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Julia Steiny: The Truth About “Parent-Trigger” Laws

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

Fiercely-embattled Republican and Democratic politicians refuse to agree on anything, probably not even the color of grass or a sunny day's sky.

But shockingly, both national conventions welcomed showings of the hugely-controversial movie, Won’t Back Down. The movie is a made-up story about the effects of very real laws, called "parent-trigger" laws, that have been considered by 20 states and passed by 7. (Details in a moment)

Though it has yet to be released, the movie is already widely discussed. I'm interested in these "trigger" laws partly because they've gone viral in the short time since California passed the first one in January 2010. With these laws at the center of the movie's plot, serious legal firepower backs the story.

According to the trailer and the blurb, the movie is about two moms, one of them a teacher, who are desperate to improve their kids' education at a failing school. While Pennsylvania doesn't actually have one of these laws, the story takes place in an impoverished Pittsburgh neighborhood. The moms fight to convince parents to sign the petition that would trigger radical changes unwanted by the school's bureaucracy and teachers union. The parents triumph in what reviewers uniformly call a "feel good" ending.

So Won't Back Down shows the happy ending these laws promise.

Apparently, both the Republicans and the Democrats believe that giving parents more political clout will somehow bolster the very different interests of their parties. Pundits, both left and right, yammer on about trigger laws serving the best interests of the kids.

But the truth is that these laws are bludgeons.

Mind you, as a parent and former Providence School Board member, I'm all for engaging the parents any way you can. If the only way to level the playing field among parents, bureaucrats and unions is to hand the parents a military-grade weapon, so be it. But it's not going to enhance collaboration among school communities or make for happy endings any time soon. God knows what law could. The law in general is a blunt and punitive instrument.

The California law applies to any school that has failed to meet the federal standard for "Adequate Yearly Progress" three years in a row. By now, most low-income schools are failing to meet AYP, thanks to the unrealistic expectations of No Child Left Behind. If at least half of the parents in failing schools sign a petition, the California law "triggers" the state to force radical changes. Those changes are the same U.S. Department of Education's four turnaround models for failing schools, which involve firing staff, closing the school, or converting it into a charter.

The trigger laws in Mississippi and Indiana simply mandate that the school convert to a charter.

Connecticut is the only state that actually gets the parents involved in transforming a school. There, schools must establish governance councils where parents hold the majority and hire the new leadership.

This movement began in 2009. A Los Angeles group, Parent Revolution, got their school board to pass a local “parent trigger” law, which became the model for the 2010 state law.

The first test case was McKinley Elementary in Compton. At McKinley, fully 70 percent of the parents signed.

Ugly chaos, division and bitterness followed. The bureaucracy and the teachers union teamed up to fight the parents by rejecting a good portion of the signatures. A court ultimately upheld the validity of the signatures.

Soon after McKinley, the parents at Desert Trails Elementary School, in Adelanto, followed suit. Again, ugliness ensured.

But here's the kicker: Parent Revolution did not want the solutions that the California legislature ultimately mandated. Something got lost in the sausage-making of state law.

Parent Revolution's website stresses that they are not anti-union, but pro-child. It says, ” While we must make every decision about our schools based on what is good for children, not adults, we believe that a kids-first agenda can absolutely go hand in hand with a pro-union agenda." So what they really wanted was more standing and more say at the negotiating table, working in conjunction with teachers.

Parents are sick of getting left out of the process.

And Desert Trails’ parents wanted no part of a charter-management organization. They had no interest in trading one impersonal, corporate power for another. No, they wanted modifications to the existing teachers contract -- like, for example, the ability to get rid of dreadful teachers. (Duh.) Not to be disrespectful, but the Adelanto parents probably didn't even understand the four federal turnaround models, since few do. Those parents wanted what all parents want: to collaborate as a school community, working closely with their most valued allies, the terrific teachers.

It's not at all clear what kinds of laws or outside forces would truly give parents a place at the table. But I do know from experience that when your kid is sick, the hospital staff treats the parents as their closest allies in helping to heal the child. That's the model we need. Somehow educators need to welcome parents into real decision-making on behalf of the kids whose futures and welfare they share.

Until that time, sadly, the parent-trigger laws introduce a nasty new weapon to an already nasty fight over school reform. But if that's what it takes to get the bureaucracy's attention, then that's what it takes.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 


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Caroline Grannan

Hi Julia. I'm a veteran California public school parent and volunteer advocate who has been following the parent trigger from the beginning. You make some thoughtful points, and I have some further clarifications.

One small point: The Democratic National Convention did not show “Won't Back Down.” It was screened privately at a Charlotte site, sponsored by so-called education “reform” organizations. It appears that those organizations, which have billionaire-funded PR firepower, have put out the misinformation that the DNC showed the film, as the misinformation has been repeated so often.

Your site has a word limit on comments, so I'll continue the clarification on the next form.

Caroline Grannan

Here are some clarifications about the parent trigger at McKinley Elementary in Compton, CA.

The parents at McKinley did not initiate or carry out the parent trigger.

The operation was planned and executed by Parent Revolution (PRev), the (also) billionaire-funded organization founded by charter school operator Steve Barr. PRev pre-selected the charter operator that would take over the school before looking around the state for a school to target, choosing McKinley, and sending paid operatives out into the Compton community to gather signatures. All this happened before a single McKinley parent heard of the petition drive. The operation was furtive and there were no public meetings to provide information or discuss pros and cons.

Needless to say, that's not even a pretense of parent empowerment.

After the petitions were delivered, many McKinley parents protested, objecting that they had been deceived and did not want their school to become a charter. All this was covered in the press, despite the fact that the media has not even pretended to maintain journalistic objectivity but has been openly pro-parent trigger.

Eventually, the pre-selected charter operator opened a school nearby. The Los Angeles Times gloated that this would destroy McKinley Elementary. Actually, enrollment figures show that McKinley lost 12.9% of its enrollment when the charter operator opened nearby. That was hardly a stampede, and (sorry, L.A. Times) has not destroyed McKinley Elementary.

Continued on next form...

Caroline Grannan

My final point is to refute PRev's false claims that it's not anti-union or anti-teacher.

No matter what PRev's website says, its actions have been aggressively anti-teacher and anti-union. This is one reason that the parent trigger is doomed to fail. You can't improve education while waging war against educators. Teachers must be partners. I hope that's obvious to a well-informed education commentator.

One clear example is an interview that PRev executive director Ben Austin gave to right-wing TV, in which he claims that teachers tortured students whose parents signed the parent trigger petitions by refusing to allow them to use the bathroom, forcing them to have accidents. The interview, in which Austin's eyes shift nervously as he elaborates on the tale, is so obviously bogus that it's almost comic. (If anyone needs me to explain why this tactic would be unlikely to work and would cause the teacher far more grief than it would the parent, I'll be happy to; but anyone reading this probably has enough of a clue to understand that already.)

You can easily find the interview on YouTube if you like. It makes clear that PRev views teachers as the enemy to be destroyed.

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