education. Race should not matter."

The night before the election, Villeda stayed up all night making 250 tamales. She finished at 5 in the morning, showered then shuttled her kids off to school before heading to the park.

The mother attempted a parent trigger effort on her own three years ago when she discovered that her fifth-grader, Tatiana, was reading at a first-grade level. "I felt bad because I couldn’t rewind the time. Every single day I was with my daughter but I didn’t know," Villeda said. "When I noticed that lots of other mothers were saying the same thing–that their children did not know how to read–I wanted to do something."

Villeda said that when she tried to speak with 24th Street’s former principal, Renee Dolberry, she was by turns rebuffed or laughed at. So the mother started circulating a petition to demand a new principal. She gathered more than 300 signatures and even protested outside the school twice. "They didn’t even notice us," Villeda said, chuckling at the memory. "It’s as if we did not even exist out there. No one, not the district or anyone came to even ask us, ‘Why are you out here?’"

Parent Trigger Grows Up?

It was Parent Revolution organizers who approached Villeda outside of the school last August to ask if she knew what the parent trigger was. The group also helped her become a key organizer. 

In many ways the 24th Street Elementary vote was as critical to Parent Revolution as it was to parents and students. The group has been engaged in a very public effort to shed criticism that it has astroturfed its way across communities of color to advance a school-reform agenda hostile to teachers and public education. Critics include the national progressive network Parents Across America, teachers unions, and Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education for George H. W. Bush.

The overhaul at 24th Street marks the group’s third attempt to lead parents into using the parent trigger and the first to succeed without a lawsuit. The two prior attempts–at McKinley Elementary School in Compton and at Desert Trails Elementary in a small Southern California town called Adelanto–ended up in the courts. In both districts officials challenged the parent petitions; parents who’d signed the petition sought to revoke their signatures; and parents on both sides charged that there was misconduct or intimidation at play in the signature-gathering process.

In an interview last week Parent Revolution executive director Ben Austin readily acknowledged the organization’s past mistakes."We were the ones who chose the school, we were the ones who chose the transformation option, we were the ones who chose the charter and we were the ones who did most of the community organizing," he said of Parent Revolution’s failed organizing in Compton. "So when the blowback happened … parents agreed with the petition but didn’t see it as being their fight."

After McKinley, Parent Revolution ditched its original organizing model and instituted individual chapters of what it calls parent unions. "The lesson we learned from Compton is that it’s not about us," Austin said. "In terms of the role we play, it’s in support of the parent movement. That’s our only role."

It’s been harder to convince parent trigger skeptics of that. Critics have accused Parent Revolution of using poor communities of color to advance a market-based reform agenda.

It’s an easy allegation to make. After all, the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)–the group behind Stand Your Ground laws among others–adopted and circulated model parent trigger legislation. Both the Heritage Foundation and Heartland Institute are vocal supporters of the technique. 

And as has previously reportedParent Revolution is largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wal-Mart. The foundation is a staunch supporter of education reforms like charter schools, right-to-work legislation and test score-based accountability mechanisms, which are built on the premise that bureaucracy, ineffective teachers and unions lay at the root of the country’s education woes. As Parent Revolution’s largest single funder, Walton has given the organization $6.3 million in the last three years.

On the local level, it can be difficult to ascertain where Parent Revolution’s support ends and parent power begins. It supplies parents with professional organizers, education experts, and all the day-to-day necessities of running a campaign–coffee, photocopies and a professional communications staff. Parent Revolution staffers also conduct crash courses for local parents in education policy.

Members of the 24th Street Elementary School Parent Union can recite the tenets of a high quality school drawn from a policy framework supplied by Parent Revolution–empowered leadership; engaged parents and community partners; effective teachers; safe schools; and a culture of high expectations. But Austin claims the parent trigger and Parent Revolution are agnostic about the kinds of reforms parents choose.

"I of course don’t believe the parent trigger is a solution for all poverty-related inequities in a capitalistic society," he said. "But it’s what we can do. …The kids at 24th Street shouldn’t have to wait for society to solve poverty before they can get the kind of education that parents at my kids’ school take for granted every single day."

Despite Parent Revolution’s involvement, Villeda insists that she is not being used. "When we only wanted to change the principal no one listened to us," Villeda told "[Parent Revolution] never told us, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’ They said, ‘No, you are the parents and you decide because these are your kids.’ After this is over, they will be gone. We are the ones that will remain here with our children inside that school."