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New York has a “parent trigger”-like law that mostly sits fallow

Across the country, the right of parents to decide who controls their schools is getting a closer look with the new movie “Won’t Back Down,” a Hollywood drama based on the true story of a struggling California school that parents tried to turn into a charter school using a “parent trigger” law.

In the last year, at least 20 states have considered some version of the “parent trigger,” a controversial policy that would give parents the power to vote in significant changes at their children’s school. Advocates of the policy say it empowers parents, but critics say that it allows private corporations to manipulate parents into handing over control of public schools.

Here in New York, a version of the law has been on the books for more than a decade.

Under the New York State Charter School Act of 1998, parents can begin converting their school into a charter school if a majority of them officially vote to approve the plan. But instead of empowering parents in failing schools, New York’s law has enabled politicians, education officials, and school administrators to pursue their own agendas, and its design contains some significant limitations.

How New York State’s existing “parent trigger” law stacks up

Compared to more aggressive versions of the parent trigger legislation that exist in other states, New York’s law doesn’t allow any teacher replacement. Plus, schools converted under New York’s law assume the district’s collective bargaining agreement, so teachers earn the same salaries and are entitled to the same pensions, health benefits, and job protections as they did before the conversion. But once the schools go charter, the district no longer picks up pension and benefits costs, leaving the schools with a heavy burden.

Also, in many of the proposed parent trigger laws, parents would be able to turn their schools into charter schools or otherwise overhaul them by replacing the leadership and making structural and programming changes. But New York parents get only the option to turn their school into a charter school.

Advocates of aggressive school reform strategies believe New York’s current policy is too constraining.

“It’s not a true parent trigger because the conversion law assumes that parents would only want to convert their school to a charter,” said Christina Grant, Executive Director of NYCAN.

Big promises for participating schools

When the law was passed, the promise was that principals would be given unprecedented freedom from strict Board of Education regulations, which at the time included strict limitations on hiring and budgeting. Then-Chancellor Rudy Crew actively recruited schools to take part in the experiment and in 1999 found his first two guinea pigs, Middle College High School and International High School.

Here’s how the New York Times described the model when it was first announced:

The independent status of the two converted public schools will free them from regulation by the board and allow administrators to set their own budgets, rewrite curriculums and hire their own faculty and staff. …

”We can open up a computer lab without restriction on what vendors we use, we can plan trips without needing it to be approved,” said [Principal Debbie] Rizzo, who in 1976 was in the first graduating class at Middle College High School. ”We have freedom to make decisions that will help children without the bureaucracy.”

A quick return to the district

The honeymoon didn’t last long. By the 2000-2001 school year, both schools had applied for waivers to return to the district.

Crew had unwittingly sold the schools a bill of goods, according to Eric Nadelstern, who was principal of International High School at the time and later became a deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who advanced principal autonomy in district schools.

“In order to make [conversion] more attractive, he promised that we would never have less money as a charter than we did as public schools,” said Nadelstern. He added, “That was true that first year.”

Later that year, however, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ousted Crew and replaced him with Harold Levy, who did not uphold Crew’s promise. Levy required the new charter schools to take on pension and healthcare retirement obligations for their retiring teachers.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said taking on those costs would cripple most charter schools.

“As long as conversion requires the converted charter school to carry the full pension obligations and other fringe benefit costs, we will almost surely see few if any of them,” he said. “The financial model is simply unsustainable.”

Yet there were more takers

After Levy took over, administrators at five more district schools created plans to convert and convinced a majority of parents to support them. The schools are KIPP Academy (Bronx), Renaissance Charter School (Queens), John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, Future Leaders Institute, and Beginning with Children.

A provision in the law allows teachers to modify their collective bargaining agreements, enabling some of the schools to adapt to the new costs.

Stacey Gauthier, who helped convert Renaissance and is now principal there, said the school modified some work rules immediately. ”You have the ability to do that if you have the right population of staff and the right culture,” she said.

Gauthier said the longer-term costs were difficult to manage, eating up $3 million of the school’s $8 million annual operating budget when the stock market was at its weakest. She said her school saved significantly because it could operate in public school space.

“It does mean we have less programatic spending for children, but we’ve always been solvent and had a little extra money in the bank,” Gauthier said.

A high-profile rejection

Virtually every time school leaders engineered a conversion plan under the charter school law, they were able to convince parents to sign on, largely because the leaders already had a track record of success. But not every planned conversion went through.

In 2001, Edison Schools, a for-profit corporation, won a city contract to take over five struggling district schools using the charter school conversion law. An important difference from earlier conversion efforts was that the city had deemed the schools to be failures and was using the law not to give principals autonomy to do more of what they were already doing well, but to strip them of control.

For the first time in the law’s history, teachers, administrators, and community members fought back, charging that “schoolchildren were being reduced to dollar signs” while also clamoring to preserve their roles in leading the schools. The Edison proposal finally stalled with the parent vote, which was held during an evening meeting and received paltry turnout.

In the fallout of that proposal, Guiliani, who earlier called the plan a “no-lose proposition,” blamed Levy for ever allowing parents to vote in the first place. But Levy was just following the law. The New York Times reported,

On his weekly radio show yesterday, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani faulted Mr. Levy for failing to simply give Edison a contract to run the schools, without a vote by parents. But Mr. Levy, backed by lawyers at the State Education Department, said that would have been illegal and ethically wrong.

Calls for a more aggressive “parent trigger” process

The Bloomberg administration’s doctrine of principal autonomy has given schools little incentive to leave the district, particularly as the costs of doing so have become clear. But there is still a real need for a new law to give parents meaningful authority over how their children’s schools are run, advocates of aggressive school reform strategies say.

Simply put, the conversion model does not allow for the kinds of aggressive intervention that would allow a school to turn around, according to Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association.

“If you convert a school that’s not performing and you keep the same collective bargaining agreement and the same staff, those are two very fundamental parts of your school’s DNA that you’ve essentially declared off limits,” Phillips said. “So that’s hard.”

Micah Lasher, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, said he would like to see a more robust parent trigger statute. But he said the current law could also be used to greater effect.

“The charter conversion law is in some ways more limited than parent trigger but it does give the opportunity to create change and I do think it’s something that’s been underutilized and under-explored,” Lasher said.