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New ‘trigger’ law may increase number of charter schools

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Scroll down to view interactive graphicScroll down to view interactive graphicWASHINGTON – With new “trigger” laws, several states are likely to have more charter schools as parents seek better choices for their children. 

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found an estimated 610,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charter schools, a jump from about 200,000 two years ago.

“Trigger” laws allow parents to intervene in their children’s school if it is performing poorly. These laws vary by state and, with enough support, parents can generally choose from among several options. In California, if more than 50 percent of parents sign a petition, there are three choices: hire a new administration, shut down the school or, the most likely, convert the school into a charter.

Charter schools are public institutions, supported by public funds and typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract with the state or jurisdiction. Charters are exempt from many state or local rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. There are 5,618 charter schools in the U.S with an estimated enrollment of just over 2 million students. According to the U.S. Census,  about 59 million children were attending school from kindergarten through high school in 2011, meaning more than 3 percent of students are in charters.

“The public charter school sector is expanding rapidly in response to parent demand. One reason for the growth is that many states have multiple ways to authorize high-quality public charter schools. The addition of parent triggers will help support this growth,” David Hoff, NAPCS spokesman, said.

Seven states have passed parent trigger laws: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. As of June, the National Conference of State Legislatures said about 13 other states had considered but did not approve trigger laws.  

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger, the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. The law has been used twice, but the first attempt failed. The second time, parents from Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, petitioned to convert the school into a charter after a majority of students failed to meet state standards in reading and writing.

Cynthia Ramirez, 31, is a parent and lead coordinator of The Desert Trails Parent Union. She said the school did not have an adequate curriculum or positive learning environment.

“I’ve noticed things in the school that to me, were not up to standard. A lot of parents were complaining the kids were not learning anything and that the teachers were not giving them encouragement. I heard teachers were not leaving homework, and expectations for students were very low,” she said.

Ramirez said she hopes the new charter school will provide good leadership and a motivating environment for her daughter, Meleney, 8.

"I noticed she was not being challenged … and by the time she got to second grade I wanted to pull her out of the school because she was not progressing the way she was supposed to,” Ramirez said.

LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, a charter school operator, will take over the school in August. It operates another charter nearby.

“Parent trigger laws allow parents for the first time to have a direct voice in promoting a kids-first agenda and allows parents who have kids in chronically failing schools to work on transforming those schools,” David Phelps said. He is the national communication director for Parent Revolution, an advocacy organization that helps parents transform their children’s low-performing schools.

With charters drawing students away from traditional public schools, critics argue that charters pose a threat to public school finances. Charters are given a fixed amount per student, and each time a student enrolls in a charter school the funding goes with the child.

Parent triggers have caused a sense of division between some parents and teachers.  

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said charter schools are undermining the fabric of public education.

“Traditional public schools are really a resource of the community, and they have been built from public funds and they are there to serve not just current students but future students in the neighborhood. And once you turn it into a charter school, it stops being a public school that’s run with public oversight for the kids in that community,” Haimson said.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University compared the performance of charter schools in 16 states, including Texas, Florida, Ohio and Arizona. The study found that charter school students had somewhat lower academic growth than their traditional public school peers.

CREDO also found that in California 37 percent of charter schools produced educational outcomes that were worse than those in public schools, and only 17 percent produced outcomes that were better.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of educational and public policy at University of California Berkeley, said charters can have a negative impact on traditional public schools and cause an increase in segregation along social class lines.

“There’s significant evidence that charters draw more motivated kids and engaged parents out of regular public schools. In general, this oftentimes leaves behind kids that have less of a tradition of formal education and literacy,” he said.

Fuller said that supporters of regular public schools worry that funding will decrease at the expense of charters. But charter advocates say that diverting money from regular public schools is right because of charters’ increasing share of enrollment.

Ramirez has high hopes for the new charter school.

“The environment inside the school with the kids' different cultures and staff is going to be a motivating environment. The teachers are going to motivate the children to attend school, and for whatever reason if children are in households or in communities living a tough life or surrounded by negative stuff, our school is going to be a way for them to see that you don’t have to stay stuck in the life that you are living in,” Ramirez said.

Reach SHFWire reporter Kamrel Eppinger at or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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