Parents in California 'Pulling the Trigger'

Parents of schoolchildren in Compton, California are armed and ready... armed, that is, with provisions of the state's new Parent Empowerment Act or, as it is more commonly referred to, the parent trigger law. The law gives a stronger voice to parents and allows them to band together to make what they feel are necessary changes to their school system. But is the new law 'lynch mob legislation' or educational reform at its best?

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Parent Power

Parents in Compton made history in July 2011 when they became the first in the country to exercise the parent trigger law to enforce changes at McKinley Elementary School, which is part of the Compton Unified School District. While Texas, Ohio, Connecticut and Mississippi have passed similar laws, no other district has seen parents utilize the powers that the law bestows upon them.

Those powers include the right to collect signatures on a petition to instill changes that could lead to teacher or administrative replacement or even to the school being taken over by a charter school operator. The law also grants parents the power, once 51% of them have signed, to choose which charter school operator they would like to place in charge. In the case of McKinley Elementary, those signing the petition felt a charter school would be the only answer to the institution's ongoing struggles (more than 50% of students there do not meet math and reading standards).

For now, the validity of the petition is being questioned by the school, and the case now resides in court. But whatever the outcome, the episode has shown that wherever the parent trigger law has been enacted, parents can now be heard in a way they never have been before. As one sign at a recent protest rally read: 'The power is with the parents.'

Yet despite the parents' vested interest in their children's schools, some question whether such power has been wisely administered.

Is Trigger Law a Loaded Gun?

The argument has been made that decisions about educational matters should be left to educators and policymakers, not parents, who may simply lack the knowledge and expertise needed to make such decisions. Others say that the ability to 'overthrow' traditional public schools and bring in charter schools could result in more disruption than productive change.

Teachers unions remain the biggest opponents of parent trigger laws. The California Federation of Teachers has gone as far as to say that the law is a 'parent lynch mob.' These so-called parent unions can sometimes, teachers say, hurt efforts for progress made by their union. At a recent meeting, a lobbyist for the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers presented a lecture on how teachers could effectively weaken the parent trigger law.

In some ways, parents could end up being their own worst enemies. Some say lack of organization could undermine the efforts of well-intentioned parents. The law should be about more than sending off a petition and believing change will automatically happen. Supporters of the new law stress that parents should realize that they need to organize, hold meetings and generally learn as much about the issues at hand as they are able to before attempting to enact what could amount to radical change. Ben Austin, executive director of a group that organizes parents utilizing the trigger law called Parent Revolution, acknowledged that there was a lack of organization and leadership in the Compton campaign.

The Compton effort also reflects how 'pulling the trigger' can lead to a war of words. From alleged accusations by teachers that students were not working hard enough to insinuations that parents had been forced to sign the petition, there's little doubt that the entire episode might have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many involved. It leaves one wondering just who wins and who loses in such a contest. In Compton's case, it's hard to say. While the petition is held up in court, a charter school opened near McKinley Elementary. And despite the parents' wishes to have that charter school, only about one-third have enrolled their children there.

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