“Parent trigger” policy used as a disguise
I received an article from a list server a few days ago that goes a little something like this:
The Radical School Reform You’ve Never Heard Of
With ‘parent trigger,’ families can forcibly change failing schools.
By David Feith
Debates about education these days tend to center on familiar terms like charter schools and merit pay. Now a new fault line is emerging: “parent trigger.”
Like many radical ideas, parent trigger originated in California, as an innovation of a liberal activist group called Parent Revolution. The average student in Los Angeles has only a 50% chance of graduating high school and a 10% chance of attending college. It’s a crisis, says Parent Revolution leader Ben Austin, that calls for “an unabashed and unapologetic transfer of raw power from the defenders of the status quo”—education officials and teachers unions—”to the parents.”
Parent trigger, which became California law in January, is meant to facilitate that transfer of power through community organizing. Under the law, if 51% of parents in a failing school sign a petition, they can trigger a forcible transformation of the school—either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright.
Schools are eligible for triggering if they have failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” according to state standards, for four consecutive years. Today 1,300 of California’s 10,000 schools qualify.
To California’s teachers unions, the parent trigger is anathema—a “lynch mob provision,” wrote the president of the California Federation of Teachers in his union’s publication. By contrast, to the law’s sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Gloria Romero, it represents “the power of a signature, the John Hancock in the hand of every parent in a school deemed to be failing.” (And, adds Ms. Romero, “to refer to mostly minority, low-income, inner-city parents as a ‘lynch mob’ is really unbelievable.”)
California’s example has already inspired legislation in Connecticut, although Hartford lawmakers ultimately passed a reform package that doesn’t give parents as much direct influence. That hasn’t stopped the idea from catching on elsewhere.
State legislators in five states—Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and West Virginia—tell me that they plan to introduce versions of parent-trigger legislation over the next six months.
“If it can pass in California, it can pass anywhere,” says New Jersey State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who plans to introduce his parent-trigger bill as soon as this month. Mr. Kyrillos is confident his bill will pass, especially since Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, committed in September to supporting the kind of parent-empowering reform that “was recently done in California.”
Even so, if what’s past is prologue, states considering parent-trigger laws are in for some rough battles. “It was brutal,” says Gwen Samuel, a mother whose State of Black CT Alliance led the push for a parent trigger in Connecticut. “Enjoy your family and prepare your strategy,” she warns other states, “because unions are going to come at you with everything they have.”
In California that’s meant, among other things, misinformation campaigns. Earlier this year, before a vote on whether to turn Los Angeles’s Gratts Primary Center over to a charter operator, a flier circulated warning parents not to support the charter option porque pueden ser deportadas—”because you might be deported.”
“They’re afraid to sign the petition,” said one Los Angeles-area mother who is collecting signatures for a charter conversion. “Some teachers, parents, principals have mentioned that if they sign the petition it’s gonna be for the school to be closed, which is not true.”
The growing popularity of parent trigger challenges the common assertion that schools fail primarily because they serve apathetic families. Like charter-school lotteries bursting with thousands of parents and students, trigger drives demonstrate that legions of parents actively reject their children’s failing schools.
The national spread of parent trigger will also demonstrate how the campaign for choice in education—once a predominantly conservative and Republican interest—has gone bipartisan.
The backers of parent trigger in California included Parent Revolution’s Mr. Austin, who served in the Clinton White House; the Democratic leadership in the state legislatures, including Sen. Romero; almost all Republican state legislators; the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson; and the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who was once a teachers union organizer. Also in favor is the California chapter of the NAACP.
Outside of California, the state legislators so far taking the lead are Republicans. And in Washington, incoming House Education Committee Chair John Kline (R., Minn.) says that he supports parent trigger, and that Congress “can make sure federal policy does not stand in their way.”
What unites all these people is the view that parents should be empowered to make choices about their children’s education. As Ms. Romero puts it: “We can wait for Superman, or recognize that Superman is us.”
Stay tuned: By Christmas, says Mr. Austin, one group of Los Angeles parents will announce that it’s reached 51% support for a charter conversion. The defenders of the status quo, no doubt, are readying for battle.
I responded to the poster of this article with the following:
“Parent organizing in order to demand and forcibly change schools is most definitely a powerful missing ingredient in school reform. However, my question remains in news coverage and arguments like this, “What kind of change will a process like this ultimately result in and who will ultimately benefit?” The options on the table for parents organizing to change schools through “parent triggers” look awfully familiar, as in the options presented in the RTTT ”turnaround” model (“…either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright”). Although I don’t know exactly what this would look like in practice, forgive me for questioning exactly how revolutionary this may end up being so long as those are the only options on the table.”
Susan Ohanian’s breakdown also provided clarity when she stated, “Clearly, this phenomenon doesn’t look to be so much Parent Power as Privatization Power.”
So I did a little snooping around and quickly discovered what Susan Ohanian also illustrates: Parent Revolution, the faux-grassroots organization behind the “parent trigger” in California is merely a disingenuous disguise for Green Dot Charter boss-man Steve Barr.
So they got a flashy video too designed to disguise this agenda as grassroots empowerment for parents? It sounds so good and feels so liberating until you look at what the parent trigger turnaround options really include. Wait, could it be more of the same options as what’s already being pushed as reform around the country? They almost had me feeling all warm and ready for a revolution there.
Capitalizing and profiting off of parent frustration by attempting to hustle everyone into believing that organizations like Parent Revolution and, sadly, Parents Union in LA, are authentic grassroots organizations is low. We’ll just have to continue to use some critical media skills and decipher what this foolishness really is based on when push comes to shove. Afterall, the desire is certainly present to privatize public schools for corporate profit instead of doing the harder work of truly improving the conditions in schools by addressing student needs and openly dealing with systemic issues such as poverty and racism in our schools.
Let’s learn from this example, as I’m confident we’ll see more strategies and campaigns such as this used to fool people.