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Michelle Rhee: Communities Need Parent Trigger Laws
Parents of children at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., didn't decide to seek an overhaul of the school using the state's 2010 parent-trigger law lightly, or with little thought. They sought changes on numerous occasions, giving administrators plenty of chances to bring about improvements at the school, where 70 percent of sixth graders aren't reading or doing math on grade level and which has been on a state list of failing schools for six years.
Parent-trigger isn't a first course of action, and it's not used to solve small problems. It's a law families can rely on to bring about change when their children are trapped in a school that isn't meeting their kids' needs. I've met a fair number of parents whose sons and daughters are assigned to such schools and it's truly heartbreaking. We can't expect parents and kids to be patient while slow-moving reforms take root.
Parent-trigger laws, recently enacted in half a dozen states, allow parents of children at a chronically failing school to petition for immediate, transformative changes. Districts are then required to implement those changes if more than half of parents sign the petition. I've been involved in plenty of schools as a mother, teacher, and administrator, and I can tell you that getting half of the parent body to agree on something isn't a low bar.
Parents can select from a set of options such as turning to a public charter operator for help with the overhaul, bringing in new staff, or closing the school and sending the students to better-performing schools nearby. Other changes might result in new curricula or longer days. Each of these has been defined by the Department of Education as sound turnaround options for failing schools. Parents are responsible for choosing the changes, not for running the school once a plan has been established.
Many, like me, see this as a civil rights issue. Far too often, chronically failing schools—the ones that are subject to parent-trigger laws—serve poor and minority communities. These schools, if left unchanged, will perpetuate achievement gaps between minority students and their wealthier, white peers. No child should have to attend such a school, and as concerned citizens we have a special responsibility to close the unconscionably large learning gaps in our country. Poverty can present huge challenges in our schools—I've seen this firsthand—but with the right supports in place, all children can learn at high levels.
When we're having conversations in this country about how to improve schools in high-needs communities, people say we need to encourage more parental involvement. Well, parent-trigger is a way in which parents are seeking to be involved in their kids' education and serve as advocates for them. It may not be a traditional form of parental involvement, such as helping with a fundraiser, but we shouldn't limit what form parental involvement should come in.
Of course, I'm not saying that parent-trigger laws offer some sort of silver bullet solution that will fix all of the problems our schools are facing. We also need to ensure that all of our kids have great teachers, and must ensure those teachers are supported and rewarded for their hard work. We also need excellent principals, more educational choices for families, and better stewardship of our public resources. If we bring about these kinds of reforms and include parent-trigger as one tool, then we will be well on our way toward building the kind of world-class education system we all want for our kids.