Should parents take over failing schools? Currently, seven states have “parent-trigger” laws, which empower parents to take control of the fate of low-performing schools their children attend. Depending on the state, parents can vote for various options when schools are failing their children: They can vote to convert to a charter school, replace teachers and administrators, have the state take over the school, or even close the school altogether.
Last year’s movie Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, told the story of a group of parents who took over their children’s failing school. “Inspired by true events,” it illustrated with heartbreaking clarity the frustrations parents—and often teachers— feel when children become lost in bureaucracies and schools where it seems rigor mortis has set in. Not surprisingly, the movie was panned by unions and other anti-school choice activists.
In California, the only place parents have actually pulled the trigger on a “Parent Empowerment” law, it has been tried twice. The first attempt was the Compton Unified School District, where fewer than half of students graduate from high school and just 2% attend college. Under the California law, parents can use the trigger law if a district has failed to meet adequate yearly progress three years in a row and is in “corrective action” status under the federal No Child Left Behind law. It seems like a no-brainer that a major overhaul was in order, but it will surprise no one that when Compton parents organized to call for change, the unions and administration objected. Strenuously. They promised that reforms were right around the corner and that they just needed a little more time for their programs to work. It’s understandable that parents grew tired of waiting for promised reforms that might never come while their children languished in lousy schools.
In order for parents to take control of a school, they must file a petition with signatures from 50% of the parents of each targeted school. Parents chose to try out the California law on McKinley Elementary School, ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in the state. They turned in signatures from 62% of parents in the district and that’s when the claws came out. The school district demanded that parents verify their signatures in person and—I am not making this up—that parents show photo identification. Some parents claimed the schools threatened them with deportation, and others said teachers told children the school would be closed or the kids wouldn’t receive special education services if the parents succeeded. Some parents rescinded their signatures. Board members claimed “outside groups” pressured the parents to sign the petition. Leaders of the trigger movement dispute that claim, as does the state school board president. The board also said the petition was “materially non-qualifying” and rejected it on a technicality with a 7-0 vote, saying it cited the wrong education code and didn’t contain correct information about the charter school operator they had selected. Despite pro bono legal help, parents failed in their bid to reform the school.