Ben Boychuk

Success of parent trigger is unclear – just as foes want

Nearly five years after California passed the nation’s first “parent trigger” legislation, parents at only a handful of failing schools have taken advantage of the law’s potent remedies in the face of ferocious opposition. So how are the kids at those schools doing?

I wish the answer were clear-cut and unambiguous. But the numbers are limited, and the outcomes are mixed. That should come as no surprise. State education officials and their friends at the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers would have it no other way.

The Parent Empowerment Act allows parents with kids at schools with persistently low academic performance scores to petition for certain changes, such as converting the school to a charter, replacing the principal and staff, tweaking the curriculum and extending school hours, or closing the school entirely. If at least half of parents sign on, the school district must comply.

Finding good numbers these days can be tricky. Ordinarily we might look at reading and math scores. But last year the Legislature ended the California Standards Test to clear the way for a new test aligned with the controversial Common Core state standards. It did so at the urging of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, with the blessing of both teachers unions.

So we don’t have school-wide reading or math scores to compare. But we do have fifth grade science scores, the last vestige of the old testing system – and that’s only because Common Core’s Next Generation Science Standards have yet to be implemented.

What do the scores show, limited though they may be?

Good news for the charter schools created under parent trigger. For instance, 24th Street/Crown Preparatory Academy, a hybrid public charter school in Los Angeles, saw significant gains between 2012-13 and 2013-14. Before the school’s transformation, just 21 percent of fifth graders scored proficient or advanced in science. One year later, 65 percent did.

Desert Trails Prep, the first school in the state to convert to a charter under the law, had greater gains in science scores but with a smaller group of students. In 2012-13, 12 percent of Desert Trails fifth graders scored proficient or advanced in science. One year after the Adelanto school became a charter, 47 percent of fifth grade “scholars” scored proficient or better.

It’s a different story for three other schools that opted for “in district” reforms instead of going the charter route.

Parents at Weigand Elementary in Watts ousted the school’s principal in May 2013, which in turn led to an exodus of teachers. Parents at Lennox Middle School and Haddon Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles used petitions as leverage to persuade administrators to make changes in the curriculum and improve school security. All three schools’ fifth grade science scores remained flat or declined slightly.

The objection is obvious, so let’s dispense with it already: A year’s worth of data focused on one grade level with small sample sizes from five schools isn’t exactly progress worthy of busting out the champagne. You’ll get no argument from me.

But something is better than nothing. Until now, the best that supporters of the parent trigger law could muster were a few loosey-goosey parental satisfaction surveys, which might not be especially convincing to skeptics. Hard data – any data – form the foundation of a more compelling case for the law’s success.

Or maybe not.

After L.A.-based Parent Revolution released the numbers last week, CTA spokesman Frank Wells was quick to dismiss them. “Even with more data,” he told Education Week, “we may still end up with an apples and oranges comparison based on student population shifts that come after a divisive trigger battle.”

Of course, it’s the unions that create division.

Even without union resistance, turning around a failing school is notoriously difficult. Generally speaking, 25 percent to 30 percent of turnarounds succeed, and then only after several years of grueling effort. As one analysis put it: “Successful efforts at the school level must be supported by corresponding changes at the system level.”

But changing a “system” is even more politically fraught than trying to change a school. The best way to change the system – if it can be changed at all – is often from within.

One of the leaders of the Desert Trails trigger fight learned that petition drives and community organizing are fine, even necessary. But a seat on the other side of the bargaining table is where the action is.

So Doreen Diaz, a mother of two former Desert Trails students, is one of 13 candidates vying for three seats on the five-member Adelanto Elementary School District board on Nov. 4. Diaz has no money – she couldn’t even afford a candidate statement for the ballot – but she has hard-won experience. If she wins, it would be another step in the parent empowerment movement toward bona fide political power.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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