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“Parent trigger” policy used as a disguise

November 18, 2010

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.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2010 7:21 am

    Thanks for the heads up! This is one we had better pay attention to and try to get ahead of.

  2. markfriedman1 permalink
    November 19, 2010 8:42 am

    No doubt about it Bob. I’ve been noticing this constant theme of disingenuous co-optation of grassroots civil rights organizations and populist parent empowerment. This just seems to step it up a notch in terms of how the tone of the argument in the video comes across as blatantly slippery and deceptive.

    In a comedic side note, I noticed something oddly goofy the first few times I viewed this Parent Revolution “Parent Trigger” promo video. Did anyone else notice how the pasty white guy who first appears at (0:52) with the sky blue button up shirt and black pants continually exerts himself way too much with his hand gestures in an attempt to come across as passionate and committed to “the Cause”? Maybe I’m nitpicking but this guy got on my nerves. I wish that the actor who played that character had been Paul Scheer (of The League and Human Giant)because then at least I could have laughed instead of being annoyed.

  3. Bernardo permalink
    November 19, 2010 11:31 am

    The guy behind this fraud is none other than Ben Austin, a slimy power-hungry opportunist who was soundly defeated in his run for school board and then appointed to the state board by Gov. Schwarzenegger. The so-called Parent Trigger is nothing for than an attempt to eliminate public schools with teacher unions and replace them with privately-managed charters. The trick is to get 51% of the parents, whose children attend a school at any one time, to sign a petition. This action alone, puts the school on the chopping block and up for sale to the highest bidder.

    A clever, but cynical approach to reform, soon to be the rage among the corporate school “reformers” in urban school districts around the country. To call this a “revolution,” parent or otherwise, is some kind of a bad joke. More comparable to the beer hall putsch in German in the ’20s.

  4. November 19, 2010 12:50 pm

    Schwarzenegger brokered a meeting between hist staff, then State Senator Gloria Romero, and Ben Austin. The three collaborated to write the corporate charter trigger law in order to grow CCSA market-share. Austin’s participate in subverting democratic processes won him the State Board of Education appointment. While Parent Revolution (née LAPU) used to be a subsidiary of Green Dot, they have broken off all financial ties and now Austin and his crew have moved and are operating own their own budget provided primarily by the Walton Foundation and Gates Foundation. For everything one would ever need to know about Austin, see:

  5. Wyrm1 permalink
    November 19, 2010 6:09 pm

    I’d feel better about the “parent trigger” if any parent that signed had to show evidence that they had ever done anything to help either the school OR their child’s performance at school.

    I had two parents come and complain to me that they didn’t know about their child’s performance (both have an average of about 3% and have missed 15+ classes). Both were offended when I suggested that they could have come to the Parent-Teacher conference last month, looked on Edline at any time, figured out from the daily robocall they get that their kid was cutting class, or returned any of my 3 phone calls.

  6. Frederika permalink
    November 19, 2010 9:44 pm

    Oh, yeah. The NYT Sunday magazine had an excellent article last year on the Green Dot revolution. Devious, misleading, and snarky campaign to hand over struggling, under-resourced schools to Mr. Barr for transformation. In reality, paerenst have very lttle say in the changes made–who-what-where-when-why-how–decided somewhere else and by someone else.

  7. CarolineSF permalink
    November 20, 2010 12:24 am

    The people behind Parent Revolution in California long ago dropped even trying to pretend that they’re actually a parent group — the deception was the original intent, but it was so obvious that they just gave that up. Only a moron would still fall for that. I don’t know who David Feith is, but that would be him.

    And by the way, Feith also either cluelessly believes that Ben Austin is a genuine leader of a cause or dishonestly tries to portray him that way. Austin is entirely a hired mouthpiece working for a consortium of charter operators (led by Green Dot) with no other prior involvement in education except what he’s paid to do and say.

    Another by the way: Gloria Romero, mother of the so-called Parent Trigger, ran for the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Two other candidates who were both positioned as supporters of public education (as opposed to her position as an opponent of public education) split the vote, yet they STILL demolished her in the primary. And in the general election, the one of those two (Tom Torlakson) who is the strongest supporter of public education and teachers and the sharpest critic of “it’s a miracle!” education reform snake oil won handily. Romero, having given up her state senate seat, has accepted — surprise! — a cushy job in the bounteously funded charter school industry.

    Yet another by the way on the so-called Parent Trigger: Those supposedly empowered to demand that a school be dismantled are not limited to current parents. In fact, it’s entirely nebulous who exactly is empowered to sign statements making that demand, not to mention details like how many votes per family. The paid operatives targeting schools they want to dismantle can actually get signatures from pretty much any old body they want — or they can fake signatures with no sweat at all. Luckily, the process is so patently bogus that nobody is really trying it except in one case where an obsessed former mom at an LA-area middle school (Mount Gleason in Sunland) has been working for years on it — and all she wants is to replace a principal against whom she nurses a personal vendetta, not otherwise dismantle the school.

  8. papertrail permalink
    November 20, 2010 11:02 pm

    Just a sharing of info only…. Charter Schools are changing California schools as we know it with Founder and CEO Steve Barr (GNSD)
    April 14, 2011, 6:00pm
    Public education is in crisis at a time when global competition is fierce. The ability of future generations to compete and succeed globally hinges on education at all levels primary, secondary, and advanced. Change and results are best realized through increasing competition, accountability, and transparency. Specific changes to the system should include learning from the successes of charter schools.

    Steve Barr, Founder and CEO of the Green Dot Charter Schools, will join Gen Next San Diego to discuss Green Dot Public Schools and how they are leading the charge to transform public education in California. Originating in Los Angeles, all eighteen Green Dot Charter Schools are addressing the needs of students who have traditionally struggled in the public school system, and they are achieving far greater results than comparable schools in standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college matriculation. The evening will present Gen Next Members with the opportunity to learn how Green Dot is working with school districts, political leaders, the State of California, the government, the general public, teachers unions and other groups to influence the reforms required to improve the quality of urban schools in Los Angeles, and ultimately throughout the state and the nation.

    Open to Members and Guests of Members only. Invite is non transferrable. Adding program to calendar does not constitute RSVP.

    When: April 14th at 6:00pm
    Where: TBD

    Steve Barr – Founder & Chair Emeritus, Green Dot Public Schools
    Steve Barr founded Green Dot Public Schools in 1999 with the vision of transforming secondary education in California by creating a number of high-performing charter high schools using available public dollars. Under Steve’s leadership, Green Dot became the leading change agent in the region, starting in fall 2000 by founding one of the first comprehensive public high schools in the Los Angeles area in thirty years. In 2008, Green Dot began to operate Alain LeRoy Locke High School in Watts, re-structuring it into eight small public schools.

    Green Dot’s leadership in pushing for improved public education led the Los Angeles Times to name Steve as one of 100 most influential people in Southern California in 2006. In addition to leading Green Dot, Steve is a State Board of Education appointee to the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, where he provides policy recommendations to the State Board of Education on charter school-related issues.

    Prior to founding Green Dot, Steve held a number of leadership positions in political and social service organizations. In 1990, Steve co-founded Rock the Vote. The Rock the Vote campaigns and field efforts led the way in the first upward surge in 18-24 year old in voting since the passage of the 26th Amendment. Following Rock the Vote, Steve led the successful efforts to pass the Motor Voter Bill, which was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. Thirty million Americans have registered to vote via Motor Voter.

    Steve hosted President Clinton’s National Service Inaugural event, which led to the creation of Americorps. He then oversaw an Americorps after-school program project in South Central and East Los Angeles that focused on helping single mothers transition off of welfare.

    Steve has been active in politics throughout his professional career, serving several presidential campaigns and as a finance chair for the Democratic Party. Additionally, Steve has helped drive political change through television, as a national correspondent on the nationally syndicated Disney-produced “The Crusaders”, as a contributor to Discovery Channel’s “Why Things Are?”, and as a writer in national magazines such as George. Steve authored “The Flame: An Unlikely Patriot Finds a Country to Love” (Morrow, 1987).

  9. CarolineSF permalink
    November 20, 2010 11:36 pm

    But actually, if you go by test scores, the test scores of Green Dot schools consistently suck. I’m not really a fan of basing judgments of schools mostly on test scores, but the charter lobbyists attack public schools for their test scores, so they live by the sword and need to die by it.

    It’s kind of amazing that Green Dot and its cheerleaders brazenly go around claiming that the schools are successful, and get away with it, given that you can look up the scores on the California Department of Education website with little effort (all the Green Dot schools’ names begin with “Animo,” except for the Locke High cluster).

    KIPP schools overall tend to have high test scores (though the attrition and selectivity are a big asterisk) — but the test scores are there. ICEF schools in Los Angeles have high test scores (though the schools are in financial collapse) — but the test scores are there. But Green Dot’s test scores would be branded the mark of a failing school by the charter lobby, if those scores were posted at public schools. This is a new experiment in just outright lying — in an area that can easily be checked if anyone cares enough to lift a finger.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      November 21, 2010 5:26 pm

      Thank you CarolineSF for providing some alternative input to papertrail’s private party misinformation campaign about Green Dot charter schools and Steve Barr. Sorry, papertrail, but looks like a few people in California did some alternative research on that one.

      • papertrail permalink
        December 21, 2010 12:57 pm

        Forgive my post. (papertrail’s private party misinformation campaign)
        In San Diego We have a group of people pushing for “school reform”. They have invited Ben Austin here to help them with parent/community organizing. Another group has invited Steve Barr here for a private meeting local politicals. I’

      • markfriedman1 permalink
        December 21, 2010 8:20 pm

        I advise anyone reading this to critically read and see for yourself if this does not seem like a corporate, privatization agenda-sponsoring group. Also check this out if you want some real break down on what Austin is about:

  10. November 24, 2010 12:58 pm

    If you want to know how improve on the parent trigger, go here.

    and here

    Click to access 28202.pdf


    It really is a good idea, and it can be improved upon in hundreds of ways.

    Your local school ISN’T your local school. It is merely a franchise of the “Gov./Ed. complex” (unions, admin, bond dealers, associations, text book companies). The Gov.Ed complex is failing miserably, and it’s too expensive in the places it isn’t failing.

    The Parent Trigger offers the ability to convert existing infrastructure into a true “neighborhood school.”

    No law is perfect, and this one can be dramatically improved.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      December 21, 2010 8:33 pm

      Bruno, let me ask you a few questions. What does a true neighborhood school look like? Is it public or private in terms of people’s ability to shape how it functions? Should parents be able to still democratically elect representatives in order to enact policies that benefit children? Or should a “neighborhood school” have a private board of directors that parents are less likely to find sensitive to their and their child’s needs? I think these are important questions to honestly address before you continue selling your ideas to people here or elsewhere.

  11. November 24, 2010 1:10 pm

    While we are at it, lets look into all the backgrounds of all the people criticizing the Trigger.

    CarolineSF (assuming she’s the same person) has been around all the blogs covering the trigger, and attacks it everywhere. That’s hardly an unbiased view.

    Then again, I’m biased too. I am the director of the Center for School Reform at the Heartland Institute, and an unapologetic critic of America’s failing and expensive education system. I’m happy to debate this issue anywhere and anytime – time permitting, of course.

    The Education debate is no longer really an academic exercise. It is a pitched political battle to wrest your child’s education out of the hands of a horrible, but very politically powerful and greedy set of interests.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      December 21, 2010 8:35 pm

      Also, I am also an unapologetic critic of much that happens in America’s education system. However, I somehow sense we have varying criticism and analysis of what the roots of the problems as well as the solutions are. You should probably read this blog more for more insight on that, if you haven’t already. Thanks.

  12. CarolineSF permalink
    November 24, 2010 1:28 pm

    Bruno Behrend, if you think it’s possible for an opinion to be an “unbiased view,” you are seriously unclear on the concept. Just to help clear up your confusion, I’ll clarify that an opinion by definition cannot be “unbiased.”

    And yes, once I saw the befuddled column on the “Parent Trigger” by a hopelessly baffled Wall Street Journal feature writer being posted in various places around the Internet, I posted my response to help set the poor guy straight.

    I definitely agree that there’s a horrible and very politically powerful and greedy set of interests involved in the education debate — the mighty think tanks, the billionaires, the hedge-funders who are figuring out how to tap into public education money, and more, all attacking public schools, blaming teachers and working to entirely eliminate public education (which I believe is openly the Heartland Institute’s position, is it not?).

    But no matter what your position on public education, it’s evident that the Parent Trigger is not going to be a solution or even a workable tool to use. It’s already becoming an embarrassment to the charter operators (in their silly and transparent guise as Parent Revolution) who are behind it, since nothing is happening with it except for the alumni mom at one L.A.-area middle school who just wants to use the “trigger” to get rid of a principal against whom she has a grudge.

  13. CarolineSF permalink
    December 21, 2010 9:06 pm

    Since this discussion is being rekindled — an important point to understand about Dr. Behrend’s positions: He and his employer, the Heartland Institute, oppose publicly funded education and support the elimination of public schools and the full privatization of education. Dr. Behrend has said that the Parent Trigger will help this occur sooner.

    He and I are in full agreement on the point that the Parent Trigger will accelerate the elimination of public education. We disagree on whether that’s a good thing (as he views it) or a terrible thing (as I view it).

    Do the other backers of the Parent Trigger also view it as a means to eliminating public education, and is that their goal, as with Dr. Behrend and the Heartland Institute? It’s a good question.

  14. March 18, 2011 12:59 am

    Let’s all remember when we read Bruno Behrend’s reactionary comments that The Heartland Institute is essentially the John Birch Society with a budget.


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