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'Trigger law' put to the test in Compton, Calif.

California, Texas and Mississippi have each passed so-called "parent trigger" laws and 22 other states are considering giving parents the same kind of power.
/ Source: NBC News

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.