Parent trigger misfires by disrupting and dismantling local schools

This was published originally in Silicon Valley’s Education Foundation blog,  “Thoughts on Education.” The PAA position paper on the Parent Trigger is here.

By Caroline Grannan and Sharon Higgins

Simplistic ideas may look appealing at first glance, but they rarely solve complex problems. Too often they have the potential to make things worse.

That’s true of California’s so-called Parent Empowerment Act. It created the “parent trigger,” which allows a majority of parents in a low-performing school to petition for drastic changes, including takeover by a charter school operator.

As urban public school parents and advocates, we support true parent empowerment and involvement, and effective, research-based reforms such as smaller classes and increased parent participation. But the parent trigger doesn’t promote sound practices for school improvement. It benefits corporate charter school operators – not children.

The parent trigger was created by the organization Parent Revolution, which is not a parent group but was founded by charter school operators, backed financially by billionaires and corporate interests.

The law allows parents to petition to: hand the school over to a charter operator, close the school, replace the staff and create a new administrative structure, or replace the principal.

Parent trigger drives are under way at two California schools. At Compton’s McKinley Elementary, the situation has exploded into chaos after more than 60 percent of the school’s parents signed a petition calling for takeover by the Celerity Educational Group charter operator.

McKinley parents did not initiate their parent trigger. Rather, Parent Revolution targeted their school to be a test case by pre-selecting the charter operator and then deploying a sophisticated, secretive operation, sending paid signature-gatherers door to door. With no transparency or public discussion, parents never learned about the options or heard opposing views. After the petitions were submitted, 200-plus parents protesting the charter takeover packed a Compton school board meeting, news reports said.

Meanwhile, a parent trigger at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland, near Los Angeles, is run by a parent who wants to replace the principal. That lagging effort doesn’t benefit corporate charter schools, and Parent Revolution has given it scant attention.

What are the problems?

  • The parent trigger’s narrow, disruptive options have shown no reliable success in improving schools nationwide. In fact, decades into the charter school movement, and despite its aggressive promotion by moneyed interests, there is still no consistent research demonstrating that  charter schools provide an academically superior education.
  • The outcome of the parent trigger – disrupting and dismantling schools – is likely to harm vulnerable students and communities where the school provides stability.
  • A parent trigger “transformation” has significant impact beyond the targeted school. If parents voted to close a school, neighboring schools would be severely affected.
  • Allowing a hostile takeover of a public asset by individuals is questionable. Consider applying that to a police department or a park.

Better ideas

  • We praise state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the Los Angeles Times editorial board for recognizing that the parent trigger is deeply flawed.
  • We support genuine parent empowerment through the strengthening of School Site Councils, PTAs, PTOs, Title 1 Parent Advisory Councils, and more. We believe that reform strategies must be devised at the school level, to address each school’s specific needs.
  • If the parent trigger continues, transparency and disclosure must be required. Options must be aired fully and discussed openly, with all parents included – as well as teachers.
  • The law must fully specify details, including the steps after a petition is delivered.
  • Paid organizers must publicly identify themselves and disclose their financial backers.
  • The law must specify what entity oversees the entire process.

School reform must truly empower parents and benefit children. To us, the parent trigger is simply a ploy to channel public money into private hands.

For further reading:

The Los Angeles Times on Parent Revolution’s founding:The initiative is the latest envelope-pushing project for the publicity-savvy [Steve] Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools.”

The Los Angeles Weekly on the Compton parent trigger: Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. … [Parent Revolution’s paid] field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton …”

California Watch on the secretive signature-gathering: “The petition was the end result of a stealth campaign led by Parent Revolution, a nonprofit organization closely allied with the charter school movement …”

The Los Angeles Weekly on Compton parents’ opposition to the parent trigger:We’re reporting live from the CUSD board meeting, packed with press and hundreds of angry parents – many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without understanding its gravity.”

The Los Angeles Daily News on the parent trigger in Sunland, Calif.: “We want to see change.”

The California Federation of Teachers blog: “They never said this was a petition for a charter school. … I don’t want that for McKinley.”

Caroline Grannan, of San Francisco, and Sharon Higgins, of Oakland, have a total of 33 years’ experience between them as urban public school parents, volunteers, and advocates. They are West Coast founding members of Parents Across America, a national organization working to strengthen the parent voice in setting education policy at national, state, and local levels.

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