California has produced some interesting laws over the years, many of them by referendum; but it is still surprising that, last year, the state legislature passed America’s most powerful school-choice law, giving parents the ability to seize control of schools from teachers’ unions.
In 2010, parents in Compton, on the South Side of Los Angeles, made use of that tool, called the “parent trigger,” for the first time: After gathering the signatures of 63 percent of the parents of children attending Benjamin McKinley Elementary School, they demanded that it be transformed into a charter school.
The petition was eventually disallowed on a technicality, after a furor stoked by teachers, administrators, and charter-school opponents. But the incident was still significant: It was the first use of the parent trigger, a method that has won supporters across the nation.
The law works as follows: If a majority of the parents of children at a chronically failing school sign a petition demanding action, they have the right to institute one of four major reforms: firing the school’s principal, replacing the majority of the staff, shutting the school and sending the students elsewhere, or replacing the administration with the management of a nearby charter school.
The main author of the bill was the Democratic state senate’s majority leader, Gloria Romero. “You shouldn’t have to write this bill,” she says. “The adults who run the education bureaucracy should be doing this, but they’re not.”
As a self-proclaimed “liberal progressive Democrat” and a member of a teachers’ union, Senator Romero found the actions of the education bureaucracy — school administrators and teachers’ unions — and their results unconscionable. She notes the importance of education as “a civil-rights issue”; her regular invocation of the phrase “we, the parents,” is fraught with meaning. She argues that poor schools deprive parents and children of their legal privileges — “I want parents to have rights, genuine rights,” she says. According to her, federal law, in the form of the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965 and the No Child Left Behind Act, call for action at the state level when schools are consistently failing, but prior to parent trigger, only the bottom 5 percent of California schools were eligible.
The parent trigger was part of a comprehensive effort to address the pathetic state of California education, emphasizing accountability and parental empowerment and requiring such simple but essential reforms as making and publicizing a list of the state’s worst-performing schools.
The influence of education special interests in California almost cannot be overstated — they made the legislation both necessary and difficult to pass. While legitimate questions have been raised about the power of parent groups advocating charter schools and other specific reforms, those groups cannot begin to match the influence of teachers’ unions: When Senator Romero ran for superintendent of state instruction, the California Teachers Association alone spent more than $4 million to defeat her. In order to counteract such interests in the California senate, she framed education as being at the center of both “economic prosperity” and “civil rights” — creating a bipartisan appeal that convinced enough politicians to betray their entrenched allies.
Romero attributes the enactment of the parent-trigger legislation to a unique bipartisan moment: California had a Republican governor who embraced the Democratic-sponsored legislation, while the Obama administration had begun to challenge union influence in schools. Republicans have been fighting teachers’ unions for years with little success, so Democrats willing to oppose those interests can make a crucial difference. Even the NAACP supported the bill.
Such interests have trotted out misleading arguments against the parent trigger in both California and Michigan, attacking it as a Trojan horse for charter-school advocates. In fact, the trigger enables a range of reforms, of which charterization is only one. Linda Serrato — deputy communications director for Parent Revolution, the original advocates of the trigger — says that “once you give [parents] the power to do what’s best for their kids . . . they’re going to start researching what’s best for them.” In the particular case where the trigger was enacted, Serrato notes that parents considered the Compton school “a failure factory” where “the mentality had to be changed.” Moreover, there happened to be an effective charter school nearby that could take over. Parents may well choose less drastic options elsewhere.
Good social policy strengthens communities and empowers families, not bureaucrats, to make decisions — but the fact that the parent trigger does this does not guarantee its success. Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that parent involvement in schools is “almost an unmitigated good,” but he cautions that one should be wary of community influence in school management. He wonders what would “be the mechanism for helping these parents decide what type of reform to enact, sorting through who are the rip-off artists and professional developers and who have smart ideas.”
Hess links this to another concern: that “most [education-reform] ideas start off as one sensible option,” but then start being considered an end in themselves. Charter schools in the early 1990s followed that path, being presented as one good option out of many until advocates “built up such a head of steam” for the idea that they ended up “massively overselling it.” He notes that Parent Revolution, smeared by trigger opponents as a charter-school lobbying group, has done excellent work on educating and empowering families to make the right choices after the trigger is pulled.
The law deserves praise in particular for offering an innovative solution to a pernicious problem: Many reformers believe education is best administered by local authorities, but at the local level, the influence of administrators and teachers’ unions is often overwhelming. They have this influence for at least two reasons: Teachers’ unions maintain political organizations almost unparalleled in local resources and enthusiasm, while administrators naturally control most of the decisions in a school district and wield significant power, especially over poorer parents and new immigrants.
The parent trigger gives parents the leverage they need to oppose these forces, but allows them to decide how and when to use it. Just the existence of the trigger exacts higher standards from schools: They face the dual threat of federal action if they remain in the bottom 5 percent of schools in their state and of parental action if they are considered consistently failing by the state of California. Clearly, schools should not have to wallow in the bottom 5 percent in order to be threatened with comprehensive reform, and reform should be guided by the local community. Until the enactment of the parent trigger in California, no such option existed.
The parent trigger is hardly a panacea for all schools, but it is an innovative education reform. Local communities can choose their own policies, federal and state governments provide leverage without overreach, and parents make the ultimate decisions for their children. Conservatives can certainly support such a policy.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow.