Pulling the ‘Parent Trigger’ to save failing schools

One of the better slogans to come out of the 1960s was “Power to the People.” It’s a sentiment that everyone — left, right, middle of the road — can agree on. It’s refreshing that California’s government — whose slogan too often seems to be “Power to the Bureaucrats” — has implemented the Parent Empowerment Act.

Also known as the “Parent Trigger,” it allows parents to take back their children’s school if it has a consistent record of failure: California Academic Performance Index scores of less than 800 and several years on the federally mandated improvement list.

There are 1,300 eligible schools in the state, according to the advocacy group Parent Revolution. Twelve of them are in San Francisco: Bessie Carmichael, Cleveland, Daniel Webster, Hillcrest, Leonard R. Flynn, Marshall and Rosa Parks elementary schools, Martin Luther King Jr., Visitacion Valley and Marina middle schools; and Chinese and Mission education centers.

In the past, parents sending their children to failing public schools had few options other than removing them and sending them to private schools. That’s a tall order, however, because most of these schools are in low-income communities.

Now parents have the option of filling up petitions with more than 50 percent of parents wanting to improve their school. This will allow them to choose to convert the school into a privately run charter school, bring in new staff and provide more local control over staffing and budget, or force the school district to hire a new principal or shut down the school and send the students to better schools nearby.

If parents want to see improvements but aren’t ready to choose one of those options, they could also use the petitions as a bargaining chip to get the attention of the school board to make smaller changes.

The state Legislature passed the Parent Trigger bill last year but left the details to the State Board of Education.

Earlier this month, the board approved regulations that make it difficult for school boards and teachers to stymie the reform effort, as occurred last year at a school in Compton where technicalities were used to try to quash the rebellion.

The regulations include banning harassment of parents, creating a model petition for parents to use, common-sense signature verification and providing an organized reform process. The board also rejected a proposal by the California Teachers Association, which would have provided teachers with a veto over conversion to a charter school.

The only downside to the legislation is that it is limited to 75 schools — less than 6 percent of the eligible low-performing schools in the state. Hopefully, that will be expanded as this experiment plays out and schools begin turning around.

The teachers unions are powerful in California. But this is one time that a grass-roots army of hundreds of parents riding buses from Compton and elsewhere to Sacramento to persuade legislators and officials trumped the professional union lobbyists. Power to the parents — right on.

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