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Parent unions: Trigger laws spawn new parent empowerment tool

Published: Wednesday, July 30 2014 11:05 a.m. MDT

Should parents feel their children aren't being taught well, trigger laws allow them to intervene in the school district administration.

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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 communitcation 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.”

See also: 13 gym class games that will make you miss your childhood

Not thrilled

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.

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