Parent trigger: School tests California law that allows takeover via petition

The national battle over the best way to fix failing schools is ripping through this desert town like a sandstorm, tearing apart a community that is testing a radical new approach: the parent takeover.

Parents here are trying to become the first in the country to use a trigger law, which allows a majority of families at a struggling school to force major changes, from firing the principal to closing the school and reopening it as an independent charter. All they need to do to wrest control is sign a petition.

The idea behind the 2010 California law — placing ultimate power in parents’ hands — resonates with any parent who has felt frustrated by school bureaucracy.

“We just decided we needed to do something for our children,” said Doreen Diaz, a parent organizing the trigger effort. “If we don’t stand up and speak for them, their future is lost.”

Her daughter attends Desert Trails Elementary, where last year two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam, more than half were not proficient in math, and nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school has not met state standards for six years, and scores place it in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide.

The children can’t wait years for improvement, Diaz said.

It’s just the type of situation that reformers had in mind when they crafted the trigger law, which applies to 1,300 public schools in California that under certain criteria are labeled as “failing.”

Others see the trigger law as dangerous, handing the complex challenge of education to people who may be unprepared to meet it. Critics also say the law circumvents elected school boards and invites abuse by charter operators bent on taking over public schools.

Trigger laws are spreading beyond California, passing or sparking debates in other states, including Maryland. Even Hollywood has noticed; a feature film, made by the producers of the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is coming out this fall.

In Adelanto, the debate is destroying friendships, sowing suspicion and attracting powerful outside interests to this town on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

Parents trying to pull the trigger are backed by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles organization funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

In recent weeks, a group of parents opposed to the trigger has formed, with help from the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“We all agree we’d like to see some improvements, but would you rather blow everything up, start from scratch and hope for better?” asked Lori Yuan, who has two children at Desert Trails and is fighting the trigger. “That doesn’t sound very good to me.”

In a plotline worthy of a soap opera, each group has accused the other of intimidation, harassment and hidden agendas. The district attorney has been asked to investigate charges of fraud, and lawyers are lining up.

“This has never been done before, and it’s very confusing,” said Carlos Mendoza, the president of the Adelanto School District Board of Trustees, who is also a high school teacher and a union member. “If we can get all these outsiders out, we can work out something.”

The school board is set to decide Tuesday night whether the trigger moves forward.

Support from left and right

The politics underlying parent trigger laws are complex, with support from an unlikely mix of progressives and conservatives.

“The left, particularly minority groups, see it as a way to shake up the school system,” said Jack Jennings, founder of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “They’re frustrated that their kids are getting such a poor education and not much is being done about it. On the right, it’s just another way for conservative forces to trim back the power of the teacher unions.”

Last year, similar trigger laws were enacted in Mississippi and Texas, and a milder version was approved in Connecticut. A Maryland lawmaker proposed legislation but withdrew it, saying he needed to build political support. This week, the Florida Legislature is voting on a parent trigger, and at least a dozen other states are weighing similar measures this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires failing schools to gradually face escalating penalties, including closure. Trigger laws put that process on steroids and let parents decide the schools’ fate.

In Adelanto, the 666 children who attend Desert Trails are mostly black and Latino, and nearly all meet the federal definition of poor. The school lacks a full-time nurse, a guidance counselor and a psychologist. About one in four students was suspended last year, nearly twice the district average. Desert Trails has had three principals in the past five years.

One is Larry Lewis, who helped launch the trigger effort out of frustration with teachers who, he said, resisted his efforts to improve classroom instruction.

“Adelanto is known as the armpit of the high desert,” said Lewis, who resigned in October for health reasons. “And Desert Trails is the armpit of Adelanto.”

Teachers, who filed a dozen grievances against Lewis, have a different view. “We have a great school district, serve great kids that live in a great community,” said LaNita M. Dominique, president of the Adelanto teachers union.

Unions and others say putting parents in charge doesn’t guarantee better schools.

“I have my college education, but I still wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone said, ‘Here’s a school — run it,’ ” said Yuan, one of the parents opposed to the trigger.

‘I started to feel scared’

Adelanto,a working-class community of 31,700, sits 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It boasts one shopping center, a federal prison and acres of empty brown desert interrupted only by hulking steel lattice towers tethered together by high-voltage electric lines.

When she moved from Los Angeles County three years ago, Cynthia Ramirez didn’t think twice about the schools. “We just assumed everything is fine,” said Ramirez, who has a 3-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. “But here, there are no after-school activities. They’re only teaching math and reading. There is no science. I started to feel scared for my daughter.”

Ramirez joined Doreen Diaz and others, who sought help from Parent Revolution. The group, founded by a charter school entrepreneur, sent professional organizers to Adelanto to give the parents a crash course in the law, signature gathering, educational policy and even media handling.

Parent Revolution rented a house near the elementary school and converted it into a nerve center for the pro-trigger parents, who spend afternoons there stamping envelopes, making phone calls and plotting strategy.

The parents want preschool classes, a longer school day, a computer lab, every teacher to have a master’s degree, a full-time librarian and clean, working restrooms, among other things.

The district can’t afford those demands, said Superintendent Darin Brawley, adding that state education funding is down 20 percent this year. “There’s no way we could do all those things at Desert Trails without making cuts elsewhere, from other students in the district,” he said.

Brawley says the school is no worse than scores of others in San Bernardino County.

Pro-trigger parents say they want Desert Trails to remain part of the Adelanto school district but to be given autonomy, so the principal hasfull control over hiring, firing, curriculum and spending.

Friendships dissolve

The political fight has quickly turned personal.

Last year, Ramirez and Chrissy Alvarado were best friends. With their daughters in the same class at Desert Trails and their homes within walking distance, the women bonded over coffee and errands.

Ramirez became a leader of the trigger group, believing it is the best way to improve her daughter’s education. Alvarado is opposed and calls it a hijacking of the public school by outside interests.

Their daughters stopped having sleepovers; the women no longer chatted.

Then Alvarado sent a series of text messages to Ramirez announcing that their friendship was over. “This is going to get big quick,” Alvarado wrote about the coming divide in the community. “I never thought you would become one of them.”

Alvarado’s suspicions stem from Parent Revolution’s first, unsuccessful attempt to use the trigger law last year. It paid canvassers to collect signatures on a petition demanding that a Compton elementary school be shut down and reopened as a charter school run by a company selected by Parent Revolution.

That effort collapsed under a legal challenge.

Parent Revolution learned from Compton, said Ben Austin, the organization’s executive director and a Democratic operative who worked in the Clinton White House. “We were the ones who picked the charter school, the transformation model, collected the signatures,” he said, adding that those decisions should be made by parents. “We are learning in real time.”

Austin was working for the Green Dot charter network, based in Los Angeles, when he developed the idea of a parent trigger. It squeaked through the California Legislature by one vote in each chamber, part of a reform effort to compete for federal Race to the Top funding. California didn’t win the grant, but the parent trigger was law. Since then, Parent Revolution has been helping trigger efforts in other states.

At Desert Trails, Principal David Mobley is trying to focus on children and keep controversy out of the classroom. It’s not easy.

“You’ve got all these outside entities with bigger political agendas,” said Mobley, who became principal in October, unaware of the tempest that was brewing. “Parents here are sincere. But I worry that they’re pawns in somebody’s big chess game.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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