Chicago parents could pull the trigger on failing schools

Parent-forced reforms seen as a fast way to significantly expand charter schools.

April 13, 2011

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(Flckr/Ron Reason)
Parent-forced reforms are seen as a fast way to significantly expand charter schoolsin Illinois.

Over the last week, busloads of parents and students have protested plans to close or consolidate their schools.

But some people envision a time when parents fight for their schools to be shut down or turned into charter schools.

The author of California’s “parent trigger” law, former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero, was in Chicago this week talking up the law. Supporters see it as a way to rapidly expand charter schools.

Under parent trigger laws, parents at a failing school can force major reforms. All that’s needed in many states is for more than half the parents to sign a petition—and they can shut down the school completely, overhaul staff, or turn it into a charter school.

“Basic concept of democracy,” says Romero. “Fifty percent plus one. And you begin to see change,” says Romero, now the California state director for Democrats for Education.

Ultimately, Romero says, parent trigger laws are about democracy and community organizing.  

“It gives people—parents— the right to say, ‘We the people, we the parents. When my own government will not look out for my child, I will.’ And that is old-fashioned community organizing.’”

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said during his campaign that he supported parent trigger legislation for Chicago.

“You’ve already got a real advantage in that this was a debate during the mayoral election,” Romero said. “Run with it. Now it’s actually putting flesh on the bones of what it looks like, Chicago-style.”

Among those who came to hear Romero speak was Rockford mayor Larry Morrissey. Morrissey says parent trigger “levels the playing field” by giving parents a voice in school reform.

"Giving this power to the parents actually is a total game-changer, because it turns the table on the typical power structure—which is who’s on the [school] board and who gets people elected to the board. [That] typically has a lot to do with campaign contributions.”

Other school reform experts and parents have criticized parent trigger as superficial parent involvement. They say parents need to get really involved in making schools better.

Parent trigger laws have been opposed by teacher unions. The California Federation of Teachers referred to the law there as the “lynch mob provision.”

llinois does not yet have a parent trigger bill, but Indiana does. The Indiana State Senate has already passed parent trigger legislation. A vote is expected soon in the Indiana House—part of sweeping education legislation being pushed there this week.