California’s landmark parent empowerment law is one of the most innovative education policy reforms to come along in years. Letting parents take control of their children’s failing school is simply unheard of – revolutionary, divisive, status-quo-shattering and fraught with peril.
And despite it all, the 2010 law seems to be working. Naturally, the law’s enemies are crying out for “reform.”
Also known as the “parent trigger,” the concept couldn’t be more straightforward. If at least half of eligible parents at a chronically failing school sign a petition, the local school district must adopt one of a handful of reforms. For example, it can close the school, convert it to a charter school, fire half the teachers and the principal, or extend school hours and revise the curriculum using federal guidelines.
The last thing the parent trigger needs right now is a lock. In the past 18 months, parents across Los Angeles and in the Southern California high-desert city of Adelanto have used the parent trigger to take over their dysfunctional, failing schools and try something new. Several other petition drives are in the works.
But the education establishment – school boards, professional administrators and teachers unions especially – despises the trigger and has tried to stymie it from the beginning. The unions in particular denounced the parent trigger as “a sham,” a “lynch mob law,” “a cruel hoax” and other words not fit for print in a family newspaper.
Last month, the United Teachers of Los Angeles voted to seek changes next year in the parent trigger law. They’re hunting for a sponsor in the Legislature. They should have no trouble finding one.
Warren Fletcher, the union’s president, explained the union has nothing but the best of intentions. “The current law is premised on the idea that someone has to be blamed, and we have to go after the culprit,” he told the LA School Report website. “We believe collaboration goes a lot further than balkanization.”
Oh, please. Since when does a union boss care about sowing a bit of division? Union activism is all about direct action to extract greater concessions and benefits for members. It’s no coincidence that the moms and dads who’ve organized parent trigger campaigns have formed what they call “parent unions.”
Sure, collaboration can be a wonderful thing – but only when all sides are willing to collaborate.
Union collaboration has been in short supply. When parents in the south Los Angeles city of Compton tried in late 2010 to convert a failing elementary school into a charter school, the unions were out in force, coaxing as many parents as they could into withdrawing their petition signatures. Union activists pulled the same stunt at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto last year, and nearly got away with it until a San Bernardino County judge ruled that such “rescission campaigns” violated state regulations.
Only when public opinion had clearly shifted against the union line did UTLA adjust its tactics. Earlier this year, parents at 24th Street Elementary School in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles formed a partnership with Los Angeles school district officials and a nonprofit charter operator to reopen and run the school jointly.
Fletcher at the time withheld judgment, saying only his union would be “watching what happens at 24th Street and other schools – watching to see if it destabilizes the schools.” The point, of course, is that the schools have been destabilized already.
So what might a nice, stable, union-approved parent trigger look like? In 2011, then-Assemblywoman Julia Brownley introduced legislation to “clean up” the law. She would have imposed onerous signature verification requirements and other rules to make grass-roots activism virtually impossible. Gov. Jerry Brown wisely vetoed Brownley’s bill, saying the law needed more time to work under a set of rules the state Board of Education took pains to pass that same year.
Is the existing law perfect? No. It was written in a hurry during a special session in 2010. The state Board of Education’s regulations helped clarify technical aspects of the law – how to properly format a petition, for example – and prohibited parents, school officials or third parties from using intimidation tactics to derail a campaign drive.
Gloria Romero, the state senator who authored the parent trigger, would be the last person to say her law couldn’t be improved. She thinks, for example, that the law should make signature gathering more transparent by requiring disclosure of who is funding the campaign. But any reform should preserve and protect parents’ rights.
Who will defend parent empowerment now that the law’s lead author and defender is gone? Republicans, God bless them, are powerless in Sacramento. Where are the courageous Democrats? The teachers union will have no trouble finding a champion for its phony reform. Now more than ever, parents need a champion, too.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.