State faces a moving target in implementing 'parent trigger' law: As the Board of Education continues to weigh the details of how parents will go about forcing overhauls of low-performing schools, debates over transparency, public input and special interests drag on.
McKinley Elementary School parent Ismania Guzman, center, celebrates with supporters after they gained enough parent signatures to force an overhaul of the school. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times / December 6, 2010)
By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/gDiCnG
January 17, 2011 - It was billed as a radical transfer of power from the educational establishment to parents. It survived a furious opposition campaign. And after squeaking through the state Legislature by one vote last year, the "parent trigger" law made California history as the first successful effort to empower parents to force sweeping changes at low-performing schools.
But now the fight has shifted to implementing the law, making its passage look almost easy.
After months of debate and reams of revisions, state education officials were expected to vote last week to finalize details laying out how the law is supposed to work. But that vote was postponed because a newly appointed state Board of Education announced that it needed more time to consider the issues.
The law is intended to allow parents to petition for dramatic changes at struggling schools. This includes closing the school, overhauling staff and programs, or turning over the campus to a charter operator. Charters are independently run, publicly funded and free of many district and union regulations.
Several education groups say the previous board gave short shrift to their concerns, instead rushing to approve rules favorable to the charter-school industry. Gov. Jerry Brown replaced a majority of the board in one of his first official acts, installing some members viewed by critics as having more traditional union sympathies.
"The old board was not listening well.... It was clearly trying to rush the regulations," said Bob Wells, executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators. "Having a new board more open and receptive to feedback is going to be terrific."
A key concern for that group and others is that the law does not require public meetings to discuss reform alternatives. Others are concerned that current proposals would allow parents outside the school to form a majority and force change. And some object to proposals allowing parents to select a charter operator and place their choice on the petition without first gathering community input.
The lack of clear regulations could hamper the state's first petition drive under the law in the Compton Unified School District. Last month, 62% of parents at McKinley Elementary School, whose academic performance ranks in the bottom tenth in California, petitioned to turn over school management to a charter operator, Celerity Educational Group.
That effort was led by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based education reform group and ally of charter school interests that pushed for the parent trigger law.
The group's executive director, Ben Austin, was a member of the state Education Board until he was recently replaced. He said it is urgent that the board act on the revisions to the law, particularly as several important issues in Compton remain unclear.
As the Compton petition campaign became embroiled in charges of intimidation and deceit, some parents are said to have rescinded their signatures. Yet in the absence of permanent regulations, Austin said, the process for rescinding signatures is unclear, along with a host of other issues.
Compton school board members also are looking for state action on the rules as they consider how to proceed with the petitions.
"The parents of Compton made history last month, but they are doing so in a regulatory Wild Wild West," Austin said. "There is a real urgency for the state board to act."
Others feel they have been left out of the debate and want their concerns fully aired before the new board.
The state PTA and Public Advocates, for instance, are pushing to require at least two public meetings before a petition can be submitted to make sure parents are fully informed about all reform options.
"Making this more transparent is best for everyone," said Virginia Strom-Martin, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
In particular, several groups believe the proposed regulations go beyond the law in allowing parents to choose their own charter operator without public meetings.
In Compton, Parent Revolution — not the parents themselves — chose both the preferred reform option and the charter operator.
"Well-funded charter schools will have a financial motive to persuade parents to support a charter's takeover of an existing school district facility, knowing that the result will be a stream of public revenue directly to the charter," the Compton schools' attorney, Barrett K. Green, wrote to state educational officials this month.
Austin said his group would support public meeting requirements as long as regulations also guaranteed a "level playing field" for those seeking change — granting access to school enrollment information, for example, or banning the use of school resources to oppose a petition.
The group also wants the appeals process strengthened so that parents whose petitions are rejected by their local school board can turn to county and state authorities.
In other concerns, several groups said they opposed the use of paid signature-gatherers and want petition organizers to disclose whether they are affiliated with charter schools, unions or other interests.
And advocates for students who speak limited English, such as Californians Together, are pushing for the board to require materials to be presented in all languages spoken by at least 15% of the affected parents.
"We think these are very significant changes for the schools and want the opportunity for full public input and discussion," said Debbie Look of the state PTA.
California Gov. Jerry Brown's 'parent trigger' trap: The governor's new state Board of Education could make it more difficult to utilize the school reform measure.
By Ben Boychuk, LA Times Op-Ed | http://lat.ms/fKKqCD
January 17, 2011 - Without question, Gov. Jerry Brown has the right to make his own appointments and craft his own policies. But his picks for California's powerful Board of Education could jeopardize one of the most innovative and empowering — if controversial — education reforms to come along in years: the so-called parent trigger that gives parents a strong say in the education of their children.
After just one day back on the job as governor, Brown named seven new members to the 11-member state school board. The new majority, The Times reported, "will dramatically alter the panel's makeup in age, geography and educational resume, shifting it from a board containing vocal advocates for a reform agenda … to one that is more closely aligned with traditional" education policies.
Gone from the board, for example, are Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution and an architect of the parent trigger, and Ted Mitchell, the former Occidental College president who championed parents' involvement, charter schools and teacher evaluations. In contrast, according to The Times, the new appointees "thrilled" David Sanchez, head of the California Teachers Assn., the powerful union that supported Brown in the governor's race and has been outspoken in opposition to charters, the trigger and other reforms.
The parent trigger is a simple law. If half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition demanding change at the school, the district must either shut it down, allow it to become a charter school or adopt one of two other federally prescribed "turnaround" models. Parents at Compton's McKinley Elementary School gained national attention last month when they became the first to use the parent trigger, petitioning the Compton Unified School District to convert their failing public school into an independent charter.
The parent trigger is so simple, in fact, that the statute contains few nitty-gritty details about how the law should work. The Legislature left it up to the Board of Education to spell out the particulars, such as how petitions must be formatted, who's qualified to sign, how quickly a school district must act on a valid petition and how parents may appeal hostile district decisions, among other things.
And that's where matters could get ugly. The temporary, "emergency" regulations the state board passed last summer offered a clear road map for parents to use the law. The new board, however, could very easily turn that road map into a labyrinth of red tape.
Simpler is better. The law should make it easy for parents to pull the trigger and force school districts to undertake dramatic changes that education bureaucracies would otherwise thwart. Compton Unified, for example, has a reputation for rejecting charter school applications.
The parent trigger also makes for a fairer balance of power, giving parents crucial leverage against well-entrenched teacher and administrator interests. Parents generally demand the best possible education for their children. The education bureaucracy has many interests that sometimes conflict; it serves parents and children while mollifying teacher unions, political overseers and career bureaucrats.
In Compton, the use of the parent trigger has been controversial. Parents on both sides of the issue say they've met with threats and intimidation. The petition's supporters freely admit they worked "under the radar" to collect signatures from 62% of McKinley Elementary parents. That has led opponents of the trigger to demand that the Board of Education impose regulations requiring more "transparency" in the petition process. But those who favor change at the school say the hostile reaction to the Compton petition shows that mandated open meetings, for example, might scare away parents from signing petitions.
Of course, it's likely that most parents will not avail themselves of any reform mechanism. Polls show that although parents think the education system is a mess, most believe their school isn't too bad. However, for those who are willing to push for change, and who find that their school administration resists it, the parent trigger is a godsend.
Parents need clarity, and the law needs time to work. Eleventh-hour attempts to impose "transparency" or other new regulations on the parent trigger should not be used to put parents at a disadvantage. That is exactly what the state board tried to avoid with its current set of regulations.
The governor has acknowledged from time to time that Californians are overburdened with rules. As Brown shapes his education agenda, he should make clear that regulation should empower parents to use the parent trigger law effectively, not protect the status quo.
- Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of the [charter school advocate - smf] Heartland Institute's School Reform News www.schoolreform-news.com, http://www.twitter.com/schoolreform).