Video: ‘Trigger law’ put to the test in California

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Trigger law’ put to the test in California

    >>> laws making its way from west to east across the country. laws called parent trying hes. they let parents force changes in the schools that aren't doing the job. our report tonight from nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: for those who thought education reform was a wonkish, just get aboard the parent express. it was an around the clock campaign to get out one simple message.

    >> for the first time in american history , parents now have the power to basically fire the school district .

    >> reporter: california 's parent trigger law , the first in the nation, allows parents to oust teachers as long as 51% of the parents agree to do so. so far, california , texas and mississippi have trigger laws on the books, and at least 22 other states are considering it. for marlene, it was a miracle.

    >> my son wasn't at the level of learning he was supposed to be.

    >> reporter: at her son's school in compton, california , less than half the students were meeting state goals in math and reading.

    >> did you get a sense they were trying to fix it?

    >> no, never.

    >> reporter: she helped get more than 60% of the parents to sign a petition to convert the campus into a charter school , the most extreme of four options. the thought that parents could suddenly wield real influence over administrators didn't go over well. the california federation of teachers went so far as to call it a lynch mob . critics charged that while the law can shake up a troubled school, there's no guarantee it will make it any better.

    >> it allows patients to take a one time action to discuss their zaefgs, but there's no second phase.

    >> reporter: but for some, it's a start, and a highly emotional one at that.

    >> not because of my zip code do my kids have to continue to stay --

    >> reporter: lee cowan, nbc news, los

NBC News Correspondents
By Lee Cowan NBC News correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/26/2011 6:55:25 PM ET 2011-09-26T22:55:25

On its face, the idea sounds so simple: if a school is persistently failing, give parents the power to change it. But the reality of putting that notion into practice is proving challenging, at best.

In the last two years, California, Texas and Mississippi have passed so-called "parent trigger" laws. In each, the law stipulates that if at least 51 percent of the parents of children enrolled in a school sign a petition, they can trigger change. The laws vary in terms of the specifics, but in general, the new law allows parents at persistently failing schools to fire the teachers and principal, and in some cases, turn the school into a charter school instead. Twenty-two other states are considering giving parents the same kind of power.

But there is strong opposition to the laws from teachers' unions. They argue parents don't have the experience that career educators do to make big policy changes.

So far, the law has only been put to the test once, in Compton, Calif., and it has sparked a battle. Hundreds of parents signed a petition to turn McKinley Elementary into a charter school. Parents say they had good reasons. Less than half their kids were meeting state standards in math and reading.

For Marlene Romero, enough was enough. "I feel like my son wasn't at the level of learning he was supposed to be," she said. Even teachers were warning her. "One of the teachers told me, 'If I was you, I'd take my son out of this school,'" she said.

But the school is challenging the petition, saying the signatures were obtained improperly and are therefore invalid. The case is now in court, and there are bitter feelings on both sides. The California Federation of Teachers went so far as to call the parent trigger law "lynch mob" legislation.

Backers of the "parent trigger" laws say they were born as a way to give parents the right to intervene if the system to which they entrust their children is in a downward spiral. The laws offer a way to vent anger and frustration, and effect real change, they say.  

But there is a learning curve. Proponents are now out campaigning to remind parents the laws have to be about more than just signing a petition and hoping the rest will take care of itself. They argue the trigger attempt should be a starting point for parents to organize, rally, meet and educate themselves. They've even started handing out what they call a Parent Power Handbook, a slim pocket-size notebook with hints about how parents can stay involved and remain active in the day-to-day operations of their children's school.

The "trigger" laws do give thousands of parents what they've been wanting: more input in the education of their own children. But the price of that power is that parents have to take on more responsibility, too.

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