A new law called the parent trigger lets parents force major changes in struggling schools if more than half of them sign a petition. That can range from turning to school into a charter to replacing the principal to making smaller, less explosive changes. It can even mean shutting it down.
In my story about Point Loma parents seeking more autonomy, I mentioned the parent trigger as a possible option. But is it a good idea? I talked to a few people — including professors and labor leaders — who have been eyeing the new law.
• John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA, said it's great when parents get involved. But he was skeptical that altering the structure of a school will solve problems while budgets are being slashed. He also argued that focusing on governance — who runs schools and how — obscures the importance of what is taught and how.
"There is no way to move forward on any reform that costs money, so it's very attractive to have initiatives that move around the chairs on the deck with the appearance of no cost," Rogers said. "I think there are times when it's critical to rethink who is in charge of schools. ... But I don't think this is one of those times. There are some far more fundamental concerns that need to be addressed: resources."
• Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the Center on Educational Governance at USC, was wowed by the parent trigger, saying "it puts California on the map with education reform." She argued that parents, as the consumers of education, should have a powerful voice.
Wohlstetter added that while the trigger gives dramatic new powers to parents, it will probably still be hard to pull it off. Parents tend to like their schools, even when their test scores are low.
"When they do surveys of parents and say, ‘Rate your school,' parents almost always say their school is good and almost every other one is crappy,'" she said.
• Bill Freeman and Camille Zombro, the president and vice president of the San Diego teachers union, said that while they strongly believe in parents having a say in how schools are run, they fear that what happened in Compton — the only place where the parent trigger has been used so far — shows it may not be a collaborative way to get things done.
In Compton there has been debate over whether parents knowingly signed the petition or not, with both sides lobbing accusations that parents were pressured to sign or not sign.
"We can't really speak to an ideological argument about parent trigger," vice president Zombro said. "The only example we have is Compton and there are questions about that."
• That brings me to another point that Rogers made. The Compton campaign was a quiet one. The group that lead it argued it had to be secretive, since parents would be attacked for signing. Whether or not that's true, Rogers said it isn't a healthy way for a community to talk about what their schools need and what solutions are best.
That may be why Matt Spathas, one of the Point Loma parents who is pushing for more autonomy, was quick to comment on our story saying that this is not a quiet discussion, as I characterized it. I called it "quiet" because it hasn't grabbed headlines or been a shouting match, but Spathas is right to point out that the group is having open conversations about their ideas, including their upcoming forum.
• Finally, one of our readers was upset that I didn't include a counter-quote to a statement from Gabe Rose, deputy director of the Los Angeles-based group Parent Revolution, which lead the Compton movement. He said that schools are afraid of real parent involvement.
Reader Caroline Grannan wrote:
When you quote it without a countering statement, it indicates credence. ... As a parent with 14 years' intense involvement in my kids' urban public schools, I dispute and refute Gabe Rose's unfounded attack, and you should have challenged him.
Well, it's never too late to have the debate! Parents, do you feel like your schools really want you to get involved — or not? Let's keep the discussion going in the comments section.
Please contact Emily Alpert directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.