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Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy last month lauded a group of parents who formed their own union in an attempt to improve their children’s South Los Angeles school. The district leader toured the K-5 campus and listened to children rap about cells and sing “Let It Be” before signing a partnership agreement he touted as a “remarkable model.”

The agreement at West Athens Elementary School marked either an historic moment when parents achieved reform months after suggesting they might invoke a controversial education law — or a misrepresented portrayal of a school improvement plan years in the making. It all depends on whom you ask.

At Weigand Elementary School in Los Angeles, 61 percent of parents signed a petition to replace the school’s principal under California’s controversial “parent trigger” law. (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution/Derrick Alan Everett)

To the parents in the union, the mere threat of California’s so-called “parent trigger” law forced administrators to pay attention to their concerns about insufficient safety and discipline plans, and years of low academic achievement. The law, formally called the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, enables a majority of parents at a low-performing school to force a major overhaul through a petition campaign, with reform options ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to converting the traditional public school into a charter.

Parent-trigger laws are now on the books in various forms in at least eight states and under consideration in several others. Determined to keep such laws from spreading, teachers unions and school administrators throughout the U.S. have been squashing attempts by legislators pitching new parent trigger bills. The law’s fiercest critics blast the parent trigger as a hostile approach that inherently pits parents against teachers, district officials, even other parents. They fear the law is actually part of a broader push to privatize schools and eliminate teacher contracts. And they question whether such a radical mechanism can actually work.

“Enough with all of these ideas coming in from other places, enough with these out-of-state groups agitating and pushing and lobbying.” Jim Wrye, Tennessee Education Association

Parent-trigger campaigns have spurred changes at six schools in southern California, only one of which involved a full charter school conversion. Every successful parent union had the backing of the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, the nonprofit group formed to promote the law, teach parents how to organize into unions and fund their petition campaigns. As critics blast the parent trigger as harmful and ineffective, the group sees the latest West Athens development as a sign that the parent trigger can evolve into a more collaborative mechanism for achieving changes, and proof that the law can force schools to take parents seriously without a divisive fight, said Gabe Rose, Parent Revolution’s deputy executive director.

“Without parent-trigger law existing and the administration being aware of us having it as an option, they never even would have sat down with us,” said Winter Hall, 33, a parent union member whose 7-year-old daughter attends West Athens.

But that view was not unanimous even at West Athens. Just as the parent union, called Aguilas de West Athens, celebrated the deal that May afternoon, a handful of other parents held protest signs, and at least one teacher circulated a flier with phrases including, “These people do not represent our interests!” and “We do not want changes!” United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), California’s largest teachers union, slammed Parent Revolution for touting the agreement as a groundbreaking accomplishment, arguing that aspects of the 13-page document were already in the works for years or even ingrained in school or district policy.

“This is like the rooster taking credit because the sun came up,” said UTLA President Warren Fletcher. “You can talk about leverage, but in successful school communities, the parents and the teachers have come together — and they really didn’t need the parent-trigger law and really didn’t need Parent Revolution to have those conversations.”

Across the nation, the debate rages on among policymakers, teachers and education advocates: Do parent-trigger-type laws have the potential to turn around underperforming schools when bureaucrats fail to act? Or should they be dismissed as a flawed tool that can do more harm than good in already struggling school communities?

Parent Revolution claims that support is building for parent triggers at local levels in several states, including Tennessee and New York. Memphis Council PTA Vice President Helen Collins said she’s ramping up efforts to build support for a stronger parent-trigger law among 53 schools in Memphis and Shelby County. “We really hope that the teachers and the administrators know that our goal is not to put them out of a job; if anything our goal is to make sure that they understand we’re there to help,” she said.

In the majority of state legislatures, though, parent-trigger laws have not generated the major education movement that former California state Sen. Gloria Romero envisioned in 2010 when she authored the nation’s first law dubbed the “parent trigger,” with help from Parent Revolution Executive Director and former Clinton administration official Ben Austin.

The failed attempts at parent-trigger legislation in spring 2014 resemble what happened last year, when bills to create or expand such laws stalled or died in 20 states and only one became law.

In Tennessee, Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, put up a bill that would have strengthened an existing law enabling parents or teachers to force a charter school conversion through a provision folded into his state’s 2002 charter school code. DeBerry’s bill would have lowered the threshold of petition support from 60 to 51 percent, and extended the outcome beyond charter conversions, to include options such as replacing the principal or closing the school and sending its students to a higher-achieving one. “What’s more reasonable than 51 percent of a group of parents who have students in a school, who sit and watch their children fail, taking the initiative to say, ‘We want our school to be better’?” DeBerry asked. “Why is that a political problem?”

DeBerry’s latest bill cleared a state House education committee in March before stalling in a finance committee for lack of a motion. “We strongly opposed Rep. DeBerry’s bill, fought it and quite frankly killed it,” said Jim Wrye, spokesman for Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “I think the mood in the General Assembly is: ‘Enough with all of these ideas coming in from other places, enough with these out-of-state groups agitating and pushing and lobbying.’”

In New York, a loose coalition of Buffalo parents has been backing parent-trigger legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. Tom Casey, campaign manager for We The Parents Buffalo, a group of parents, community members and faith-based leaders, said he does have some qualms about the parent trigger, including the difficulty of getting parents to reach consensus on the changes they want to see at a particular school. But he said he supports any tools that give parents more choices of schools, including charters, and believes too often teacher contracts get in the way of overhauling low-achieving ones. “You cannot change a school when you have tenured teachers and tenured principals,” Casey said. “The only way to fix it is to totally restructure it.”

Critics argue the law is a corporate-backed privatization tool under the guise of parent empowerment; they are particularly concerned about using parent trigger to force charter school conversions, which could strip away from some schools the leadership of elected school boards. Opponents have further charged that parents have been bullied into signing petitions, though trigger advocates have also accused teachers unions and other opponents of similarly aggressive tactics. In Los Angeles, UTLA has held several meetings addressing teacher concerns about their schools being “targeted” by parent-trigger organizers.

“It is an ‘inconvenient truth’ for UTLA that organized parents in marginalized communities are able to organize, exercise power and achieve changes for their kids,” said Rose of Parent revolution. “It is becoming clearer all the time that the current UTLA leadership isn’t threatened by charter schools or other bogeymen — they’re actually threatened by the notion that parents in these communities, whose kids have gotten a crappy deal for a generation or more, should have any real power to do something about it.”

Differing types of parent-trigger outcomes have done little to quell critics of the law.

In schools like McKinley Elementary in Compton — where an early attempt to invoke the law fizzled after a heated court battle between the district and parents — and Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto — the first parent-trigger school handed to a charter operator — the trigger campaigns led to costly litigation and accusations of intimidation and harassment from both sides.

“The premise of it is that if you’re going to use that tool, your school community has to start factionalizing, and it has to be a narrative of blame,” Fletcher said. “That’s not the way to bring about positive school change. It creates problems on top of the existing problems.”

At LAUSD’s West Athens and Haddon Avenue elementary schools — where parent unions never got to the stage of gathering signatures for a petition — parents struck deals with school officials for less radical changes. “We wanted to make sure that at West Athens, we opened communication and that we listened to the concerns and that we really built bridges, as opposed to having it so polarized or having opposite sides,” said Rosalinda Lugo, an LAUSD instructional director who took part in the talks with parents that led to the West Athens agreement. “We wanted to avoid the destruction of the school; we wanted to avoid having the teachers feel attacked or threatened.”

The West Athens deal calls on the school and district to bolster school discipline and safety plans, improve communication between parents and teachers and provide increased professional development and support for teachers. The document also specifies that $300,000 will be pumped into new positions to help with student discipline and extra support services, including funding a full-time psychologist, a part-time psychiatrist social worker and a full-time attendance officer. That money had already been slated for the school, school officials say, and the school site council — a group including teachers, parents and other school officials that existed long before the parent union — decides how the school spends that money.

Fletcher, of UTLA, and other educators don’t oppose outright the content within the agreement, which includes teacher-friendly provisions such as a commitment from the district to resolve any budget shortfalls without turning to teacher layoffs, and from school leaders to ensure teachers get the proper resources to fulfill new expectations under the Common Core State Standards.

What some West Athens teachers like Octavio Gonzalez object to is the way the plan came about. Gonzalez said talks with the parent union started out collaboratively, including teacher involvement during staff development days, then quickly snowballed into what he felt was an attack on him and other teachers by Parent Revolution and the parents they trained. He said the parent leaders lingered in the office searching for parents who had complaints, and went straight to the principal or local police about alleged bullying incidents before trying to address the issue with him as the teacher. The faculty, he said, felt blind-sided when they heard that Deasy planned to sign the agreement at a media event; the teachers hadn’t even seen the final product. “Why do we need an outside agency coming here to a school and telling us what our needs are?” Gonzalez said.

As more trigger campaigns emerge, UTLA plans to continue training teachers like Gonzalez on how to respond. “The major focus last year with this new law was, ‘Here’s what you need to know in order to make sure that we don’t have any wedges driven between parents and the teachers at any specific schools,’” Fletcher said. “This year, we’re branching out more into proactive steps of organizing with parents directly for school change in the absence of parent trigger, and just using the mechanisms we’ve had here in LA since 1989.”

Parent Revolution organizers are currently working with three to four other budding trigger campaigns in the Los Angeles area, Rose said. They’re undeterred by the lack of legislative progress thus far, with lawmakers like Tennessee’s DeBerry vowing to keep reintroducing parent-trigger bills until they win support. “We’re playing the long game,” Rose said.

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