Trigger Laws – Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?

By David Bacon

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

Parent trigger laws, according to their proponents, give parents power. Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Broad Education Foundation, calls them “a way for parents’ voices to be heard.”

Sounds good. But is the parent trigger concept a way to put parents in charge of their kids’ education, or is it part of a political agenda that will rob parents of even more control?

The first parent trigger law was passed in California last year. It says that if the parents of 51 percent of a public school’s students sign a petition (the “trigger”), that petition will result in one of four options: firing the principal, bringing in an entirely new staff, closing the school, or handing over the school to a charter school operator. Rather than triggering a broader process, the specific option—for example, the specific charter school company—is part of the petition.

Several very conservative players in national education reform, in addition to Broad, have made parent trigger proposals a key part of their agenda. Many teachers fear the expansion of a privatized education system, and view parent trigger laws as a means for rushing the process forward.

And there is no indication that these laws increase parental voice in their children’s education. “You get one shot and that’s it, because once that charter is formed, that charter dictates how it will operate,” John Rogers, associate professor of urban schooling at UCLA, told NBC’s Education Nation. “[Parents] have fewer rights in the context of a charter than they would at a public school.”

As trigger laws are introduced in state after state, California’s experience is being watched closely. When the trigger law there was up for a vote, Democrats, among them Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a former field rep for United Teachers Los Angeles), spoke for the bill, although the votes to pass it came mostly from Republicans. Teachers’ unions lobbied against it, while a chorus of mainstream media hailed it. Patrick Range McDonald of the LA Weekly claimed it was the product of “minority parents and fierce reformers, who seemed to materialize from thin air.”

Not quite. Although some grassroots parents undoubtedly did support the bill, it was the product of powerful political figures, backed by the wealthy foundations that shape much of the country’s debate over education reform. SBX54 was written by the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU), started in 2006 by the Green Dot charter school company. The LAPU was headed by political operative Ben Austin, who then started another organization, Parent Revolution, to promote and implement the parent trigger law. At its birth, Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget supplied by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Austin, recently replaced by California Gov. Jerry Brown on the State Board of Education, is Parent Revolution’s executive director. He was an aide in the Clinton White House, and deputy to Los Angeles’ former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. Parent Revolution’s organizing director is Pat DeTemple, a lawyer who worked for Service Employees Local 1199 on the East Coast, for the United Farm Workers before that, and was an organizer for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Taking Aim: Compton, California

When the law passed, Parent Revolution sent organizers into Compton in southeast Los Angeles, one of the nation’s poorest communities, with some of its lowest-scoring schools. Compton, where most families are African American and Latino, has huge budget problems, as do most working-class communities in the state. In the current recession Compton’s problems have grown to crisis proportions. Last summer its unemployment rate hit 22 percent.

Parent Revolution focused its petition drive on McKinley Elementary School, which has an Academic Performance Index score of 684, one of the lowest in the Compton Unified School District.

“A woman named Rosemary came to my door,” recalls parent Carla Garcia. “She said she wanted to make changes to improve and beautify McKinley. There was a place on the form that asked about our concerns, so I signed and circled ‘safety.’ I’ve been worried that the school gates are sometimes left open, and children might wander out, or other people come in.” Garcia’s daughter Ayalett is in Ms. Williams’ 1st-grade class, and Lynette is in Mr. Tellez’s 3rd-grade class.

Parent trigger proponents argue that the petition process lets parents decide how their school should be changed. But the petition Garcia signed didn’t offer a choice of the four options in the law, because it must specify only one. Parent Revolution staff wrote the McKinley petition before the process of contacting parents began. At the start of two inches of legal language in dense small print at the top of the page, it says it would “transform McKinley Elementary School under the RESTART MODEL, to be reopened under Celerity Educational Group, a Charter Management Organization (CMO).”

Celerity has four campuses in Los Angeles, and in 2008–09 total revenue of $11,028,959, with expenses of $9,329,906. Although its bylaws state “employees may join and be represented” by unions (a right guaranteed by state and federal law), another section says job duties, discipline, “and all other work basis will be negotiated in individual at-will agreements.” At-will employment allows employers to terminate employees or change their conditions “at will.”

Right away, parents were divided over whether or not they favored a charter conversion. Some, like Garcia, felt misled. “They never said this was a petition for a charter school,” she charges. “I don’t want that for McKinley.” She eventually withdrew her signature.

Parent Caroll Turner, however, was so impressed by Celerity she enrolled her daughter at one of its schools. “I don’t think McKinley is a good school,” she says. Turner came to Compton recently from Tyler, Texas. Before arriving she tried to talk with district staff about where to enroll her daughter: “They didn’t tell me McKinley was a failing school. When I found out, I wanted to change that. Every child has a right to a good education.”

Lilia Buenrostro, with a son in 3rd grade, works part time in the cafeteria and volunteers after school. She went to McKinley herself as a child. “I’m not against charter schools,” she explains. “But why don’t they organize one from scratch? I don’t want them to do it at McKinley. I want McKinley to stay public.”

“I don’t oppose charters either,” says Carolyn Richie, president of the Compton Council of Classified Employees, AFT Local 6119. She has one teenage son in a local charter, and one in public school. “What I don’t like is the process they used to get signatures. I don’t want to see public schools become charter schools, but my main concern is that we have an open process. As a parent myself, I’d be furious if I didn’t have any say.”

Parent Revolution organizers went door to door, and then held house meetings for small groups of parents. They didn’t try to organize large, open meetings to which all parents, much less teachers and staff, could come and debate their course of action. As a result, many parents felt excluded.

Victor Varelas, an Ecuadorian immigrant, and former labor and student activist, believed the school didn’t pay adequate attention to families. He points to the benches in front where parents wait to pick up their children. “Why isn’t there some cover from the sun or rain?” he asks. “On street sweeping days they get tickets for parking in front while they walk their kids to class. A $51 fine is a lot for families in this neighborhood. The school promises to do something about it but nothing changes.

“[Parent Revolution] said a charter school would get the [California Academic Performance Index] up to 800,” he recalls. Varelas put four children through Compton schools, including McKinley, and now has four grandchildren there. Like many parents, he worried that a bad score meant a bad school. That’s what the mainstream media and the standardized testing industry claim. “Six hundred sixty-five means education is bad. Eight hundred means it’s good,” he says.

“They also told parents that the school would close, at every meeting. Some parents were scared there’d be no school at all for their children.” Originally a supporter of the trigger petition, Varelas grew uncomfortable with the process. “They’d always have these small meetings, where often there were more staff than parents. Other parents began coming to me, asking why they were holding meetings without telling everyone. The staff was always in charge at every meeting.” Finally, on the morning of the press conference when the petition was turned in, Varelas left the campaign.

Petitions were submitted, allegedly from parents of 256 of McKinley’s 415 students. From the beginning, however, questions swirled around the signatures and the way they were gathered. On Jan. 19 district human relations officer Alejandro Flores sent a letter to all the parents who’d signed, asking them to come to the school on Jan. 26 or 27 to verify their signatures. Flores’ letter was criticized strongly by Parent Revolution and its allies. Spanish-language media focused attention on its requirement that parents show a driver’s license or photo ID to validate their signatures. Commentators said it would make undocumented parents worry that their immigration status might be questioned.

Parent Revolution set up a table outside the school on the verification days, urging parents to boycott the signature checking. Only a few more than 50 came in. Courts halted the verification process and months of legal wrangling ensued. Finally, in mid-May, L.A. Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr invalidated the petition because many signatures had no dates showing when parents had signed. He agreed with the district’s position that, without dates, it couldn’t be sure the student in question was enrolled at the time or was under the care of the person signing.

Then, on May 25, the L.A. County Office of Education gave Celerity permission to open a charter school at the Church of the Redeemer, two blocks from McKinley. (In December, at the time that Parent Revolution filed the trigger petition, Celerity had also independently applied for a separate charter in the McKinley neighborhood. The Compton district turned it down, but the County Office of Education ultimately overruled them.) Parent Revolution hailed the announcement of the charter’s approval as a victory, and Austin told a press conference “the parents of McKinley . . . have won that fight.”

Pulling for a Trigger in Buffalo

While the McKinley drama was playing out in Compton, in mid-May parents in Buffalo, N.Y., pulled kids out of schools for half a day, protesting a two-tier school system. White students are concentrated in three high-quality college prep high schools, whereas the high school graduation rate is only 25 percent for young African American men in Buffalo’s majority-black district.

The action was organized by the District Parent Coordinating Council. It was strongly supported by Buffalo ReformED, an upstate education reform group that wants to implement a local parent trigger law patterned after California’s. Buffalo ReformED is very openly pro-charter, but unlike Parent Revolution, which declares itself pro-union, it is very critical of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Buffalo ReformED is funded in part by the Oishei Foundation, set up by John R. Oishei, founder of Trico Corporation, whose factories making windshield wipers are Buffalo’s largest private sector employer. The reform group notes on its website that 8,000 students in western New York attend 16 charter schools, with waiting lines to get in. More charters would “foster a partnership between parents, teachers, and students to create an environment in which parents can be more involved, teachers are given the freedom to innovate, and students are provided the structure they need to learn,” the group says.

A detailed paper on the teachers’ union contract, however, makes clear that Buffalo ReformED sees the union as a main obstacle. “The contract,” writes director Hannya Boulos, “hinders any effort to provide extra assistance to students outside regular school hours, limits professional development, and limits instruction time, creating a culture that allows for teachers and administrators to do the bare minimum. . . . The federation is securing their rights at the expense of students and parents.” Boulos concludes that the contract’s job protections—including seniority, job definitions, tenure, and others—“collectively contribute to poor student achievement and a failing school system. This contract marginalizes the needs of students to a dangerous point.”

Implementing a parent trigger law in that context would likely produce petitions to bring in antiunion charter companies to take over public schools. If Boulos’ goals are achieved, that would drastically affect teachers’ conditions and their union.

Other national groups also propose parent trigger laws as part of agendas that favor charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure, and restricting teachers’ unions. A major one is the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that has fought tobacco regulation and legislation to address climate change. It is part of a constellation of libertarian and conservative groups that includes the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s funded by the right-wing Sarah Scaife and John M. Olin foundations, as well as ExxonMobil, Phillip Morris, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Heartland in the Heartland

The Heartland Institute has been at the forefront of promoting parent trigger laws to legislators, Tea Party groups, and school reform advocates across the country, according to communications director Jim Lakely. Last year Heartland published The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education, by Joseph L. Bast, Bruno Behrend, Ben Boychuk, and Marc Oestreich. “Conservatives and libertarians should support the parent trigger because it could allow parents to choose charters or even vouchers,” the paper urges.

After Ohio’s first-term Republican Gov. John Kasich announced he was including a trigger law in his budget proposal, Oestreich, Heartland’s legislative analyst, enthused: “It is clear that the traditional union model of reform—more money, more teachers—has failed Ohio. Gov. Kasich’s announcement of a parent trigger breathes life back into a dying system by empowering parents to tackle school problems in the most democratic and localized way imaginable.”

In March, Gov. Kasich signed Senate Bill 5, restricting the bargaining rights of 350,000 Ohio public employees, including teachers, in the face of massive protest. He cited an alleged $8 billion deficit to justify it, the same rationale he used to cut the education budget. That will have a devastating impact on Ohio schools. When legislators started to pull back from including the trigger measure in the budget as well, it was amended to cover only Columbus city schools, and the budget passed.

In New Jersey, Heartland works with Republican Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, who introduced a parent trigger bill in January that would allow only three options—replacing a school’s staff, handing it over to a charter operator, and one additional option not found in California—giving parents vouchers they could use for any other school, public or private. After the bill failed to move, Heartland organized a forum, featuring the senator, for an audience of other legislators, and business and government leaders. Kyrillos, managing partner in a real estate firm, also introduced a bill to end tenure for teachers and set up a merit pay system.

Mississippi’s parent trigger law, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, is even more restrictive, allowing only charter school conversion. Other bills are in the wings in Indiana, West Virginia, and Georgia, where Heartland also plays a major role. Missouri’s trigger bill, HB 393, died when the Legislature adjourned in May without passing it, and Colorado’s died in a Senate committee. Two bills were introduced in Pennsylvania in 2009, but also failed. In Iowa, North Carolina, North Dakota, Michigan, Maine, Utah, and Maryland, media reports indicate that bills are still being considered.

For conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute, this is all part of a larger agenda for shifting wealth back into private hands, and shrinking the section of government that provides services like education. They oppose measures to make public schools more effective, especially smaller class sizes, because districts would need more money, and have to hire more teachers to implement them. They justify the cuts by saying, as Oestreich does, that more money and more teachers have failed. He presents parent trigger laws as a substitute for more funding, and because they move schools out of the public system.

StudentsFirst, the project started by Michelle Rhee after she resigned as school superintendent in Washington, D.C., opposes reduced class sizes and more educated teachers. “Small class sizes and required higher pay for higher degrees may have marginal bene?ts, but the evidence of their effect on student achievement is weak,” she says in her policy agenda. Parent trigger is a major part of that agenda.

Connecticut Takes a Different Road

In Connecticut, however, another alternative emerged in the negotiations over a parent trigger bill, introduced in its state legislature in February 2010. The original proposal was made in a group of reforms put forward by the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, strongly supported by the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now. ConnCAN has focused its energy on opening charter schools and a “money follows the child” scheme to make school districts give charters the state average per-pupil funding for each charter student. ConnCAN’s recently resigned director, Alex Johnson, praised “the brilliance of the parent trigger concept [of the California law] as a tool for activating parents in support of charter school conversions.”

After negotiations, however, Connecticut created a very different program to support parent engagement. Under it, all schools that have not made adequate yearly progress in mathematics and reading must form a school governance council. A school board can also voluntarily establish one for any school.

Parents elect seven members, and teachers five. The council members then choose two other community leaders. The principal may appoint a nonvoting member, and high school students can elect two others, also nonvoting. The councils review the school’s achievement data, its draft budget, and advise on hiring, program, and operations. The council must develop a parent involvement policy and a school-parent compact, and must survey parents every year. It does not, however, have authority over matters governed by a union contract between teachers and a district.

After three years, if the school doesn’t improve, the council can recommend reconstitution to the local board of education. If the board doesn’t agree, the state education commissioner decides. Options include the federal models of firing the principal, replacing the entire staff, and charter conversion, and state models creating “CommPACT” and “innovation” schools.

“We wanted parent involvement in a meaningful way,” says Connecticut AFT head Sharon Palmer. “The parent trigger process didn’t provide that. Our goal was better bonding between parents and teachers, and a process where parents could take ownership.” Although there was little trust between parent groups and teachers at the start, she says, in the end most agreed to the plan.

As a model for increasing parent power in schools, Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, points to the local school councils established in the Chicago Public Schools in 1989. “These elected, parent-majority bodies make critical decisions about school programs, budgets, and leadership at most CPS schools,” she says. “They are the engine for local site management, accountability, and participation.” However, according to Woestehoff, the councils have been undermined, first by a “business- and politician-driven movement” under Mayor Richard Daley and later by Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he headed the Chicago schools.

Like Woestehoff, many education activists believe other alternatives offer more parental control than parent trigger laws. Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, says, “The [California parent trigger] law seems to encourage a dangerous polarization of an important issue. . . . Why not vote to ‘improve’ a failing school and then take direct responsibility for contributing to that improvement? With more than 50 percent of any parent community behind improvement (as opposed to restructuring or closure), a school could make immediate and significant gains on many fronts.”

Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, asserts: “Signing a petition to close a school does not engage parents in a dialogue, visioning, or powerful decision-making. . . . It’s shortsighted and underestimates the power of communities to make systemic change. Additionally, it runs a serious chance of abuse and racial polarization where intentions behind the petition may not be just about academics.”

In July the California State Board of Education adopted new regulations for the process. They require posting a sample petition on a website, public disclosure of financial support, including the payment of full-time staff, for groups circulating petitions, and forbid paying for signatures. Signatures will be verified by comparing them to existing school records. The regulations still don’t require public meetings of parents, however. According to the California Teachers Association, which supported the new regulations, other state laws still require that any charter conversion have the support of a majority of teachers at the affected school, but the new regulations are silent on that issue.

At McKinley, meanwhile, PTA president Cynthia Martinez thinks the school should be given a chance. “The educational level is not where it should be, but it’s gone up over the last two years.” She credits the change to Principal Fleming Robinson. “A school isn’t something you can change from one day to another,” she says.

But there’s still no cover over the bench where parents wait. They still get citations when they park in front to drop kids off. Education quality aside, you can imagine a mother holding a $51 ticket deciding that the next time that petition comes around, she’ll sign.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist in California. His latest book is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.