Final (maybe) Trigger regs to a vote

On Wednesday, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst may finally succeed in getting the Parent Trigger off his and the Board’s agenda. But first, he must persuade a majority of the Board to pass the latest version of Parent Trigger regulations that he personally helped revise.

He’ll have an ally in Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that has been packing State Board meetings with dozens of parents month after month. While initially voicing fear that Kirst and other new State Board appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown would sabotage the law, last week Parent Revolution praised the latest “fair, thoughtful, pro-parent draft” of regulations.

The readable, 21-page draft could provide guidance to the dozen states where Parent Trigger legislation has been introduced but not moved forward, in part because of controversy and uncertainty surrounding California’s law. The latest version clarifies and incorporates some of the compromises that Parent Revolution and representatives from the Assn. of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Assn. worked out over months of negotiations. It excludes a contentious option suggested by the California Teachers Association that would have given a majority of teachers at a school subject to a Parent Trigger petition the power to overturn parents’ demand for a conversion to a charter school. Parent Revolution has called for Board member Patricia Rucker, a CTA lobbyist, to recuse herself from Wednesday’s vote.

Learning from Compton experience

Under the Parent Trigger, which the Legislature passed hurriedly in January 2010, a majority of parents in an underperforming school or the feeder schools to that school can demand one of four drastic changes: closing it down, switching to a charter school, firing the principal and half of the staff, or transforming it through after-school programs and other changes. (These are the same four controversial options that the Obama administration requires for failing schools that get federal School Improvement Grant money.)

The law’s vagueness has been a problem for the State Board, which was left with the task of writing implementation regulations. The need for specifics became evident in the nasty fight between activists and teachers at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified over the only Parent Trigger petition submitted so far. Both sides charged harassment; the parents sued the district over the signature verification process and tactics of intimidation. A Superior Court judge supported the parents on most issues and criticized the district’s tactics but eventually threw out the petitions on a technicality. Faced with a year’s delay, the parents chose to open up a charter school in a nearby church this fall.

The Compton experience informed Kirst and State Board of Education employees as they sought common-sense solutions to points of contention over the signature collection and verification process, deadlines for filing, and disagreements in particular over converting the school to a charter, which will likely be parents’ most frequent preference. Some key changes to in the latest draft:

  • The state Department of Education will create a website with sample petitions – a remedy to the technical omission in the Compton case;
  • Petition signers, school personnel, parents, and district officials shall be free from threats and intimidation and shall not discourage parents from signing a petition;
  • Petitions must identify groups like Parent Revolution that are organizing petition drives; paid signature gatherers must identify themselves, cannot be paid by the signature, and cannot offer incentives and material awards for signing;
  • Parents can designate key organizers to whom the district should turn to help reach parents and verify signatures;
  • Districts should use standard methods, like emergency forms on file at the school, to verify parents’ signatures; they should not disqualify signatures on technicalities if it’s clear that parents intended to sign a petition;
  • Petition organizers get one second chance to fix technical problems with the petition and add signatures if others have been disqualified.
  • Districts will have 40 days to verify the signatures and respond the first time a petition is submitted and an additional 25 days for verification a second time after parents fix mistakes and add names;
  • If parents request a specific charter group to run the charter, the district will vet the petition like any other charter proposal under the state charter law;
  • If parents want a conversion to a charter but don’t suggest a specific operator, they will have the opportunity to recommend one.

Creating the regulations has been prolonged and contentious, because the stakes for parents displeased with their school and teachers who might lose their jobs are high.

Tight timetable

Kirst and drafters were careful to avoid creating new mandates that the state would have to pay for. So reasonable ideas, like requiring informational hearings explaining  parents’ options and giving both parent activists and the district a chance to say their piece, have been omitted from the final draft.

Kirst said it’s not possible to anticipate every conflict, but that the regulations deal with many of the issues that have been raised and should cut down on potential lawsuits.

The Board is under a tight timetable. If there are no significant objections to the draft regs, the Board can approve them on Wednesday or, after a 15-day review, take a formal vote in September. But if significant new issues are raised, pushing back a vote on the regulations to October or later, the Board will miss a deadline and have to start the entire process again, which the Board would like to avoid.

Meanwhile, a bill to clarify certain aspects of the Parent Trigger law, AB 203, is moving along surprisingly with no significant opposition. It is sponsored by Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

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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