Parents: Don’t gut ‘parent trigger’

Five dozen parents from Compton and all corners of Los Angeles drove all night in a packed school bus to deliver their message, in impassioned one-minute speeches in Spanish and English, to the State Board of Education: Don’t undermine the year-old  law giving parents the power to force structural changes in underperforming schools.

“Our children have a right to a university education,” implored one parent. “Failure is not an option.”

“We need your immediate attention,” demanded another. “Move swiftly to add to the mandate of a parent trigger law.”

Board members listened closely, and appeared moved.

“This is urgent,” agreed Yvonne Chan, a charter school principal from Los Angeles.

“Your bus trip was worth it and made an impression today,” said new Board member James Ramos.

“All of the Board is committed to move swiftly and thoughtfully to give you what you need,” said Gregory Jones.

Then, within minutes, high intention ran into Sacramento reality. It became evident in the Board’s discussion that turning aspiration into regulation, urgency notwithstanding, will  not be quick or easy – and will likely be contentious.

If parents came hopeful, they left Sacramento Wednesday uncertain and not a little bit suspicious.

The “parent trigger” law that gives a majority of parents at a school the right to demand a change of leadership or bring in a charter school operator is “difficult,” said new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson: “vague where it should be specific and specific where it should be flexible.”

The emergency implementation regulations that the State Board adopted last summer provided little guidance and are set to expire next month. Parents at an elementary school in Compton that submitted the first parent trigger petition in December already have filed suit – and have won a preliminary injunction over burdens that the district required for signature verification. Parent groups at middle schools in Carson and Sunland-Tujunga, in northeast Los Angeles, are deep in their own petition drives. Spurred by the organizers of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution,  parent activists want action now.

But the draft regulations that the State Board worked on for half a year doesn’t address the conflicts that already have surfaced in Compton over tactics and procedures. Groups representing teachers, school boards, administrators, the state PTA, and Public Advocates, which represents low-income families, asked the Board to take more time to get the regulations right.

Torlakson recommended – and the State Board unanimously agreed – to bring representatives of all of the groups, including Parent Revolution, together over the next month to hash out issues and provide direction to the Board.

But his disclosure that the Department of Education would also work with Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, on a “cleanup bill” to clarify the parent trigger law caught parent organizers by surprise and alarmed them. As an Assemblyman with close ties to the CTA last year, Torlakson led the opposition to the parent trigger law. Brownley proposed a watered-down version of the law.

“We are  certain to see a repeal effort under another name,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. “I have never heard in all public hearings and conference calls for eight months before now CDE (Department of Education) staff once say, ‘This law is just too hard; we need cleanup legislation.’”  (Go here for a short video interview of Gabe Rose.)

The Department’s position is that it is going to be difficult to craft regulations that hold up in court with the parent trigger as currently written. But Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger told me that Torlakson, while offering to work with Brownley, is not leading an effort to rewrite the law. He opposed the parent trigger because of philosophical differences; he questions whether parents should be given the authority to take control of a public asset. But he also saw problems with the law’s language.

Important issues must be addressed,  Zeiger said, naming off a few:

Definitions: Who is a parent? If parents from feeder schools have a say, how do you determine who?

Transparency: How do you set up a process where everyone can participate and make it equitable for all parties (teachers, parents)? How do you ensure there will be an accurate presentation of options? Should there be an officially sanctioned petition title with early disclosure, as with other petition drives?

Signatures: Does it matter if there are paid circulators? Should it be clear who is paying for the petition?

Procedural: Does a petition drive extend beyond one year? How long does it last?

Charter approval: Does a petition drive calling for a conversion charter school initiate a formal charter approval process, as with any new charter?

Parent activists have very different concerns: They want the regulations to protect them from harassment from district officials; they want simple and easy signature verifications; and they want tight deadlines. They know districts will try to drag out the process.

Agreeing that districts have a conflict of interest, newly nominated Board member Carl Cohn, a former superintendent from Long Beach and San Diego, suggested that county offices of education be brought in to oversee the petition and public hearing process. That likely would require a change in the law.

The State Board has a number of difficult decisions: Should it let the emergency regulations expire; replace them with new ones; adopt the draft regulations it inherited, with changes (because of formal review time line, that would take months, regardless); start the regulations process again and watch to see what the Legislature does, if anything?

For a State Board that wants to focus on issues of assessment, governance, finance reform and Common Core standards, the parent trigger issue will be time-consuming and controversial. For Gov. Jerry Brown, who will want a united campaign to pass tax extensions in June, any battle pitting parents against the education establishment would be perilous.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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