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The Sacramento Bee


'Parent trigger' tribulations and triumphs

August 10, 2013

By Ben Boychuk

It took three years, hundreds of signatures, several trips to court and thousands of hours of hard work, but California's Parent Empowerment Act – also known as the "parent trigger" – is showing some tangible effects. It's not a moment too soon for the families who availed themselves of the law but also an indication of just how far reform needs to go.

Still, it's a time for celebration. Next week, 24th Street Elementary School in southwest Los Angeles will open its doors as a hybrid, jointly run by the Los Angeles Unified School District and Crown Preparatory Academy, an independent charter operator. Two weeks ago, Desert Trails Elementary School in the Southern California high desert town of Adelanto reopened as Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, also a charter school.

But lest you think this is yet another charter school story, Weigand Elementary in the south Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts will start the new school year with new staff and a new principal. About 35 miles to the north, in the working-class suburb of Pacoima, parents, teachers and administrators at Haddon Avenue Elementary agreed to several reforms, including giving the school's principal control over hiring.

None of those things would have been possible without the power – and the leverage – the parent trigger law confers.

Authored by former state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and signed in 2010 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the law is proving to be an effective tool for struggling parents to break through school district and teacher-union intransigence.

Put simply, if at least half of the parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition, district officials must undertake one of several prescribed reforms. These include replacing the principal, extending school hours, converting the school to an independent charter or closing the school entirely.

A host of critics, including United Teachers of Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher and historian-turned-union apologist Diane Ravitch, have denounced the law as "a cruel hoax" and "a sham" "based on hatred," and demonizing its supporters as "corporate shills" and "privatizers."

Curiously, only a handful of hard-core left-wing activists have figured out California's law is written for everybody and could be used for leftist ends, if only the union bosses and their shills had the imagination to do so. Who says the reactionaries are confined to the right?

Ravitch and others also complain the parent trigger is divisive. They're right about that. The question is whether the law's divisiveness is more or less detrimental to children than the educational malpractice and bureaucratic indifference they're getting right now.

As far as I can tell, the law's critics have never quite explained why the status quo is the better deal. Better to join the PTA, they say. Or get behind teachers union efforts to bolster salaries and benefits in exchange for zero accountability. Or go to school board meetings and wait two hours to speak for two minutes.

The law's critics either don't know or simply choose to ignore that those parents in Adelanto and south L.A. and Watts did all of those things. They simply got tired of the lip service and the lies. Adelanto's parents even had to go to court to force the district to accept their petition.

The L.A.-based Parent Revolution has been a guiding hand behind the parent trigger campaigns around Southern California. Because the group receives funding from the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations – all major players in the education policy world – it has also become the main target of the law's enemies. Ravitch recently called Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director, "loathsome" and "Walton's useful idiot."

Austin, who can brawl with the best of them, doesn't seem too bothered by the critics.

"The goal is not to do parent trigger campaigns for the sake of doing parent trigger campaigns," he told me. "The goal is to give parents power, and to give them a seat at the table – something they've never had before."

Austin says the quiet outcome in Pacoima, where parents chose in-district reforms rather than push for a charter conversion, is as much a victory as the more high-profile fights in Adelanto and Watts.

Of course, it's one thing to use a relatively new law to force public school officials to make changes they might not make otherwise. Getting results is another matter. We should know in about a year whether the parent trigger reforms are making a difference in terms of academic outcomes.

But the law has already passed a major test: It's engaging parents in new ways – and it has enemies of reform running scared.

Original Source:



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