TIME: ‘Parent Trigger’ Law Over Failing Schools

In a bare-bones basement office in Buffalo, N.Y., Katie Campos, an education activist, is plotting a revolution. She and her minuscule staff of the advocacy group Buffalo ReformED are against incredible odds. In less than a week, they are trying to get a controversial law known as the “parent trigger” through the New York legislature. It’s a powerful nickname for game-changing legislation that would enable parents who could gather a majority at any persistently failing school to either fire the principal, fire 50% of the teachers, close the school or turn it into a charter school.

Campos and her group are working with some 4,000 frustrated parents like Samuel Radford III, who refuses to accept that as African Americans, his three sons in Buffalo public schools have only a 25% chance of graduating. Radford voiced his concerns for years but saw no improvement, so rather than continue to wait for the district to act, he became vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council and threw his support behind passing parent-trigger legislation. “This is our chance to not just confront the problem but be part of the solution,” Radford says. On June 15, Buffalo ReformED plans to fill a bus of parents like Radford and ride to the state capitol, in Albany, to host an informal hearing on the bill and speak to members of the senate and house education committees. (See what makes good teachers.)

When people first hear about the radical-sounding law, they are almost always taken aback. But what they might not know is that failing schools can already be shut down by school districts under the No Child Left Behind law. The parent trigger simply takes the option provided to the school board and hands the power to the parents. Gloria Romero, the former California state senator who sponsored the nation’s first parent-trigger law, says it was designed so that parents would not have to sit idly by and wait for reform that would never come in cases where school districts weren’t doing enough. “These are school districts that are chronically underperforming, and yet the school officials have done nothing to turn them around,” Romero tells TIME, referring to California’s 1,300-plus persistently failing schools. (See “The Education Crisis No One Is Talking About.”)

The idea for the parent trigger was conceived in 2009 by Ben Austin, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school organization. “The way I saw it, if education was going to change, parents had to have a seat at the table where they could make real decisions about real reforms for their kids,” Austin tells TIME. He decided to start an advocacy group called Parent Revolution dedicated to passing parent-trigger legislation. (Green Dot provided the initial funding for Parent Revolution, though as of 2010 it no longer received funds from the group. It now receives the largest share of its funds from the Wasserman, Walton and Gates foundations.) By January 2010, Austin and a feisty crop of paid organizers had knocked on some 4,000 doors, mobilized parents, bused them to Sacramento and into state legislator offices to tell their stories, and managed to get the idea cemented into law.

See “Are These End Times for Charter Schools?”

See “K-12 Programs Decline in Popularity.”

Now similar versions of California’s law have been introduced in 14 other states. A version of the law that omits the option of turning a school over to a charter operator recently passed both houses of the Texas legislature. Nationally, Representative George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is closely following what is happening in the states. He says he has no plans to introduce federal legislation but that he has not ruled out the possibility of including the law as part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (otherwise known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). “The fact of the matter is, when we look at developing a model for real change and improvement in public education, it’s pretty hard to do without parents,” Miller tells TIME. “We’ve tried for years, and it’s not working.”

But so far, no school has been shut down or successfully transformed. After the law passed in California, Parent Revolution targeted McKinley Elementary School — part of the Compton Unified School District in South Los Angeles, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade — and started to organize parents from the ground up.

One of those parents was Theresa Theus, whose 5-year-old daughter Tioni was in kindergarten at McKinley at the time. After looking at McKinley’s test scores online, Theus didn’t want to send her daughter there anymore, but she had no choice. She couldn’t afford a private education, and the district told her there was no public alternative. “In sending her there, I felt like I was putting her at a disadvantage,” Theus tells TIME. “I didn’t want her falling behind.” (See “Zuckerberg Gives Millions to Newark Public Schools.”)

Theus was an easy sell, and she in turn recruited other parents. That’s how the model works: once you inspire one parent to act, you have them invite a handful of their friends. On Dec. 7, 2010 — with signatures from 275 of 438 parents, or roughly 61% — Parent Revolution filed a petition, thus pulling the parent trigger at a school for the first time in the nation.

The effort faced immediate opposition and legal challenges from the school board. While a judge ruled that parents who petition under the law are protected by the First Amendment, the petition may eventually be ruled invalid, as the signatures are not dated. The final decision on that will come within weeks. But while it faced its opponents in court, Parent Revolution started to get calls from parents and community organizers across the country, and it now advises other groups like Buffalo ReformED on how to pass their own trigger legislation.

In California, the most vociferous opposition came from those who oppose the charter-school provision. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says she thinks the law will be misused to promote growth of charter schools. “When this legislation is being driven by parents, that’s good,” she says. “But when it’s driven by a group of people whose sole mission is to open a charter school, that’s bad.” (See “A Drastic Cut for Detroit Schools.”)

But in Compton, Austin says, a charter school was the only option because of how persistently failing the entire district was. In the future, as the movement grows, Austin says, the majority of trigger campaigns will not be about converting to charter schools but about some of the law’s other provisions, like firing the principal. “If the social justice end game is to serve all kids who are trapped in failing schools, you can’t get there with just charter schools,” Austin tells TIME. “We are completely agnostic as to whether kids are served with charter schools or other district schools. We just want all kids in good schools, and we want parents to have a seat at the table.”

A seat at the table is exactly what Samuel Radford III of Buffalo wants. “When you’re powerless, you recognize things that give you power,” he says. “This law would give me the right to confront a principal, a teacher, a school board, and they don’t get to say no. They can’t turn me away. This puts the power in my hands to decide the destiny of my child.”

See “KIPP Schools: A Reform Triumph, or Disappointment?”

See “How to Cut Crime, Alcoholism and Addiction? It’s Not Elementary, but Preschool.”

written by By Kayla Webley

Available online: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2077564,00.html