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LOS ANGELES — When classes resume in Southern California in coming weeks, three public schools will be the first in the nation to reopen under new management spurred by a controversial education law dubbed the “parent trigger.”

Parent Esmeralda Chacon is excited that 24th Street Elementary, just west of downtown Los Angeles, is bringing back a pre-kindergarten program and will benefit from a unique leadership partnership, a joint operation between a local charter operator and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Parent Llury Garcia at Weigand Elementary in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles — where the principal has been ousted and 21 teachers subsequently asked for transfers — hopes her 8-year-old daughter will become a better reader and be held to higher standards.

Parent trigger law
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)

And Cynthia Ramirez expects to have more say in the discipline policy and curriculum now at her fourth-grade son’s school, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in the desert town of Adelanto, now that it has been taken over by a small nonprofit charter operator.

These parents helped lead the so-called “parent unions” that ran campaigns to overhaul their children’s respective schools with guidance and financial backing from Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit formed to promote California’s Parent Empowerment Act. Known as the parent trigger law, the legislation allows a majority of parents at an underperforming school to force major changes ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to ceding control to a charter operator.

When the law was passed in 2010, Former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, its author, compared it to the civil rights movement five decades before, and envisioned bipartisan support for parent trigger laws spreading to state legislatures across the nation. The 2012 Hollywood movie “Won’t Back Down” aimed to build legislative momentum, but the box office flop only seemed to draw more critics. Three and a half years later, Romero’s grand vision seems remote as opposition grows to any bill that even resembles a parent trigger. No group has succeeded in invoking a parent trigger law—or even made a full-fledged attempt—outside of southern California.

Only seven states have a “parent trigger” law on the books, with some versions weaker than others. In 20 states, bills to create or expand such laws stalled or died in legislatures this past spring. Just one bill became law, in Louisiana, and it was referred to as the “reverse parent trigger,” letting parents send low-performing schools in the state-run Recovery School District back to their local system.

Teachers unions, school administrators and even some parent advocacy groups have been fighting against what they see as a push toward the corporate takeover of public schools under the guise of parent power. They point to Parent Revolution’s billionaire funders, which include the Bill & Melinda Gates, Broad, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations. (Some of these foundations are among past and present supporters of The Hechinger Report.) Critics fear that parent triggers will transform the school system into an assembly line of identically run schools that focus on test scores at the expense of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

“The terms ‘parent trigger’ and Parent Revolution have just become so toxic,” said Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which helped pass a milder form of parent trigger in her state. “Anyone who mentions it, my gosh, people just come at them. And it’s not fair to the parent who just wants a good school.”

The laws have become part of a broader debate over the proliferation of charter schools, private school vouchers and everything else now dubbed “education reform,” a vague term used by self-professed reformers to describe nearly any attempts that call for challenging the traditional public school system. Many reformers use emotional rhetoric to describe their mission, such as battling the “defenders of the status quo” to save children “trapped in failing schools.”

“I don’t know if we’re so much caught up in the parent trigger battle going off or more caught up in an even larger battle between the education establishment and education reformers, and this is just another battleground in that war,” said Oklahoma State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, whose parent trigger bill cleared the State Senate in March but never made it to a vote in the House. “It had been branded so significantly, it was no longer about the bill,” said Florida State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who failed to advance her parent trigger legislation in late April. Even after an amendment gave local school boards greater veto power, the bill died on a tie vote in the State Senate for the second straight year.

It hasn’t helped that the first few attempts at invoking a parent trigger led to fierce hostility and feuding within schools, with parents turning on one another and accusations of harassment, intimidation and fraud flying on both sides of the trigger debate. “If you have a school that’s struggling, in most cases, the parents, the district and the teachers are working really hard to try and fix it,” said Kathleen Oropeza, a Florida mom who co-founded the nonprofit and fought against parent trigger bills the past two legislative sessions. “I don’t feel like adding parents fighting against parents and parents fighting against teachers is helpful. It’s the kids who get hurt.”

Legislatures in 21 states considered parent trigger bills this past spring. The bills varied greatly and Parent Revolution publicly supported only 14 of them. Outside California, only four laws — in Louisiana, Texas, Michigan and a pilot process in Columbus, Ohio — have met Parent Revolution’s minimum standards, which include requiring the petition support of a simple majority of parents, serving the same students once the school gets transformed and offering at least one turnaround option that would bring on entirely new management. The threat of new leadership is a critical component, because that gives the law its teeth and parents the leverage to negotiate, said Parent Revolution senior strategist Pat DeTemple.

“The option or potential of a charter conversion through a restart model is enormously powerful in terms of getting attention from anybody who’s got power,” DeTemple said.

Undeterred by the bills that stalled or died in 2013, Parent Revolution spokesman Derrick Everett said that “laws as novel as the parent trigger process have often taken multiple legislative sessions to both get the law ‘right’ and get it passed.” DeTemple is more concerned about what happens after a governor signs the bill: If there’s no group like Parent Revolution guiding parents through the process, will parents have what it takes to navigate the process on their own?

Conservative groups like The Heartland Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, along with Students First, the pro-school choice advocacy group run by former Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have advocated for trigger laws. But no local chapters have stepped up to pursue actual parent campaigns in the way Parent Revolution has.

With its nearly $5.5 million budget and some 45 staffers, Parent Revolution has spurred the formation of 13 parent union chapters in the greater Los Angeles area, according to Everett. Only three have invoked the trigger. A fourth parent union, at Haddon Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, voted to pause its trigger push and instead compromise with the district for less drastic reforms.

“I don’t think that we could have done this without them,” said Garcia, the 30-year-old mom from Weigand Elementary. “They showed us how to fight for our rights and led us to find more information. We were already fed up with all these things.”

The organizers take parents on tours of “model” schools, host weekly meetings at parks and houses and try to identify parents who show leadership potential. They help parents devise plans for canvassing and collecting signatures, and teach them how to avoid having a petition thrown out, particularly after suspicious signatures and technical errors led to lengthy court battles during parent trigger pushes in Compton and Adelanto.

But what Parent Revolution calls arming parents with knowledge, the organization’s critics dismiss as manipulating parents into pursuing hidden agendas. Opponents argue legitimate change should sprout from within a community, and not be spurred by outsiders parachuting in to rally parents. They accuse Parent Revolution of “astro-turfing” — masking highly organized efforts as grassroots campaigns.

Supporters and opponents alike will be watching closely how the newly transformed schools perform in the coming years.

Samuel, in Connecticut, urges parents avoid political drama and choose for themselves the types of changes they want for their schools.

“Parents have got to say, ‘We’re not going to get caught in the fray,’” Samuel said. “You have to make it work instead of letting politics run the show.”

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