Potential abuses of the Parent Trigger???


This article in the LA Times has been getting a lot of buzz today – http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-compton-parents-20101207,0,1116485.story

The article discusses the use of what is called a “parent trigger” policy.  Here’s the synopsis:

On Tuesday, they intend to present a petition signed by 61% of McKinley parents that would require the Compton Unified School District to bring in a charter company to run the school. Charter schools are independently operated public schools.

“I know it’s never been done before, but I want to step up because I’m a parent who cares about my children and their education,” Murphy said Monday. She and other parents were meeting with organizers from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit that lobbied successfully last year for the so-called parent-trigger law.

So, what you’ve got is 61% of parents in a community pushing for a school to be converted to a charter school and potentially pushing for that school to be a specific type of charter school. This presents all sorts of interesting – and twisted possibilities.

I wrote about a week ago on how some charter schools, like North Star Academy in Newark have established themselves as the equivalent of elite magnet schools – potentially engaging in activities such as pushing out lower performing kids over time.

So, my question for the day is whether these “parent trigger” policies might allow a simple majority of parents – or some defined majority share – to force a reorganization of their neighborhood school into a charter – that would subsequently weed out those other “less desirable kids?”

That is, does this new policy of simple majority (mob) rule allow parents in a specific community to redefine their neighborhood school so that the school no-longer serves lower performing kids or kids whose parents are less able or for that matter less interested in engaging in a level of parent involvement that might be required by a specific charter operator? In short, can the majority of parents effectively kick out a minority of parents that they don’t like – including parents of kids with disabilities or non-English speaking parents?

Sure, you say – charters can’t discriminate in this way because they must rely on lotteries for admissions and must take children with disabilities and those unable to speak English. They would have to accept those kids in the neighborhood. Yes, by law this might be true. But experience with many charters proves otherwise. Many do rely on attrition to boost scores – somehow avoid serving kids with disabilities and non-English speaking kids. But the neighborhood school couldn’t do the same.

Taking this a step further, envision a neighborhood split along language, ethnic or even religious lines. Can the parents of the majority group force their neighborhood school to be reconstituted as a cultural, language or for that matter religion (argued as culture) specific school that is effectively hostile to the minority?

Hey education law friends – help me out with the possibilities here?

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13 Comments

  1. I wish the answer was a flat, simple “No” — but, I am afraid it is not.

    This reminds me of a case out of New York last year (or maybe 2). Incantalupo v. Lawrence Union Free Sch. Dist. No. 15, 652 F.Supp.2d 314 [250 ED. LAW REP. 1032] (E.D. NY 2009).

    Anyway, it was not a charter case, but a Jewish contingent (who all sent their kids to private schools) took over the public school board in a district on a platform of providing more public support to private schools. The school board took action to consolidate the schools within the district and in choosing which school to eliminate … they picked the best one (the newest and largest and the most natural competitor with the private schools). Their argument was that selling it would bring the highest price and thus provide more revenue to the district, and with that additional revenue they could lower taxes. Some sued saying it was motivated by religion in privileging the religious private schools, but the Court found that even if lowering taxes was the purpose of the action, that was a secular purpose and thus permissible.

    Anyway, the point is that there are these kinds of loopholes in the system where a mobilized group can control certain boards and committees and force what most people would consider ridiculous decisions.

    Now, if other parents in the district (or more likely someone like the Civil Rights Project or someone like Bill Koski’s team at Stanford) sue and can prove discriminatory intent, then sure, the policy can be ruled unconstitutional under the 14th or various other amendments/statutes. In particular the California constitution would be heavily at play. But, that can be a difficult case to prove because they are going to need someone like you, Bruce, to statistically show that these facially neutral decisions (such as implementing charters) are having a disparate impact on certain classes. And, remember, we are not going to protect poor kids. So, it has to be a minority, disability or language group. Anyway, you can see it would be a difficult case to prepare and a difficult case to prove.

    In essence, it could be another loophole. If the dropouts or transfers or whatever else rose, it is quite possible for them to get by with it – just like your hunch with many existing charters.

    1. It strikes me that these parent trigger policies allow for majority parents to engage in discrimination that does not necessarily fall along “suspect class” lines – that they could push for a charter that engages in aggressive attrition of kids who can’t cut it and parents who fail to meet the parental participation requirements. This would be a way for even a simple majority of parents to create a neighborhood school that excludes the “undesirable” families in the neighborhood. Thus, racial discrimination would not necessarily be the central issue. As you note, I expect that they would get by it. But this is truly dangerous, divisive policy.

  2. Bruce,

    You could also have the issue of parents pushing to take a public school “private” because of staffing concerns (particularly see queer teachers, who if they are long serving, are protected by tenure). There have been several instances in California of parents pulling their children from a public school classroom of an “out” teacher.

    Orientation is “catching,” don’t ya know.

    While restructuring a public school over one teacher might seem extreme, weirder things can happen when “majoritarianism” runs rampant.

  3. Like in so many other areas, the rules matter. In an unconstrained choice environment, the power dynamics and incentives make Bruce’s scenario possible, even likely. But I remain naively hopeful about the possibility that school choice folks will understand that the rules can change the incentives and change the power dynamics.

    As you point out, Bruce, the current rules — the lottery rules (and I would add the IDEA rules) — haven’t been a huge impediment to sorting through selection and attribution. Your example of theming (if that’s a word) a school to attract the right population is a perfect example of how to get around the rules and tell parents whether a schools “right for you.” But placing constraints on choice (e.g., in SD) can help to improve the segregation issue at least.

    But I want to add one other (undesirably) possibility that’s, perhaps, even more likely than Bruce’s. The ‘parent trigger’ is sold as a way to empower parents. But the parental empowerment is unlikely to be evenly distributed. This gets to Cath’s point — one can easily imagine a well-organized group of homophobes. Or imagine a school that proposes a change to serve EL students or to detrack. In all these cases, an actual parental takeover may not happen, but what I do think will happen will be the most efficacious, powerful parents demanding that the school policy follow their wishes ‘or else.’

    This is all speculation — we’ll have to see what actually occurs in California. But it’s speculation well-grounded in past experience. The parent trigger seems to be just the latest tool for devolving school policymaking to a subgroup of an area’s most powerful parents.

  4. Isn’t it strange that when a community of people of color attempt to build the school they want in the education marketplace all hell breaks loose. Why did not these powers that be raise the same hue and cry when the Palisades schools did the same thing in their community and increased the percentage of white students in their schools by some 20%?

    I say bravo! If it’s good enough for he Palisades it should be good enough for them!

    1. One might argue that the parent trigger policy promotes just that – It’s a policy adopted/promoted by the elite (primarily white) which ultimately creates turf/school wars between disadvantaged and even more disadvantaged minority groups within urban districts. While all of this is going on the elite can pat themselves on the back for providing low income minorities in the urban core this new opportunity to discriminate against each other and not worry about who put them in that situation to begin with. Wonderful diversion from the bigger picture disparities – and no need to raise additional tax revenues to actually improve the quality of the urban system.

  5. The Texas Senate Ed Cmte is recommending the state adopt rules that allow KIPP and other “high-performing” charters to take over under-performing schools. In a perverse way, I hope it passes because I would love to see how it works out given that KIPP currently pushes out low performing kids and brings in high-performing kids in many of their schools.

    1. I’m not sure of any other instances, but I do know that it was tried (and failed) in Denver: http://www.denverpost.com/sportscolumnists/ci_4997813
      The reason given (they couldn’t find a principal) didn’t pass the giggle test for most Denverites at the time. Instead, the impression I got was that KIPP didn’t feel able to really pursue the highly demanding (on parents and students) approach that works in a pure choice environment. This is the “scaling up” problem — if these models that appear successful with a selected (or non-attrited) group are so limited, how much can we learn from them (and what does it mean in terms of stratification)?

      1. Yep–thats what I figured would happen. Thanks for the tip. And thats why i want it to pass because either (a) there will be no takers or (b) it will be a colossal failure.

        Kevin–you do great work. I enjoy reading it.

  6. Also, Dan Duke has often talked about how schools become low-performing. I think an interesting study would be to take the Houston metro area student-level data that has test scores and see how kids get sorted into different schools and then see the effects on teachers and other kids over time. They now have full-blown school choice within the district which is why Sean Corcoran found the mobility rate was so high that VAM became incredibly error prone.

  7. I think the most serious issue here is that the school board had been making significant changes that were having measurable, positive effects, and the parents didn’t know. The school board did not know about the petition before this binding, legal situation came about. This is a tragedy.

    Worst of all, this is not an effort that was started by parents, but by a nonprofit who was shopping for a school district. The nonprofit chose the charter group that would get the school with no competitive bid or local input as far as I can determine.

    If the parents want more control of their local school, I wish them nothing but the best. But, signing a petition is not going to get them that control. They need to be going to meetings and they need to be talking to whoever is running the school and there needs to be a communication loop.

    One of my concerns is who will have oversight over this outside charter organization? Will the parents for that school have any control over them other than to leave the school or wait for the charter to expire?

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