By any measure, the elementary school in West Athens, California, was a mess.
Discipline issues were pervasive. One mother said she couldn't get anyone's attention at the school after her daughter was assaulted and subjected to repeated bullying.
On top of that, the school lagged badly on academic performance. In 2013, the state ranked the Los Angeles-area school 497th out of 554 elementary schools in the district.
Using a little-known recourse called a trigger law, parents told the Los Angeles Unified School District that if things didn't change, they would take over the school.
That got the district's attention and forced the school to address the parental communication issues, supervision and bullying head on. The district also devoted $300,000 to hire student support extra staff.
Parent triggers allow parent groups to circulate a petition for a specific reform, which could range from shaking up the school administration to converting the school to a charter. If over half the parents sign the petition, they are empowered by law to take over the school.
The legal basis for the law grows out of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which held that a school that lingers in persistent academic failure should be shaken up, reformed or shut down.
Four years after California passed the nation's first parent trigger law, the concept’s future remains in doubt. Tennessee is considering trigger legislation, but otherwise little traction has occurred of late. In California, the trigger has been used several times, but only once to actually take over a school wholesale. In Connecticut, procedural barriers have thus far stymied takeover efforts. And through it all, teacher union opposition has been fierce.
But whatever the fate of the trigger movement, it seems increasingly clear that parents are on the move, even in poorer neighborhoods where parental passivity has long been taken for granted.
“I do not do bake sales,” said Gwen Samuel, who founded the Connecticut Parent Union and spearheaded the trigger law effort there. “My job is to make sure kids can spell cupcake and know there are two f’s in raffle.”
There have been a few trigger successes. A year ago, parents in Adelanto, California, a desert town not far from Edwards Air Force Base, seized control of the local elementary school, turning it into a charter school over frustration over ongoing poor academic performance. That new charter, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, finished its first year last month.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, 24th Street Elementary School just finished its first year as a “hybrid.” LAUSD runs preschool through 4th grades at 24th Street Elementary, while 5th through 8th grades are run by a charter school. That agreement was reached with the school district after 70 percent of parents signed a trigger petition last year.
So the LAUSD was ready to talk when the parents in West Athens formed a “parent union," a group designed to stand as a counterweight to teachers' unions, and threatened to collect signatures. Last month the parents and the district signed a $300,000 deal that required the district to hire some new staff, including a school psychologist; crack down on discipline; shift resources toward Common Core teaching; and ensure more parental involvement.
West Athens lies on the southern end of South Los Angeles, straddling the 105 on its way to Los Angeles International Airport. The population is largely a poor community with a long history of neglected schools.
One might think that seeing parents in such a neighborhood mobilize to extract a large sum of cash from the Los Angeles Unified School District would be a welcome development. But the author of the trigger law, former state senator Gloria Romero, is not thrilled with what West Athens accomplished.
“I didn’t write law to get $300,000 into a school with a promise that mañana something might happen,” Romero said. “That’s not transformation. It’s just using the law to fundraise.”
“The West Athens compromise,” as Romero sees it, “is robbing Peter to pay Paul.” That money, she argues, had to come from somewhere else in an already financially strapped school district, and it hardly gets to the root of the problem. The trigger law, Romero says, was intended to be used to overhaul a failing school, not extract various monetary concessions of doubtful transformative value.
In short, in Romero’s view, the compromise is just another instance of the education establishment putting parents off the scent.
A special place
Parent trigger laws have been the impetus for the emergence of “parent unions,” a combative community organizing approach that stands in stark contrast to the Parent Teacher Organizations.
Unlike a PTA, which supports school functions with classroom volunteers and fundraising, a parents' union is designed to fight for parents' interests in an adversarial mode.
The main force behind parent unions is a California-based nonprofit called Parent Revolution, which staffs, recruits, trains and organizes parent unions at the grass roots. It also offers the unions legal help. The group is funded by an impressive array of foundations, including most notably the Gates Foundation, the driving force behind Common Core. This connection leads critics to disparage the parent movement as “corporate reform” under a veneer of grass roots.
Parent Revolution is, if nothing else, polarizing. And teachers unions particularly find the effort and its trigger laws obnoxious.
“There is no analysis of the causes of the school’s struggles. It imposes solutions without looking at causes,” says Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association. Wells cites the recent example of another LAUSD school, Weigand Elementary School in Watts, where the principal was fired using the trigger law without, Wells argues, any clear rationale.
Wells also objects to what he sees as a non-democratic character in the petition process. Parents circulate the petition one-on-one without broader discussion of alternatives or counter-arguments. Asking parents to sign a petition on a doorstep without broader public discourse, critics argue, is a false choice.
“Why aren’t they taking advantage of traditional vehicles for involvement,” Wells asks, “like school site councils and PTA, as opposed to this kind of side organization that is self-selected, exclusive, and very divisive?”
To some, the movement can be downright maddening, and the firing of the Weigand Elementary principal brought that frustration into focus. The career of a good educator was destroyed without any rational basis, critics argue.
"There is a special place in Hell reserved for everyone who administers and funds this revolting organization," wrote Columbia University’s education doyen Diane Ravitch last year. Ravitch was opposed to Parent Revolution’s role in using the trigger to get a principal fired at Weigand Elementary.
Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director, earned a special place in Ravitch’s inferno. “Ben Austin is loathsome. He ruined the life and career of a dedicated educator. She was devoted to the children, he is devoted to the equally culpable foundations that fund his Frankenstein organization …."
But out in Connecticut, Gwen Samuel is rather fond of Ben Austin. She still saves and shares, as though it were a talisman, the email Austin sent out on Jan. 6, 2010, announcing that California had passed the trigger law.
“That email,” she says, “changed my life forever.” At that moment, the concept made the viral leap across the continent.
Samuel argues that parents of color from poorer neighborhoods have long been disparaged for being part of the problem — detached, not interested in their kids’ education. Then when they choose to be part of the solution, demanding answers and taking action, they are told to pipe down.
After Samuel got the email from Austin, she began reaching out to lawmakers in Connecticut, pushing to get their own trigger. When the bill was introduced, she says, the vitriol began flying hard and fast.
“They told us we're the ‘animals running the asylum,’ ” Samuel said.
Ultimately, the legislature passed a milder version of a parent trigger, but the teachers unions got a partial victory with multiple checkpoints to slow or derail parent action. The American Federation of Teachers celebrated their success in a PowerPoint titled “How Connecticut Diffused the Parent Trigger."
The law requires every school to have a “governance council” comprised of seven parents, five teachers and two community leaders. If the school continues to fail for three more years, the council can vote to reconstitute the school. If the school board doesn’t like the council’s solution, it can impose its own. If the parents don’t like the board’s action, they can appeal to the state.
It’s a Rube Goldberg invention, but one that, if all goes exactly right, could work.
“We’re in our third year,” Samuel says, “and I really believe they didn’t think we would hold on this long. So now, we actually have the power to reconstitute the schools, and they are going crazy.”
Unlike Romero, Parent Revolution sees the West Athens compromise as proof that parent unions, working with the parent trigger as a nuclear deterrent, can get real results that fall short of complete school overhaul.
Derrick Everett, a spokesman for Parent Revolution, draws a distinction between school takeovers and “the broader negotiation for change that is increasingly happening.”
“It’s what happens when any new right or power gets introduced. It gets tested in the courts, and once the law withstands legal challenge, then the powers get explored. That’s what’s happening now: the exploration.”
As the law gets explored, strange political alignments have emerged in the conflict between teacher unions and low-income parents of color. Social movement mobilization tactics are being turned against unions, now cast in the role of corporations or “the system.”
“The core of our work is community organizing,” Everett said, “if you have a majority of the community behind you that creates a power base from which to push school officials.”
But once that place at the table is gained, the advocates expect to be treated as stakeholders — not bake sale and raffle arrangers. “The term ‘parent union’ is not a mistake,” Everett said. “It’s very similar to what happens with the teacher union agreements. It’s collective bargaining among stakeholders.”