Q & A: Gloria Romero, Author Of California’s ‘Parent Trigger’ Law
California was the first state to adopt a ‘parent trigger,’ which allows a majority of parents in a failing school to vote on a method to restructure the school.
The bill is expected to be among the most contentious education issues of the 2012 legislative session. Activists have lined up against the bill, arguing it is not being done in their name. Others argue the bill is bad policy.
For more explanation on how Florida’s proposed law works, click here.
StateImpact Florida spoke with Gloria Romero, a former California state senator who authored the original parent trigger bill. Romero is now state director for the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.
Q: Tell me what your role was with the California parent trigger bill?
A: I am the author of the original parent trigger law in the nation, which today has seen it go across the nation to some 20 states having this concept introduced into potential law.
Q: When you guys introduced this bill in California, what was the situation you were looking at and how was this bill designed to solve it?
A: It’s really interesting, because to me the imagination of the parent trigger law is really to understand that it is parents who are the architects of their childrens’ future. And for year after year, decade after decade quite frankly, parents felt frustrated, because the administrators — those who run our schools — quite simply did not sense the need of urgency to turn around especially chronically under-performing schools. Failing schools, quite frankly.
So I finally wrote this bill, turned into law, which said quite frankly, if you aren’t going to do it — meaning the school administrators and the school bureaucrats in charge of the education system — then basically move out of the way and we the people, we the parents will. It basically asserts rights, it gives real rights to match the responsibility that parents have and feel towards trying to fight for the best education options for their children.
Q: The first time this law was attempted to be used at the Compton elementary school it turned into a bitter political fight. Is that accurate?
A: It is accurate, however, I think…there’s the law and then there’s the efforts to implement and use a law. I strongly support the Compton parents, what was done. But it was the first time in the nation and quite frankly the organizers did make mistakes. Now some of them were just quite trivial mistakes, for example they forgot to put a staple on a couple of papers. Or they forgot to put a date on the pages of the petition. There were some issues that were quite frankly that trivial. And yet they were dismissed in a court of law because not having a date on the petition with hundreds of signatures of parents was ruled invalid…
Having said that, the law is powerful. It is imaginative. I mean think about it: What law giving parents real rights that you can think of in recent years has sort of spawned the drive of parents and legislators across the country to try to move it into every state in the nation and that’s what I think is so exciting. The funny thing is is that when I was writing this law and fighting for it in the California legislature, I had no idea people across the nation would start looking at that and say ‘Yeah, I want that too because my own school district, my own elected officials, my own government is refusing to do what they’re supposed to do under federal and state laws. So if they’re not going to do it, give it to me and I will have the courage to do it.’
Q: This law has been invoked again since that first example. What have you guys learned since the law was first passed?
A: I think the first thing we’ve learned is parents are, unequivocally, the one sector of the education arena where they don’t have a special interest. Their main objective is to fight for an education for their kids. I’ve learned that parents, not only in California…really care about being part of the education sector where they can understand how to fight for their kids. So we know the parents care. We know that parents want it. And that’s important because too often you hear these stories ‘Oh, the parents don’t care.’ ‘If only the parents care.’ ‘Make them responsible.’ Yes, we’ll make them responsible, but you have to have rights to match the responsibility. So that is a fundamental equation that if we want parents to be responsible, and we do, then give them rights. And parents will utilize those rights.
I think another thing to is it’s important to collaborate. To go and work with many people in a coalition. In California, for example, it was very interesting to see people come together. And this wasn’t on a partisan basis, it wasn’t about Republican or Democrats. People didn’t even ask each other about their political persuasions were. They asked about the quality of their kids and whether or not their kids were better off now than when they first entered their school, and most of the time the answer was no. We found it was a time to coalesce with business owners, to coalesce with faith-based communities and churches and community groups to really move this forward.
But we also found…that too often elected officials are afraid to take on powerful special interests, like teachers’ union, who fear that they may lose control of basically calling the shots in an education system when parents begin to have a greater voice in the system. I think that’s a good thing and I don’t think we should be afraid of that.
Q: One of the criticisms of the law is what results, generally, has been confrontation rather than collaboration. Do you disagree with that?
A: Oh fundamentally. But let’s think about it. Confrontation that’s used in a pejorative sense…but confrontation means basically you confront. You deal with an issue. You look at it. Remember one of the main reasons why I wrote this bill into law in California, was that I was tired — sick and tired — of waiting and waiting and waiting for the school system, a failing school, to turn around. When you finally stand up and say ‘If you won’t acknowledge and confront this issue, then we will.’ I don’t think confrontation is a bad thing in the sense of parent trigger. It means the buck stops with us. If you’re a parent you’re responsible that your child has a quality education.
I think those that have opposed it have tried to ‘Oh my gosh, it sets people off against each other.’ All the parents are asking for, if you think about it, is for those in charge to basically do their job. And in the cases where they fail, or they won’t do it, or they let a school fail year after year after year, then it’s time for them to move over and let the parents who fundamentally care and have a real stake in the outcome to say ‘Then we will do it…’
Fundamentally, it largely mirrors the rights that are already in existence under federal law. So to some extent, the revolutionary appeal of parent trigger is not that it’s revolutionary, it’s that these laws have been on the books and those that control the political and education levers to actually pull them to make schools better have simply twiddled their thumbs while Rome has burned and schools and children have failed.
So it’s not about confrontation being negative. It’s about saying that we mean it. That we can’t wait years and years and years for schools to turn around.
Q: What should lawmakers in Florida be asking themselves as they consider this bill?
A: I think when legislators are asking the question, who are they putting first? Are they putting their own political interests first? Or are they putting the opportunity and well-being of children first? Are they willing to step aside to put the kids first?
I think it’s important for them to ask: Does it matter if they are a Democrat or a Republican? It really should be ‘No, it’s not.’ This is a cooperative, bi-partisan effort. I think it matters to them to really, honestly look — dare I say, confront? — at their schools’ outcome data and to ask themselves ‘Is this the best that the Sunshine State can provide for children?’
If legislators who have the honor and privilege of being in public service if they have the opportunity to move an agenda forward that really puts kids first; that recognizes that it’s time to make a change. To ask themselves if they have the backbone and the courage to move this law forward and to help grow a national movement that gives parents real rights while we understand the responsibilities that must accompany those rights…
To me, fundamentally, this is a civil rights issue. It’s an economic opportunity issue as well.