The Parent Trigger fails in California

By Caroline Grannan, San Francisco

Parents Across America founding member

The Parent Trigger is a school reform idea that was hatched here in California, has won glowing press and is still being discussed around the nation as a school reform panacea.

The Parent Trigger supposedly allows 51% of the parents at a school to petition for “transformation” at the school, in one of four ways: turn the school into a charter, close the school, fire the principal, or restructure in more complicated ways.

It appears that some voices around the country are discussing the Parent Trigger as though it had been used successfully at schools throughout California. But that’s not true. The Parent Trigger has never succeeded at any school in California. There have been two known attempts to use it; both have failed. And Parent Revolution, the billionaire-funded Astroturf (fake grassroots) organization that created the Parent Trigger, appears to have basically abandoned it as a strategy.

In December 2010, Parent Revolution was acclaimed far and wide for its Parent Trigger petition assault on McKinley Elementary School in low-income Compton, near Los Angeles. Petitions supposedly signed by more than 60% of McKinley parents called for a charter operator, Celerity, to take over McKinley. (Parent Revolution’s paid staff had orchestrated the entire petition drive, including choosing charterizing as the option and choosing the charter operator, all before a single McKinley parent ever heard of the petition drive.)

There was a brouhaha. The dust settled. Celerity did not take over McKinley; it opened a separate new charter in fall 2011 in a church a couple of blocks away. Supposedly parents at McKinley had been clamoring to have their kids educated in a Celerity charter, but actually only 1/5 of the families at McKinley transferred their kids to the charter. That’s according to the L.A. Times, which has a long history of avidly supporting charters and “education reform”; it wouldn’t be surprising if the real number were smaller.

Parent Revolution has now acknowledged that its strategy at McKinley was flawed — mainly because the petition drive was conducted in secrecy with no public discussion; because of the utter lack of actual involvement of any McKinley parents; and because Parent Revolution had unilaterally chosen the charter operator.

Parent Revolution has had one other known Parent Trigger petition going, at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland-Tujunga, also near L.A. It’s been going on for a couple of years and has failed to gain enough traction or signatures.

Parent Revolution has had no successful Parent Triggers or other maneuvers anywhere.¬† Its actual success record (for those who would call those strategies a success) is zero. It’s also not publicly known how many attempts Parent Revolution has made to start Parent Triggers at other schools that have fizzled without getting any publicity. It’s not at all unlikely that there have been some, if not many.

Lately, Parent Revolution is indicating that it has given up on the Parent Trigger scheme and is turning to vaguely running around organizing parents at various schools hither and yon — in Pasadena and the San Diego area, at least — to be “empowered.” There’s no clear difference between this strategy and simply forming a PTA, in cases where PTA functions effectively as an activist advocacy organization, as it’s supposed to. Naturally, Parent Revolution has won glowing press for this new strategy despite the vague concept and Parent Revolution’s lack of previous success. (Christina Hoag of the AP did a particularly enthusiastic puff piece that got national circulation.)

A point about this strategy, whatever it may be: Parent Revolution has no track record. It has never changed a school, improved a school, transformed a school or worked in any way in a school. Its leaders are not educators, education advocates or people with any experience in a school community — they were simply hired to pose as advocates.

It appears likely that Parent Revolution (abetted by the overly trusting press) is engaging in its current strategy to convince its funders¬† that it’s still doing something worth writing checks for, though it’s unclear how long that can hold up.

Parent Revolution also appears to be struggling with its history of attacking and maligning teachers. Lately, Parent Revolution director Ben Austin has started trying to deny that he’s hostile to teachers. While attacking teachers and (of course) especially teachers’ unions, he has simultaneously tried to posture as a friend to the worker, including making loud announcements that he was going to Madison, Wis., last February to supposedly join the massive protests at the state Capitol.

Clearly, Parent Revolution is getting the notion that being aggressively hostile to teachers, and being portrayed as anti-union reactionaries, is not an effective public relations strategy. Anyone with actual experience in a school community knows that waging war against teachers is not going to work as a school-improvement strategy.

That’s the update as of now. There are no successful Parent Triggers — there are two publicly known failures and quite possibly more — and Parent Revolution has apparently given up on that strategy. Its fuzzy new strategy vaguely involves “empowering” parents to advocate. It has zero track record of any success with any strategies at all, ever (except getting California’s original Parent Trigger legislation passed and flimflamming the unquestioning press).

This is not to say that parents don’t have legitimate concerns and shouldn’t be empowered; this is being posted on the Parents Across America blog. But an outside organization started by charter school operators — one with no experience in schools and no record of success — is simply not a genuine source of empowerment for parents.

Education advocates around the nation should be aware of that in case your local press falls for the hooey and starts puffing Parent Revolution and the Parent Trigger as the miracle reform flavor o’ the month.

Posted on by CarolineSF Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to The Parent Trigger fails in California

  1. Cap Lee

    A gimmick exploiting parents

  2. PESJA LOS ANGELES

    This is an excellent piece that speaks real truth to one of the more devious of the astroturf groups. Thank you.

  3. Robert D. Skeels

    It’s always astonished me that none of the corporate press has ever looked at how unqualified Austin and his staff were to discuss education matters even on a superficial level. A corporate lawyer with absolutely no background in pedagogy and no background in authentic activism and organizing, might be good at selling high sounding rhetoric, but his lack of understanding or genuine concern for those he claims to be helping was clear to all except the ideologues at the LA Times and LA Weakly [sic].

  4. CarolineSF

    One complexity that no one (including me) has explored is the Celerity charter operator’s role in the failure* of the McKinley parent trigger. Did Celerity actually want to take on a challenged, high-poverty school and make a commitment to accept ALL its students? Or is the fact that the Celerity charter opened as a separate school actually Celerity’s choice? Charter operators have a dismal record in taking over struggling schools, as opposed to opening new ones where they don’t have to take on the challenges a high-poverty school has faced for years.

    And, for that matter, is the low number of McKinley students enrolled at the new charter partly due to Celerity’s picking and choosing whom to accept? (The very naive will say charters can’t do that. But only the very, very naive.)

    *I use the word “failure” reluctantly — would it actually have been a success for this charter operator to take over McKinley Elementary? I would be skeptical about that.

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