Trigger Happy

Parents of students at chronically underperforming public schools now have the ability to shut schools down by banding together, thanks to the Parent Empowerment Act that California adopted in January 2010. This “trigger law” gives parents considerable legal power in the educational system, sparking a debate over whether this power is being placed in the right hands. According to the at, if 51 percent of parents agree that a school’s system is not working, they can “trigger” change by demanding that one of four options be taken: ousting the principal, replacing the staff, shutting the school down entirely or allowing a charter operator to take control of the school. California, Texas and Mississippi have all passed parent trigger laws in the past two years, while 22 other states are entertaining the idea of implementing similar laws. Though well-intentioned, these “parent trigger” laws foster opportunities for the unwitting misuse of power, since parents don’t have the expertise of career educators and are unqualified to make big policy changes. Signing a petition does not automatically solve the problem — pulling the “trigger” in fact, has powerful recoil.

As a general trend, California schools are on a downturn. At the Los Angeles Academy Middle School, for example, only 1 in 5 students tested proficient in math last year, and only 1 in 4 were found to be proficient in language arts. Unrelenting problems like these have caused impatient desperate parents to turn to the district and school administration. Woodcrest Elementary School, also in Los Angeles, is in a similar situation; there, frustrated parents hold small group meetings and draw up lists of action items, as only an alarmingly low 0.2 percent of the school’s students have been identified as gifted. It’s understandable that parents are trying to seek their own answers to the system’s problems, but giving them power a la the Parent Empowerment Act may not be the most effective tactic.

Parent trigger laws have produced failure in the past, as in the case of Compton’s McKinley Elementary in February 2011. The school has an Academic Performance Index score of 684 (out of a maximum of 800), placing itself at the bottom of Compton Unified School District. Half of the students at the school did not meet state standards in math and reading, prompting hundreds of parents to sign a petition to transform McKinley into a charter school. The school responded by challenging the petition’s validity — teachers are arguing that the signatures were obtained improperly and therefore the petition is void. The struggle between the new “parent union” and the teacher union has created a months-long deadlock in court. The situation at Compton exemplifies how ineffective and counterproductive these judicial battles can be. The California Federation of Teachers labeled the law “lynch mob” legislation, as it essentially creates parent unions that challenge teachers with threats of bringing the legal system into the equation.

Under the “parent trigger law,” parents would be allowed to select which charter school operator they would like to take over their children’s schools. The newly hired administrators of the schools would be given great flexibility in staffing, budgeting and scheduling. This poses a problem as most parents lack the expertise to select a quality administrator, which could worsen a situation already in decline.Furthermore, charter schools are not an end-all solution to the problem. Results are far less positive than studies suggest. Stanford economist Margaret Raymond conducted a national study, in which she found that 37 percent of charter schools performed worse than their public school counterparts, 46 percent performed the same and only 17 percent showed superior results.

Another major concern is that the obstacle of funding school changes would render the parent trigger law ineffective. Many uninformed, idealistic parents believe that they have done their part by simply signing a petition, and expect the rest to automatically fall into place. If anything, the trigger law is merely a jumping point for parents to organize and rally around their interests. As of last May, California is in a $25-billion state budget deficit. In the past few years, half of the state’s schools have cut back on instructional days, two-thirds have taken out summer school and three-quarters of high schools have enlarged their class sizes. Changing public schools into charter schools and replacing staff would be an expensive, extensive process that involves paying for legal fees. Parents do not realize that funding a transformation of the educational system would be impossible in this financial crisis.

While the trigger law grants parents more of a voice in the educational system, with it comes responsibility and the looming shadow of unavoidable issues such as financing. The law is a theoretical move in the right direction, but requires much more than abstract idealism to actually be put into practice.

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