DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the decades-old battle to improve America's public schools, parents have sometimes been relegated to the margins. Recently, though, a new strategy that gives parents the power to shut down and take over failing schools has emerged. It's known as the Parent Trigger Law. Seven states have some version of it; at least a dozen more are considering it. NPR's Claudio Sanchez visited one of the only towns so far to have pulled the trigger.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Adelanto, California is a speck of a town - home to several prisons connected by desolate stretches of highway on the fringes of the Mojave Desert. It's also the site of an unlikely rebellion. Parents here have used the state's parent trigger law to take over a failing school. It's not the first time. Parents in Compton, California were the first to try - unsuccessfully. Parents in Adelanto are the first to succeed. Doreen Diaz, one of the parents who has led this revolt, is convinced that teachers and administrators at Desert Trails Elementary have given up on their children because they're poor.
DOREEN DIAZ: There are just people that believe that these children can't learn, that they'll teach to the ones that get it and too bad for the ones that don't, and that's just the mentality. The culture there is one that does not believe in our children. How many more children are we going to risk?
SANCHEZ: Diaz says her daughter could barely read by fifth grade. She was put in a special education class. She hated it.
DIAZ: And I found out that she was being bullied. There were fistfights going on in the classroom. It was just - she was traumatized, and she became very introverted, and that just broke my heart.
SANCHEZ: Adelanto school officials declined to speak to NPR for this story. But their position is this: Schools here struggle because so many students come from impoverished, unstable, single-parent homes. This hurts kids academically. Last year, seven out of 10 sixth-graders at Desert Trails, for example, flunked the state's English and math tests. Diaz insists that's the school's fault, but it's been hard to get parents to demand changes.
DIAZ: We're a minority community, and a lot of our parents are not legal here. So it's a fear for them to stand up and do something like that because they're afraid. Parents were told that they would get immigration on them.
SANCHEZ: It's not clear who threatened to report parents to U.S. immigration authorities, but eventually more than half of the parents at Desert Trails Elementary did sign a petition demanding changes, which is all that it took for the parent-trigger law to kick in. The Adelanto school board tried to invalidate the petition after some parents changed their minds, saying they had been duped into signing it. This summer, though, a county court judge allowed the petition to go forward, forcing the school board to respond to the parent trigger's initial demands: one - that a new principal take over and be allowed to hire and fire teachers; two - that the school be given control of its budget and curriculum. The school board said it couldn't do this without concessions from the teachers union. The union's position was that the parents' demands were unreasonable.
LANITA DOMINIQUE: I saw the list of demands, and there were many things on the list that were out of not only the union's control, but the district's control.
SANCHEZ: Union president LaNita Dominique says parents didn't just want to get rid of some teachers. They wanted iPads for every child and full-time nurses and counselors - things the district couldn't afford. She says the union and the school board had already agreed to several changes, including a longer school day and more tutoring. But it was too little too late. Parents were intent on taking over.
BEN AUSTIN: This is not about parents running schools. It's about parents having a seat at the table.
SANCHEZ: Ben Austin wrote and helped pass California's parent-trigger law in 2010. A former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and an adviser in the Clinton White House, Austin is founder of Parent Revolution. It's a million-dollar-a-year operation based in Los Angeles that's pushing parent-trigger laws in over a dozen states. He says he's helping parents in Adelanto because children's interests have taken a backseat to adults' interests.
AUSTIN: The only way we're going to change that is to effectuate an unapologetic, raw transfer of political power from the defenders of the status quo to parents because parents have a wholly different sense of urgency than everybody else because their kids get older every day.
SANCHEZ: Austin advised parents in Adelanto to sever their ties to the school district and turn Desert Trails Elementary into a privately run, publicly funded charter school. But not all parents want that to happen. Some see it as a hostile takeover orchestrated by outsiders.
LORI YUAN: I've said this from day one and this is the truth.
SANCHEZ: Lori Yuan has two children at the school.
YUAN: If this was a true grassroots movement, truly the parents with genuine concern banding together, trying to figure out how to make it better, I would've been on their side, because it would've been coming from a genuine place of trying to work together. Not any kind of outside involvement, takeover, hostility, lying.
CHRISSY ALVARADO: And I stood here and watched them lie.
SANCHEZ: That's Chrissy Alvarado. She also has two children at Desert Trails. Alvarado and Yuan say their kids are thriving. They agree with the school board's position that if kids are failing, it's because they're poor, transient and already way behind when they arrive.
ALVARADO: We have kids rotating in here. We have a prison community, we have a very low-income community. People are rotating out of here daily.
SANCHEZ: All that the parent trigger has done, says Alvarado, is tear the community apart.
ALVARADO: Parents don't know who to trust, who to talk to. If they used to be my friend, they're not sure if they should because they've attacked me on a personal level about what kind of person I am, especially in a Hispanic community.
SANCHEZ: It has proved to be incredibly disruptive. Still, giving parents the right to take over a failing school is a powerful idea. With the financial backing of influential groups like the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations, supporters of the parent trigger are looking far beyond tiny Adelanto. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.