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The Trouble With the Parent Trigger

Dear Deborah,

There is a move under way to promote something called the "Parent Trigger" as a way to reform schools. It is another one of those deceptive schemes that comes packaged with an alluring name, but whose true purpose is to undermine public education.

In early 2010, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, the state legislature passed the "Parent Empowerment Act." This law is commonly known as the Parent Trigger. It allows a majority of parents in a low-performing school to sign a petition that leads to various sanctions for the school: firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to charter management, or closing the school. These are similar to the options in the U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Grant program. All of them are punitive, none is supportive of changing the school for the better, and none has a shred of evidence to show that it will improve the school. Neither the Parent Trigger nor the federal SIG program offers any constructive alternatives to unhappy parents, only ways to punish the school for low scores.

Supporters of the Parent Trigger say it empowers parents, especially poor parents, and gives them a tool with which to change their school. They say that it enhances not only parent power, but school choice.

But consider who created the Parent Trigger. The promoter of the legislation was a group called Parent Revolution, which is funded by charter school operators (it has some affiliation with Green Dot, whose chief executive officer sits on the board of Parent Revolution) and by venture philanthropists (including the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation). Its executive director, Ben Austin, a lawyer, was appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger to California's state board of education (and removed by Gov. Jerry Brown when he took office in 2011).

Parent Revolution is what is known as an "Astroturf" group, an organization pretending to be representative of ordinary parents, but actually promoting a charter agenda.

When Parent Revolution sent paid organizers to gather signatures from parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, Calif., the campaign was conducted secretively. The organizers collected signatures from 60 percent of the parents. When the petition was submitted to the school district in December 2010, it designated the charter operator—the Celerity Educational Group—that would take over the school, although it is not clear who chose it. The matter is not yet resolved, since each side has accused the other of intimidation. To learn more about the battle, read here, here, and here.

People who love charter schools love the Parent Trigger. But I am not one of them.

To me, a public school is a public trust. It doesn't belong to the students who are currently enrolled in it or their parents or to the teachers who currently teach in it. All of them are part of the school community, and that community needs to collaborate to make the school better for everyone. Together, they should be able to redesign or create or discontinue programs and services. But collaboration is not the same as ownership. The school belongs to the public, to the commonwealth. It belongs to everyone who ever attended it (and their parents) and to future generations. It is part of the public patrimony, not an asset that can be closed or privatized by its current constituents.

If a school is dysfunctional, those who are in charge of the district are obliged to find out why and to do whatever they can to fix the problems. If the principal is incompetent, he or she should be removed. If there are teachers who are incompetent, they should be removed. If the school is doing poorly because it lacks necessary resources, the district is obliged to do whatever it can to improve the school.

But giving the current parents the power to close the school or to hand it over to a private management company is akin to saying that whoever uses any public facility should have the same power, the power to transfer control to a private entity. It means if those who use Central Park in Manhattan don't like the way the city of New York takes care of it, they should be able to sign a petition and privatize it. If a majority of those who patronize a national park sign a petition, they should be able to hand control of the park over to private managers. This makes no sense.

The Parent Trigger should be recognized for what it is: A stealth assault on public education.

Diane

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