In a bare-bones basement office in Buffalo, N.Y., Katie Campos, an education activist, is plotting a revolution. She and her minuscule staff of the advocacy group Buffalo ReformED are against incredible odds. In less than a week, they are trying to get a controversial law known as the "parent trigger" through the New York legislature. It's a powerful nickname for game-changing legislation that would enable parents who could gather a majority at any persistently failing school to either fire the principal, fire 50% of the teachers, close the school or turn it into a charter school.
Campos and her group are working with some 4,000 frustrated parents like Samuel Radford III, who refuses to accept that as African Americans, his three sons in Buffalo public schools have only a 25% chance of graduating. Radford voiced his concerns for years but saw no improvement, so rather than continue to wait for the district to act, he became vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council and threw his support behind passing parent-trigger legislation. "This is our chance to not just confront the problem but be part of the solution," Radford says. On June 15, Buffalo ReformED plans to fill a bus of parents like Radford and ride to the state capitol, in Albany, to host an informal hearing on the bill and speak to members of the senate and house education committees.
When people first hear about the radical-sounding law, they are almost always taken aback. But what they might not know is that failing schools can already be shut down by school districts under the No Child Left Behind law. The parent trigger simply takes the option provided to the school board and hands the power to the parents. Gloria Romero, the former California state senator who sponsored the nation's first parent-trigger law, says it was designed so that parents would not have to sit idly by and wait for reform that would never come in cases where school districts weren't doing enough. "These are school districts that are chronically underperforming, and yet the school officials have done nothing to turn them around," Romero tells TIME, referring to California's 1,300-plus persistently failing schools.
The idea for the parent trigger was conceived in 2009 by Ben Austin, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school organization. "The way I saw it, if education was going to change, parents had to have a seat at the table where they could make real decisions about real reforms for their kids," Austin tells TIME. He decided to start an advocacy group called Parent Revolution dedicated to passing parent-trigger legislation. (Green Dot provided the initial funding for Parent Revolution, though as of 2010 it no longer received funds from the group. It now receives the largest share of its funds from the Wasserman, Walton and Gates foundations.) By January 2010, Austin and a feisty crop of paid organizers had knocked on some 4,000 doors, mobilized parents, bused them to Sacramento and into state legislator offices to tell their stories, and managed to get the idea cemented into law.