A judge lets parents pull the ‘trigger’ on a failing school

by

A Parent Power Watershed

Summer vacation has just turned sour for some of the mandarins atop America’s sclerotic education system. With a judge’s ruling last week in Southern California, a group of parents has become the first in the country to take over their children’s failing public school after pulling a “parent trigger.”

California enacted this reform as an unprecedented accountability measure in 2010. It allows parents of children in persistently failing schools to force dramatic change through petition drives. If a majority of parents at a school sign a petition, they can close that school, shake up its staff, or convert it to a charter.

At least that’s the idea. But implementing the law requires some minimum cooperation from the local school establishment, which in California has resisted parent trigger from day one. That’s how the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School ended up in court.

With their school classified as failing six years in a row, and 70% of sixth-graders not proficient in English or math, the parents of Desert Trails filed a trigger petition in January with 466 signatures, or 70% support. The local school board then asserted that the trigger drive had only 37% support. Some petitions had errors or omissions, the board said, and nearly 100 were no longer valid because parents had rescinded their signatures.

These rescissions followed an orchestrated campaign of intimidation at Desert Trails and across the community. Parents heard—from strangers who wouldn’t identify themselves—that the trigger would close Desert Trails immediately, or result in their children’s expulsion, or even put their own immigration status at risk. Such untruths had circulated around previous school-choice efforts, and they spread rapidly in a few crucial days—all of which suggested the strong arm of the California Teachers Association and its local allies.

But as we editorialized at the time (“Parent-Trigger Warfare,” March 2), state regulations don’t allow rescissions. Now San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone has agreed, finding that the attempt to undercut the parents’ majority “amounts to an abuse of discretion.” As Judge Malone ruled, school officials can’t disregard a trigger drive simply “because in their judgment, converting the school into a charter school is unwise, inappropriate, or unpopular with District employees or classroom teachers.”

The ruling effectively hands Desert Trails to the parents, ordering the district out of their way as the judge says they can “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals.” This represents a potentially revolutionary power shift. For all the PTA meetings and solemn assurances from superintendents and union leaders that parent input into public schools is sacred, the ability of parents to force change has typically been nil.

For kids in failing schools it’s unfortunate that California’s law took two and a half years to bear first fruit, but such is the reactionary power of unionized bureaucracy. The reform effort will require many more parents to pull their triggers—in California, and in the roughly 20 states considering parent-trigger laws. But this week’s court victory is a welcome precedent.

A version of this article appeared July 24, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Parent Power Watershed.

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