The Parent Trigger: Rebellious Moms Make History and Take Over a Failing School

The first parent trigger law success in America happened in California this week.
Proud parents pull the 'parent trigger' and take over a failing California school. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Jul 24, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

After two months of deliberation, a San Bernardino judge has ruled that parents in an underserved community in Southern California can enact a “parent trigger” law to take over and transform a failing school. This is the first time a “parent trigger” law has been upheld.

A parent trigger law allows parents to petition their school to private charter organizations, lay off the teachers and/or overhaul the existing structure in other ways. Teachers unions are generally opposed to them, but trigger laws are now legal in states other than California (which was the first): Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed them in June.

The case was in court because the Adelanto school district had rejected a parent petition to gain control of the low-performing Desert Trails Elementary School. The school district rejected the petition because some parents later rescinded their signatures—but the ruling yesterday says this is illegal and the district must allow for the takeover.

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The Desert Trails ruling was one that parents and advocates have been waiting for all summer, after initially being told it would take only about two weeks.

“We were on the edge waiting,” says Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, the advocacy group supporting parents who wanted the “parent trigger” law. “It’s an indication of the thoughtfulness with which the judge approached the issue.” He takes a deep breath. “This is huge.”

Although many parents at Desert Trails were excited by this announcement (approximately half the parents of students attending signed the petition), there are also plenty who are disappointed. Lori Yuan, the vice president of the Desert Trails PTA, says she believes Parent Revolution encouraged parents to sign the trigger petition as a way to launch privatization. She says the school was on track for a turnaround—without Parent Revolution. “The trigger in this case was pulled in haste because they didn’t allow anything to get started,” she says. “All our ducks were in a row. But if you shoot them all, nothing will flourish.”

Yuan, a parent of two children at Desert Trails, says she hopes “like heck” the school district will appeal—and if they don’t and the school goes charter, she will transfer. The Adelanto school district has not yet made a comment whether or not they plan to file an appeal, but according to Reuters, “Carlos Mendoza, president of the district’s Board of Trustees, said he plans to urge his colleagues to appeal the court ruling.”

La Nita M. Dominique, president of the Adelanto District Teacher’s Association, tells TakePart she is not pleased with the ruling. “We are extremely disappointed with the decision that was rendered as it will disrupt reform efforts that are already in progress at the school,” she wrote in an email. “Moreover, though we believe wholeheartedly in parents having a voice in their children’s education and that it is imperative that we are partners in education with parents, we still believe that the Parent Empowerment law is deeply flawed and divisive. As well, we are deeply concerned with the rationale given regarding the rescissions. Nonetheless, it will be up to the district to decide how we all move forward from here. As for the association, we will continue to partner with parents who have a genuine desire for a more inclusive method of reform in an effort to do what’s best for the students in our district.”

Rose says that the media reports stating that Desert Trails parents are now shopping only for charter solutions are incorrect. “[The parents] want to work with the district to transform the school,” he says, adding that the parents will most likely announce a plan later this week which may or may not involve charters. “The district has screwed them every step of the way, but they are looking for innovation. They are going to be open [to all ideas], and they are not specifically looking for charter. They are sitting down and figuring out what next best steps.”

Even in the toughest communities in America... [parents] are still capable of organizing and standing up for their kids.

In the meantime, Rose adds that the Desert Trails parents are planning to use this upcoming year to polish a plan for the 2013-2014 school year and work with the district to make sure students adhere to some new rules, such as a longer school days.

He says he is hopeful this ruling will lead to more parent trigger successes across the country. “This is the first time parents have won a parent trigger campaign in America,” Rose says. “People have been wondering if this could work. This ruling is an unambiguous yes. They can transform the school for their kids. Even in the toughest communities in America where parents have been ignored and underserved and marginalized in tough situations, they are still capable of organizing and standing up for their kids.”

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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