Compton, California seems an unlikely place for black and Latino parents to unite for fundamental education reform. But the Los Angelesâ€“area city known best for its political corruption, racial division, and gang violence is the first proving ground for Californiaâ€™s Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the â€œparent trigger.â€ A Wall Street Journal article recently called the parent trigger â€œthe radical school reform law youâ€™ve never heard of,â€ but people are hearing about it nowâ€”and Californiaâ€™s education establishment, from South Central to Sacramento, is doing everything possible to stop it.
Under the law, if at least half of eligible parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition, the school district must undertake one of several prescribed â€œintervention models.â€ The district can close the school and let students enroll in a higher-performing public school nearby; convert the school into a charter school, which would operate with greater autonomy from local and state regulations; or implement the â€œturnaroundâ€ and â€œtransformationâ€ requirements set forth under Race to the Top, the Obama administrationâ€™s education-reform program, which would involve replacing staff, extending school hours, and revising the curriculum. Parents have the first choice of which intervention model should be used. If a district determines that it cannot carry out the particular reform that parents want, officials must adopt one of the others.
Californiaâ€™s Democrat-dominated state legislature narrowly passed the law in January 2010, as part of the stateâ€™s effort to win a piece of the $4.35 billion in federal funding for Race to the Top. California failed to win any money, but the landmark law remains on the books. The law caps the number of schools subject to the parent trigger at 75 statewide, even though at least 1,300 out of Californiaâ€™s 9,000 public schools would qualifyâ€”that is, they have missed federally mandated Average Yearly Progress goals for four consecutive years, as established under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. A school with a California Academic Performance Index score below 800â€”a measure the state calculates by taking studentsâ€™ standardized test scores and comparing them with students sharing similar demographic and academic characteristicsâ€”is considered failing….
BIG-STATE, social-democratic Sweden seems an odd place to look for a free-market revolution. Yet that is what is under way in the country’s schools. Reforms that came into force in 1994 allow pretty much anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state’s expense. The local municipality must pay the school what it would have spent educating each child itselfâ€”a sum of SKr48,000-70,000 ($8,000-12,000) a year, depending on the child’s age and the school’s location. Children must be admitted on a first-come, first-served basisâ€”there must be no religious requirements or entrance exams. Nothing extra can be charged for, but making a profit is fine.
The reforms were controversial, especially within the Social Democratic Party, then in one of its rare spells in opposition. They would have been even more controversial had it been realised just how popular they would prove. In just 14 years the share of Swedish children educated privately has risen from a fraction of a percent to more than 10%.
At the time, it was assumed that most â€œfreeâ€ schools would be foreign-language (English, Finnish or Estonian) or religious, or perhaps run by groups of parents in rural areas clubbing together to keep a local school alive. What no one predicted was the emergence of chains of schools. Yet that is where much of the growth in independent education has come from. Sweden’s Independent Schools Association has ten members that run more than six schools, and five that run ten or more.
The biggest, Kunskapsskolan (â€œKnowledge Schoolsâ€) opened its first six schools in 2000. Four more opened last autumn, bringing the total to 30. It now has 700 employees and teaches nearly 10,000 pupils, with an operating profit of SKr62m last year on a turnover of SKr655m.