The failure to enact a parent trigger in Adelanto,
California, shows how difficult it is to campaign for the sweeping reform the
law allows, as it should be. If the parents at Desert Trails Elementary want to
either replace the instructional and administrative staff or convert the school
into a charter, it had better have the support of an overwhelming majority of
parents. The campaign had boasted that 70 percent of Desert Trails parents
supported pulling the trigger, but
the Los Angeles Times reported that
nearly 100 later backed out of the petition,
which the school board on
Tuesday threw out.

It should be difficult to campaign for the sweeping reform parent trigger
laws allow.

The effort may not have divided the school, as
a Times headline asserted earlier
this week
, but it certainly led a community of parents to splinter into
factions, including those who wanted to see change at a troubled school but not
a wholesale charter conversion. As more states like Florida
and Michigan
consider their own trigger laws, they should set the bar high to make sure that
transformational change is capable with only a supermajority of parents.

California’s law demands that a simple majority of parents at a low-performing traditional school
can petition for a charter conversion, and most states with trigger proposals
follow that formula. Ben Austin, the executive director of California’s Parent
Revolution, which helped organize Desert Trails parents, has said it’s hard to
meet even that threshold. He’s right. But a successful effort to upend a school
community with only 51 percent support has the potential to tear that community
apart and can leave the school with a parochial authority of parents who would
leave permanent marks long after they’ve divested their social capital.

A parent trigger is good policy. It brings families to a
bargaining table that has been the exclusive province of teachers unions and
school boards, and it begins to rethink the way we govern public education in
ways that meet the unique needs of low-performing and low-income students. As
Austin has said, the parent trigger empowers parents to declare, “You haven’t
listened to us for years, but now we have the power to fire you, so you have to
listen to us.”

The trigger also helps to balance any one monopoly, which is
why its first enactment last year in the Compton Unified School District
shamefully met with strong resistance from a
school board that made every attempt to intimidate the petitioners
. And its
popularity led to an embarrassing leak for the American Federation of Teachers,
drafted a memo that served as a textbook lesson
on how to kill a trigger
bill while giving parents a false sense of authority.

But a parent-directed
reform with a tenuous hold on support and authority can lead to its own
imbalance of power, a problem that can be checked if two-thirds of the families
agree to sign up. That’s a threshold required to pass constitutional referenda
in many states, and it’s one that can give parent unions an iron-clad tool of
leverage to turn around a struggling school.

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