The news earlier this month from the Los Angeles superintendent’s office was deceptively simple: “I remain committed to the community and expanded parent choice as it relates to the education of our children.” Implicit in that statement is a decision, one of the first from the newly installed schools’ chief Ramon Cortines, that could have tremendous impact on a controversial idea.
Cortines was referring to California’s so-called “parent trigger” law, passed in January 2010. The first of its kind in the nation, the law permits 51 percent or more of parents at an underperforming public school to petition for an overhaul. Among the parents’ options: they can replace a principal, hire a charter operator to run the school, or shut down the campus entirely. Seven other states have embraced similar laws. Critics call it an attempt to privatize public schools under the pretense of parent empowerment supported by billionaire money. But with Cortines’ endorsement, the law, at least in California, could have staying power.
The district’s recent show of support for ‘parent trigger’ is a reversal of policy for Los Angeles Unified. Former superintendent John Deasy, who resigned on Oct. 16 amid controversy over billion-dollar technology blunders, had declared a ban on the law this past August, claiming the law didn’t apply to Los Angeles Unified because the district had received a federal waiver exempting it from No Child Left Behind improvement goals in the temporary absence of statewide tests. Deasy reasoned that without test scores, there would be no way to determine a school’s performance.
Supporters of the law say Cortines has corrected what they see as Deasy’s mistake. “A district cannot just put itself above the law,” says former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, the law’s author. “It’s sort of like ‘Duh, what part of this don’t folks understand?’ Cortines has restored sanity to Los Angeles.”
The news of the district’s policy change on ‘parent trigger’ came in early November, after Cortines met with Ben Austin, founder of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit that trains and finances parents who use the law to improve failing schools. Austin says the decision felt like a breakthrough.
Deasy’s ban, according to Austin, had left parents feeling that their voices weren’t being heard. It seemed that charter school takeovers were their only hope. With Cortines’ decision, the district partnership option is back on the table.
Austin told Cortines that all final decisions over partnerships are up to the parents. “But I also told him there’s room to collaborate, because parents really only resort to the charter option when school leadership has told them to f— off,” says Austin. “We need to figure out how to help districts reform themselves in collaboration with parents, because while charters can be great, they aren’t easy to expand.”
Austin went so far as to share with Cortines the sites where parents are planning to use the parent trigger law to overhaul schools. “When Cortines said he was going to reverse Deasy’s policy on the trigger law, that indicated to me that he was taking very seriously the idea of parents having power and embracing it,” says Austin. “In turn, I talked to him frankly about the state of the different organizing campaigns throughout Los Angeles Unified. I told him which schools, so that he could think about fashioning a school turnaround proposal, so he wouldn’t be surprised when the parents began organizing.”
Austin is careful to stress Parent Revolution’s demonstrated willingness to cooperate with school districts. He says that the group’s track record belies accusations that its primary aim is to replace public schools with charter schools.
Of the six ‘trigger’ schools in California, only one, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, about 85 miles north of Los Angeles, fell entirely to a charter operator. Parents at the failing Weigand Elementary School in Watts used the law to oust an unpopular principal. Another school, 24th Street Elementary, is now run jointly by Los Angeles Unified and the charter operator Crown Preparatory Academy.
“If you were to drop down from Mars and visit the six parent power schools,” says Austin, “you would see little to no connective tissue between them, from a policy perspective.”
Take West Athens Elementary in South Los Angeles: parents at the school invoked the law in order to bargain with Los Angeles Unified for more teacher training, computers, a fresh coat of paint, and a $300,000 investment in new staff, including a social worker and a psychologist to improve school discipline.
“We didn’t end up using the trigger law at West Athens,” says parent activist Winter Hall, whose daughter is in second grade. “But without the threat of the law, no one would care about the problems at our school.”
For Hall, the last straw was when, before her eyes, a boy tried to stab her daughter in the face with a pencil. She knew she had to take matters into her own hands, and joined the other parents who were organizing.
Seven of 25 states that have considered parent trigger bills—California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas—have enacted a version of the law, according to a spokesperson for Parent Revolution. So far, only parents in California have successfully used the law to force changes at failing schools. Austin is optimistic that the list of states enacting trigger laws and overhauling schools will grow. He points to the nationwide network that parents formed at a Nov. 15 Parent Revolution convention in Los Angeles. He also sees in Cortines’ support the possibility of more peaceful partnerships with public school districts.
In spite of Parent Revolution’s willingness to work with districts to improve public schools, United Teachers Los Angeles representative Ingrid Villeda remains suspicious of the group’s motives. “If you’re really about schools and you have this organization with all of this private funding, why not use the money to help schools that need it?” says Villeda. “If a school, needs a nurse, why not just fund a nurse? Why dismantle a school because of a lack of resources?”
Parent Revolution’s billionaire backers include the Gates, Broad, and Wasserman foundations. Villeda sees the support of billionaires as an indication that ‘trigger’ schools are heading for a one-size-fits-all future where test scores will hold more sway than teacher know-how. (The foundations listed here are also past and present supporters of the Hechinger Report).
Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Teacher Quality, also finds the group suspect. He says the movement would fall flat were it not for the funding. “As long as wealthy individuals continue to market parent trigger, as long as there’s money behind these matters, the group will stay in the news and give us a sense that the movement still has momentum,” he says.
As for the parents, they’re not all as optimistic as Austin about Cortines’ pledge of support. Esmeralda Medina, whose children attend Haddon Elementary School in the Pacoima neighborhood of north Los Angeles, says she and other parents don’t put a lot of stock in talk. They’ll believe Cortines is serious when they see the action he takes.
“We’ll make our decisions based on what’s best for kids,” says Medina. “We don’t work for Cortines. He works for us.”
The show of support from the schools’ chief does serve one important function, according to Medina. It says, “Watch out, teachers. Parents are educating themselves and we can’t stop this movement.”
Parents can’t wait for someone else to take action for them, says Medina. She points to third graders who can’t read or write. “Do you think kids want to become gang members?” says Medina. “Do you think they want to drop out of school? They just become so frustrated because they’re not prepared with basic skills.”
Hall, the parent of the child who was nearly stabbed in the face with a pencil, agrees with Medina that parents can’t let up on their work to improve schools. Hall is generally happy with the improvements at her daughter’s school, West Athens Elementary. However, she says more work needs to be done to stop bullying. The principal reports monthly on what she’s doing to improve the situation, such as increasing the number of staff who keep an eye on the kids at recess. Still, if nothing changes, says Hall, parents will have to act.
“I don’t care what anyone thinks of me or what I’m doing,” says Hall. “This is about our kids and we are going to do what we have to do for them. How long do they have to fall through the cracks before someone takes action?”
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Find out about more efforts to improve California schools.