Examining California's Parent Trigger Law

California's new "parent trigger" law allows parents with children at a troubled public school to "trigger" one of four school intervention models simply by signing a petition. Parents in Compton have done that already. Gloria Romero, the former California state senator who wrote the law, offers her insight. And Rogers, professor and director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, says he thinks the challenges of funding school transformations could ultimately make the parent trigger law ineffective.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Our next two stories are about public schools and how in some states parents are becoming more powerful in shaping the way their kids are being taught.

Last year, in California, the state legislature approved something known as the parent trigger law. Here's a brief explanation of how it works from Gloria Romero, the state senator who drafted the legislation.

State Senator GLORIA ROMERO (Democrat, California): So what we did in the law was to say, OK, if the state of California identifies an underperforming school - chronically underperforming - and, you know, that's being polite. I'd say failing school. The parents have a right to sign a petition if they get 50 percent plus one of the signatures of parents, of children who are enrolled in that school or at the feeder school coming in. They have a right then to go to the school board, to deliver the petitions and to say, under federal law, these are the options that you, the school board members, can use to transform, restructure, shut down, fire all staff, convert to a charter, there are a number of options that are available under federal law.

And since you haven't used them, we now are demanding for the interest of our children that you do it. And if you cannot do it, then you have to tell us why you cannot do this.

RAZ: Now, late last year, parents in Compton, California, were the first to take advantage of the law. An outside group called Parent Revolution helped draft the petition to convert McKinley Elementary into a charter school.

Caroll Turner's daughter, Tafiya, was a student there.

Ms. CAROLL TURNER: I know from the start if my daughter is coming home complaining that it's not my child, because she's never came home to complain about a teacher before. So I know that there had to be some kind of problem. That was about the time that I found out about Parent Revolution, and I signed the petition to support the parent trigger law.

RAZ: McKinley Elementary has been identified by the state of California as one of 75 schools that are failing. Less than a quarter of the kids there meet state standards in math and reading.

Now, the school board in Compton is challenging the petition. And the California Federation of Teachers, the main teachers union, says the law amounts to a parent lynch mob. But lawmakers in several other states, including Maine, Ohio and Illinois, are now also considering whether to introduce similar laws there.

John Rogers has written about the law, especially its potential impact on California. He runs UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. And he says the main problem isn't governance. It's money.

California now ranks 46th in the nation for per-student spending. And in recent months, the state's reduced that spending even further.

Professor JOHN ROGERS (Director, UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access): As a consequence, California schools have larger classrooms than anywhere else in the nation. They have less access to some other fundamental educational resources, like access to counselors, access to textbooks in many other parts of the nation.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. Now, I mean, I understand the possibility of some chaos resulting from, you know, certain instances where parents invoke the trigger law, like in Compton. But I wonder whether some of that chaos might actually do good, might actually mean that, you know, districts like Compton begin to offer the same quality and level of education that students in, say, the Beverly Hills school district get.

Prof. ROGERS: When you look at the conditions in Beverly Hills compared to Compton, the problems do not primarily lie with poor governance in Compton schools relative to Beverly Hills schools. The problems relate to the fact that Beverly Hills schools spend some $3,000 more for each and every student than the schools in Compton. Beverly Hills schools are able to draw upon the local wealth within Beverly Hills. The city of Beverly Hills contributes to its local public schools some $3,000 for each and every student.

That makes a huge difference in the number of students that are going to be in each and every classroom, the number of counselors that are provided, the number of other academic supports that are there, the quality of the textbooks. You cannot change those resources simply through a trigger process.

RAZ: But my understanding was that - according to Senator Romero's argument that the trigger law was designed to create a more equitable education system. In other words, to give kids in Compton the same level of education that kids in the more affluent district would receive. It will not address those, you say?

Prof. ROGERS: It does not address disparities that exist between different districts. What the trigger law at its best will do is to shake things up. It will take an individual school or within a district and communicate to school officials, to district officials that our parents are dissatisfied with what's going on.

The question for me becomes, how can parents and community members have a sustained role in a collective way in shaping what's going on in the school, even after they've said, we don't like what's going on.

The trigger allows parents to say what they don't like. It does not provide a mechanism for parents in a sustained way to say what they do want and how they can shape a process to achieve those goals.

RAZ: That's John Rogers. He's the director of UCLA's institute for democracy education and access.

John, thank you so much.

Mr. ROGERS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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