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Parent-Trigger Laws: A Bold Plan To Save Schools


You may have seen ads for a movie that's out tomorrow called "Won't Back Down," which focuses on a failing school. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis star as a fed-up parent-teacher combo who mobilized to take on the bureaucrats and the union.


MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Jamie) Until we got to do something right now. We need to fix Adams and we need to fix it yesterday.

CONAN: The story is fiction, but the theme and controversy the film taps into are very real. Several states have passed what are known as parent-trigger laws, which give parents a pass to make changes in failing schools: a new curriculum, longer school days, different personnel. They can even take over, entirely, and turn it into a charter school. We want to hear from parents and teachers out there. Do you need a parent-trigger law where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sean Cavanagh joins us now by smartphone from his office in Bethesda, Maryland, where he is a reporter for Education Week. He's covered what happened at the one school so far where parents actually pulled the trigger. Nice to have you with us today.

SEAN CAVANAGH: Great for - thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And I've not had a chance to see this new movie, but the story itself cannot be possibly as convoluted as what happened at Desert Trails Elementary at Adelanto, California. So take us back to the beginning. How did this get started?

CAVANAGH: Sure. Well, there have been just two attempts to use the parent-trigger law so far in the state of California, which was the first state in the country to pass the parent-trigger law. The first one, which occurred in the city of Compton, did not succeed. And the current parent-trigger effort in Adelanto, California, a community northeast of L.A., you know, is very much in doubt. No one's certain how this is going to turn out. But basically, a group of parents in Adelanto who are frustrated with...

CONAN: And we're having a little difficulty with the - oh, there you. I'm sorry. Sean Cavanagh, we lost you there for just a second. So we're in Adelanto, California, where if a majority, 51 percent of the parents, get together and sign a petition, they can force changes at the Desert Trails Elementary.

CAVANAGH: That's right. And the parents in Adelanto organized a petition to try to bring about an overhaul of the school. And according to a judge, they succeeded in gathering enough signatures from parents to bring about that change and to give them permission to move forward with converting the school to a charter. But the school district in Adelanto is not cooperating. They have a very different view. They have proposed going forward with a different and...

CONAN: And we're going to get - Sean, let's get on the regular phone, OK, because this is cutting in and out.


CONAN: All right.

CAVANAGH: Sorry. Can you hear me?

CONAN: There. Are you back?


CONAN: OK. I think this will be much more stable. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

CAVANAGH: OK. So what we have is a group of parents who - in Adelanto - who organized a petition and they've - in order to convert the school into a charter. But the district in Adelanto is resisting that effort. They say they have an alternate plan for revamping the school, which in most respects is much less radical than what the parents want. But that's where we are. We're at a standstill, and this matter has been locked and cordoned. And until a judge rules on which side is in the right, it looks like the standstill will continue.

CONAN: But it's not just the school district that's resisting. This is not an idea popular with the teachers' unions.

CAVANAGH: That's right. Not in just California but in other parts of the country, teachers' unions have, you know, questioned the wisdom of parent trigger laws, saying that these proves to be very divisive in the community, pitting parent against parent, parent against teacher. They also question whether parents would be susceptible to, you know, unscrupulous charter school operators coming in and proposing changes to a school that might benefit the operator, but wouldn't necessarily benefit the students or the parent. So there has been strong resistance from teachers' unions, to a parent trigger, certainly.

CONAN: But getting back to Desert Trails Elementary, the parents seemed to have some valid complaints.

CAVANAGH: Well, what they said is, look, our school has struggled for years and tinkering around the edges is simply not going to work. We need to overhaul the fundamental function of the school and the structure of the school. And they feel that they have complied with the law, gathered enough ballot signatures to carry this movement forward. They've actually gone so far as they're already looking at bids from charter school operators, who've said that they'd be willing to help the parents transform the school. So they are moving forward, but it remains to be seen if what they want will actually become a reality.

CONAN: There are groups on - helping the parents organize, a group called Parent Revolution.

CAVANAGH: That's right. That's right. Parent Revolution has been helping the parents from the very beginning. Their director is Ben Austin, who's actually a former Clinton administration, White House official. And they've been very active in trying to help the parents carry this movement forward. At the same time, you know, they make the argument, look, this is a parent-led effort, and we are going to do what the parents at Desert Trails Elementary want.

CONAN: It's interesting that the - you mentioned this was first passed in California. It's since been adapted in, I believe, Texas and Louisiana and is it Mississippi?

CAVANAGH: Mississippi is another one. There have been seven states that have passed these laws, 20 states, by my count, have considered some form of the parent trigger in 2012 alone. So there is broad interests on the parent trigger, you know, in supporting parent trigger policies.

These laws go about the parent trigger in slightly different ways, in terms of the powers that they give parents. In some states, the trigger allows parent to convert the school - allows parents to convert the school to charter. In some cases, they can actually close the school and re-open it. In other cases, if the parents get a majority signatures, they can partner with another district or even the state to help run the school. So the triggers work in different ways, but they all have the same basic goal, which is majority rule among the parents at the school.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Do you need a parent trigger law where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us: And we'll start with Kim. Kim with us from Richmond.

KIM: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KIM: I'm a long-time involved parent and then run for my local school board six years ago and have served on the Richmond, Virginia, school board for the past six years. I don't think we need a new law, but because in Virginia, at least, local school boards are the authorities that controls the schools. Parents who are active and engaged can advocate directly to the school board and effect a lot of change, with or without the parent trigger legislation.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, Kim, but, Sean Cavanagh, in the case out there at Adelanto, the parent who's been most prominent in organizing this was the head of the PTA.

CAVANAGH: Well, that's true. And I mean, one of the - I mean, look, it's hard to turn around a low-performing school and, clearly, having active and engaged parents is a key factor in doing that. One of the unknowns in all of this parent-trigger talk is, you know, if these laws remain on the books and go forward, how much interest will there actually be among parents in using the parent trigger? Or will parents simply say, look, I mean, this is a major effort we're undertaking. We really want to sustain this for how ever many years it takes to turn around the school. And that's what we just don't know at this point.

CONAN: But to have parents organized enough to get 51 percent to sign a petition suggest that they are, at least somewhat engaged and that there's a failure of communication between the leadership at the school and the leadership of the parents.

CAVANAGH: Well, that's true. I mean, you know, as someone who has covered education awhile, I can't think of many issues where it's easy to get, you know, 51 percent of parents at a school behind - behind any effort. So, yeah, if you can reach - I mean, that's a pretty high bar. And so I've had some state legislators tell me in different states where they passed these laws, look, we don't expect a whole lot of schools to actually go with the parent trigger because it is such a high bar. So the fact that a school could reach that point - that point - I mean, suggests that there is a pretty strong amount of interest in, you know, doing business in very different way.

CONAN: Kim, are you still there?

KIM: I'm still here. And I would advocate that parent trigger laws already happened all over the place in local school board elections. You know, we're the closest to the ground. And if people in the schools don't like what's going on in their school, it's their job to un-elect us and elect somebody who would do that. A 51 percent vote works just as well in a local election as it does in the school overturning. And let me tell you, in some of the high-poverty and low-resource schools that I've been working in, 51 percent of parents even involved in the PTA would make a tremendous difference. There is no such thing as bad school with a highly involved parent body. There's just no such animal.

CONAN: Kim, thanks very much. But, Sean...

KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, the situation in Adelanto complicated by the fact that a significant fraction of the parents at - in that school district are here illegally.

CAVANAGH: Well, you know, I noted that issue has come about there, and it has certainly provoked some controversy and some divisions within the community. You know, I will say that I have heard from a lot of parents in Adelanto, who side with the school district, who do not support the parent trigger effort. But they say that, you know, their voices have not been heard during this process, so - but I mean, the larger issue is that these efforts can prove divisive in communities. And if, you know, if they were easy, I would imagine we'd be seeing more of these efforts going forward, but we're not.

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, a reporter for Education Week, We're talking about parent trigger laws and one particular case, at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, California, kind of the basis for the new movie, "Won't Back Down." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Karen. Karen on the line with us from Houston.

KAREN: Yes. I'm calling from Texas, and we do have a parent trigger law, but it is not a very strong law, compared to what's in California. And what I wanted to share is that under state law, currently, parents have rights such as - for instance, in a public school, you have a class size cap of 22-1 in K through four. You wouldn't get that if you were going into a, say, into a charter school or into a takeover situation. Parents would be giving up certain rights. So we have a whole section of our education code what relates to parent rights, but they don't apply - many of those rights do not apply to students who are in charter schools. So you really would be giving up something.

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, is that right?

CAVANAGH: Well, that could be in certain states. I think that what advocates of the parent trigger would, you know, respond by saying is that you might be giving up some of those things, but the advantages you get, the - perhaps, you - by converting to a charter, you get more specialized services, a curriculum that suits the needs of students, interventions that help the particular needs of students, perhaps a longer school day, things that current collective bargaining agreements may not allow. So what the caller is saying may be correct, but there's a flipside to that, and I think that what advocates of the trigger are against is, look, we're going after a charter conversions for a reason because we think that this is a way to transform schools that do not have history of success and need a fairly radical transformation.

KAREN: Well, Texas is a right-to-work state. We do not have collective bargaining. So that in terms of teacher contracts, what we have are protections for teachers as well as students in state law. And frankly, some charters in Texas operate only four hours a day, so you - some may offer an extended day, but some also offer only four hours a day of instruction.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the call.

KAREN: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Steve, and Steve is on with us from Oakland.

STEVE: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. How you're on the air, Steve.

STEVE: Hi. My name is Steve Neat(ph). I'm the first vice president of the Oakland Education Association. And I was just calling because I feel like it's important for our listeners to understand where the parent trigger law, you know, originally came from and who's really supporting it, and what's the reality on the ground, in terms of how it's being implemented.

CONAN: Go ahead, Steve, but keep it brief if you can. We just have a couple...

STEVE: Sure, I will. I'm sorry. Yeah, originally, it was introduced by Green Dot, which is a charter school company. It's also heavily supported by Parent Revolution, which is an AstroTurf group, you know, portrayed as a grassroots group, but it isn't really. And it's funded by Broad, Walton, Rogers, Gates, by big money. And what's been happening in California - and it's only happened a few times - is that outside organizations are coming in, corporations are coming in, not parents, and they're selling the idea of school takeover to parents.

And, you know, the argument has been made, even among some of the people who signed the petitions, that it was very misleading, the way it was done. So what's happening is that it's not really a grassroots action by parents to change a school or to turn around the school. It's corporation coming in, selling a product to parents. And sometimes (unintelligible)

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Steve...

STEVE: No problem.

CONAN: ...but Sean Cavanagh a chance to reply this - the - essentially, the outside agitator argument.

CAVANAGH: Well, you know, I hear that argument, you know, fairly often been made, and I'm not saying it's invalid. I mean, look, there had been a lot of big conservative groups behind parent trigger legislation, and the business community has in many states gotten behind parent trigger policies. But it does have a fair amount of support among Democrats. This is not, strictly speaking, a partisan issue. And, you know, as far as in effect whether this has real grassroots support or if it's, sort of, manufactured support. I think we're only going to know that, you know, over the next three to five years when these laws are further along and more schools qualify for the trigger...

CONAN: Sean...

CAVANAGH: ...and we see how much interest there is.

CONAN: Sean Cavanagh, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it. Sorry to cut you off like that. Sean Cavanagh, a reporter for Education Week. He joined us by phone from Bethesda.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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