Nation & World

California’s ‘parent trigger’ law tested in L.A. school decision

South Los Angeles parents were on the cusp of making history Tuesday by possibly becoming the first in the nation to force a public school overhaul without a court fight through California’s controversial “parent trigger” law.

The law, versions of which are now making their way through several state legislatures nationwide, lets parents at underperforming schools organize and petition for major reforms, from firing the principal and staff, to ceding control of the school to a charter operator.

On Tuesday, parents in a Los Angeles neighborhood voted on a plan to have the school district team up with a local charter school operator to take over their struggling local school. The results will be made public Wednesday afternoon.

Three years ago – just before the enactment of California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, the official name of the state’s parent trigger law – parents at the same school complained that district officials were silent after dozens of community members presented a makeshift petition to oust the principal of the low-performing school.

“Before, the district wasn’t involved,” said Esmeralda Chacon, whose third-grade son attends the school. “Now, we’re going to start seeing changes.”

Since 2010 when the law passed, more than 20 state legislatures have considered versions of parent trigger bills. Last month, legislative proposals cleared the state Senate in Oklahoma and Georgia, and last week the Florida House green-lighted a similar bill.

The national effort owes much to Parent Revolution, a nonprofit advocacy group lobbying for parent trigger laws around the country, and the Gates, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations, among others, which have provided the money. The group has a budget of nearly $5.5 million, according to its spokesman, David Phelps.

In California’s first two major parent trigger attempts – first at McKinley Elementary in urban Compton, southeast of Los Angeles, and then at Desert Trails Elementary in the tiny San Bernardino County desert town of Adelanto – the efforts driven by parent unions proved divisive and hostile.

Parents called the police on one another, students of feuding parents lost friends, school meetings turned into shouting matches and teachers from the surrounding areas participated in counter-campaigns to get parents to retract their signatures from the petitions.

This time has been different.

The parent union at 24th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles hasn’t faced major opposition from within its community, avoiding a court fight. The parent petition sailed through the Los Angeles Unified School District Board on a 7-0 vote in early February with enough signatures to represent 69 percent of the school’s students.

Among the parents’ demands were calls for stronger leadership, better academics, safer and cleaner facilities and a new culture of high expectations. The parent union received eight initial letters of interest of potential operators in late January.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and even some teachers’ union members have voiced support for working with the parents to improve student achievement.

The parents who signed the petition to overhaul 24th Street Elementary had the chance Tuesday to go to a public park a few blocks from the school to vote on one of four separate proposals for a new school plan and operator.

“There’s a lot riding on this – to see how the second largest school district in the country is going to make this succeed,” said Phelps, whose group is bankrolling the 24th Street parent union. “The district first of all is acknowledging that ‘we messed up when we were in charge of this school, this school was failing, and now we have a unique opportunity to get it right.’”

Parents who don’t sign the initial petition aren’t allowed to vote on the final operator. Opponents of the law say that method strips the democracy out of a neighborhood school by letting a small number of parents decide its fate for generations to come.

But Phelps said that organizers are merely following state regulations. In Adelanto, that meant 53 parents voted in October on the charter conversion of a school that enrolls about 600 students.

At 24th Street, all of the roughly 685 students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade qualify for free or discounted lunches. State education data show that more than 80 percent of third-graders and 71 percent of fifth-graders can’t read at grade level, and that the school’s 8 percent suspension rate is the second highest out of all elementary schools in the district.

Moreover, the school ranks in the bottom 2 percent of the 563 elementary schools in the district. Nearly half the students don’t speak English as their first language at home. Eighty percent of its students are Hispanic and 18 percent are black, the state data show.

Before the parent trigger petition, 24th Street Elementary was already slated to undergo a reform plan developed by the principal with input from some teachers and parents as part of the district’s Public School Choice program. But the parent union organizers argued that the plan didn’t go far enough and that it didn’t allow outside groups to submit proposals.

“We are speaking up and we are putting ourselves, our faces, on the fight for any parents who think changes aren’t going to happen,” Chacon said.