The failure to enact a parent trigger in Adelanto, California, shows how difficult it is to campaign for the sweeping reform the law allows, as it should be. If the parents at Desert Trails Elementary want to either replace the instructional and administrative staff or convert the school into a charter, it had better have the support of an overwhelming majority of parents. The campaign had boasted that 70 percent of Desert Trails parents supported pulling the trigger, but the Los Angeles Times reported that nearly 100 later backed out of the petition, which the school board on Tuesday threw out.
It should be difficult to campaign for the sweeping reform parent trigger laws allow.
The effort may not have divided the school, as a Times headline asserted earlier this week, but it certainly led a community of parents to splinter into factions, including those who wanted to see change at a troubled school but not a wholesale charter conversion. As more states like Florida and Michigan consider their own trigger laws, they should set the bar high to make sure that transformational change is capable with only a supermajority of parents.
California’s law demands that a simple majority of parents at a low-performing traditional school can petition for a charter conversion, and most states with trigger proposals follow that formula. Ben Austin, the executive director of California’s Parent Revolution, which helped organize Desert Trails parents, has said it’s hard to meet even that threshold. He’s right. But a successful effort to upend a school community with only 51 percent support has the potential to tear that community apart and can leave the school with a parochial authority of parents who would leave permanent marks long after they’ve divested their social capital.
A parent trigger is good policy. It brings families to a bargaining table that has been the exclusive province of teachers unions and school boards, and it begins to rethink the way we govern public education in ways that meet the unique needs of low-performing and low-income students. As Austin has said, the parent trigger empowers parents to declare, “You haven’t listened to us for years, but now we have the power to fire you, so you have to listen to us.”
The trigger also helps to balance any one monopoly, which is why its first enactment last year in the Compton Unified School District shamefully met with strong resistance from a school board that made every attempt to intimidate the petitioners. And its popularity led to an embarrassing leak for the American Federation of Teachers, which drafted a memo that served as a textbook lesson on how to kill a trigger bill while giving parents a false sense of authority.
But a parent-directed reform with a tenuous hold on support and authority can lead to its own imbalance of power, a problem that can be checked if two-thirds of the families agree to sign up. That’s a threshold required to pass constitutional referenda in many states, and it’s one that can give parent unions an iron-clad tool of leverage to turn around a struggling school.