California’s Educational Earthquake

The tectonic plates of the nation's educational debate shifted dramatically in California last week when its supposedly dysfunctional, lopsidedly Democratic legislature passed the most far reaching educational reform program in the nation, and California's "post-partisan" Republican Governor happily signed it. Going beyond other states' efforts to respond to President Obama's "Race to the Top" competitive grant process, the state pulled the "Parent Trigger" in its legislation. This allows a majority of parents whose kids are attending a "demonstrably failing school" to, in effect, take over that school and change its governance, administration and teaching staff. In so doing, California placed itself in the vanguard of the transformation of America's K-12 education system that will put parents, not teachers or administrators, in the driver's seat in determining the kind of education that their special Millennial children will receive.

Just as we predicted in our book, Millennial Makeover: "Social networks, 'mommy blogs', and other forms of peer-to-peer communications" were the vehicle by which this parent led, bottom-up revolt overturned the power of some of California's most powerful unions to pass what Sacramento insiders considered a hopeless cause. Every time labor and its allies attempted to water down the impact of the Parent Trigger, the opposition melted in the face of thousands of parents asking a simple question, with only one good answer: "Why shouldn't parents get to decide what kind of school their kids go to?" A final compromise limited the number of schools that parents can pull the trigger on to just 75 initially. However, the future of this idea is just as bright as the state's Charter School movement, which started with similar limitations yet today is the governance model for more than 160 schools in Los Angeles alone and with enrollments rising almost 20% in the last year.

The organization behind the Parent Trigger concept, Parent Revolution, gives full credit to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration for creating the incentives that forced the state to consider this reform. Tucked inside the so-called stimulus bill passed last February, was over $4 billion for states and school districts to transform the performance of their schools. States that prohibit linking data on student achievement to principal and teacher evaluations, as California did before it passed this latest round of educational reform laws, were disqualified from even applying for these grants. In addition, those states that capped charter schools or limited alternative certification processes for teachers lose points in the competitive rankings for receipt of the grants. Most importantly, the program established a January, 2010 deadline for state laws to meet four conditions or "assurances" in order to be considered for the largest amount of reform incentive dollars in the last three decades:

  1. Adoption of common, internationally benchmarked, standards based on rigorous state assessments.
  2. Establishment of systems to track achievement and growth in student learning that identify effective instructional practices.
  3. Implementation of a process that rewards and retains top teachers and improves or replaces bad ones.
  4. Adoption of a policy on how to replace staff and change the culture of a demonstrably failing school (one whose test scores show no improvement over three years).

The need for money as well as the fourth and final assurance were the drivers behind the legislature's consideration of the idea of a Parent Trigger, but it was the grass roots organization that pushed the legislature into turning back pleas from their usual union allies and enacting this earth-shattering reform. Beginning in Los Angeles, whose "unified school district" (LAUSD) has been a poster child for bureaucratic stubbornness and urban educational woes, the Parents Revolution won the right to fire the principal and half the teachers of a failing school, or, in the alternative, to establish a charter school of their design for their children to attend.  Recognizing that each child has $7,000 of potential state funding in their backpack, LAUSD was the first to agree to these demands by parents at both a mostly Latino high school and a more upscale, suburban area middle school. With those successes in their pocket, the group was able to rally parents of all types, from every part of the state, to lobby for the same rights in their district.

Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution and a long-time political activist on behalf of children, believes it will not be long before the same rights are given to every parent in the country, possibly as part of Congress's reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind legislation next year. As he points out, "the old coalitions don't apply here, it's a cause that unites parents from upper middle class and working class backgrounds-white, black and Latino alike."  Or, as we said in Millennial Makeover, parents will learn about and demand:

"Models that produce superior results at lower costs and provide the aggregating mechanism for a new, decentralized, parent-controlled, educational decision-making system. Armed with new information on graduation and college acceptance rates of America's high schools, parents will choose the type of education they want for their child, with the money following the child to the school they have selected, not to the school district they live in...The result will be a system of public education that mirrors the egalitarian and community orientation of a Millennial civic era."

For the parents of students attending one of the 5000 lowest performing schools in the country, the changes can't come too soon. With an administration ready to play a critical role in providing the incentives to reform our schools, students, parents, administrators and teachers throughout the nation will soon be feeling the aftershocks of California's educational earthquake.