Parent Trigger flap over paid flacks vs. real advocates

By Caroline Grannan

Parents Across America founding member, San Francisco

Recently the Obama campaign hired a staffer named Linda Serrato, who has been deputy communications director at Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based organization behind the Parent Trigger. Serrato previously worked for Obama’s past campaign and before that for Hillary Clinton’s, according to the Parent Revolution website.

Parent Revolution didn’t try to conceal the fact that Serrato was a paid employee — it would have no reason to, as paid spokespeople are perfectly legitimate.

When the Obama campaign hired Serrato this time around, it sparked some discussion of whether that signified that Obama was embracing the Parent Trigger. Both fans and critics of the Parent Trigger have asked that question.

I maintain that question is unclear on the concept and that it overlooks the fact that Serrato is a paid staffer, not a heartfelt advocate. It’s her job. There’s no reason that her hiring signifies that the Obama campaign intends to support the Parent Trigger. After all, when the 2008 Obama campaign hired her after she had worked for Hillary Clinton, by that line of reasoning, there would have been questions about whether she still supported Clinton and whether she was going to devote her best efforts to the Obama campaign. But those questions are irrelevant, because it’s her job and she works for the entity that pays her. Presumably she and others in her field don’t accept work on behalf of clients of whom they vigorously disapprove – though I’m not a mind-reader, so I don’t really know that.

This Week in Education blogger Alexander Russo posted to speculate on Obama’s view of the Parent Trigger. Russo wrote: “My guess is that when asked, he’ll say something carefully supportive. After all, the campaign hired Parent Revolution PR person Linda Serrato…”

I responded to point out that we’re talking about a paid spokesperson doing her job, not a heartfelt advocate, and Russo promptly responded by banning me from posting comments on his blog for a month.


There are three key points here:

  1. Serrato is paid to be a spokesperson for and promoter of her employer. That’s her job. That’s a fact and isn’t in question.
  2. Being a paid spokesperson is an entirely different animal than being a heartfelt advocate — it simply is. If I recommend the orange chicken from the Lucky Supermarket Chinese takeout counter (which I just had for lunch), you take that in an entirely different way if I’m an unpaid individual giving my opinion than if Lucky is paying me to say it. That’s a fact too.
  3. That’s not to say there is anything inherently wrong with being a paid advocate. When Russo claims I’m maligning Serrato by pointing that out, he implies that her line of work is dishonorable or shameful. It’s not.

      What is the professional standard for paid advocates, I wonder. If they’re asked, “Do you truly believe in this cause, and would you work for it if you weren’t paid?” is there a standard answer? I imagine that “of course” is the proper response, but asking the question is naïve and certainly irrelevant. Who cares, as long as they’re doing the job?

      Parent Revolution has walked a weird line, since it has tried to present itself as a grassroots organization while not concealing the fact that it consists entirely of paid staff. None of the staff have been visible in education advocacy previously. It’s clear that they didn’t understand the education landscape when they got started, which bears out the fact that none of them had a previous background as education advocates.

      For example, in the failed Parent Trigger campaign at McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif., Parent Revolution made no effort to appear to involve the McKinley parents, or to conceal the fact that their organization orchestrated the campaign from outside, entirely with paid staff. Despite the glowing press their efforts in Compton won, the fact that the parents were simply being pulled along on Parent Revolution’s ride eventually backfired against Parent Revolution. They learned, and in the second (still in limbo) Parent Trigger, in Adelanto, Calif., they tried much harder to make it appear that parents had led the organizing. Similarly, in Adelanto they tried a little bit to soft-pedal their teacher-bashing and occasionally drop in a claim that they don’t oppose teachers’ unions, as compared with unrestrained bashing previously in Compton. As media commentator LynNell Hancock recently wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, “Teacher-bashing as a reform strategy (has) seen its best days.”

      In any case, the question of whether hiring Serrato signifies that Obama approves of the Parent Trigger simply seems unclear on the concept to me, whether it’s asked by Russo or by California teachers’ union leaders. Presumably the Obama campaign hired her on the basis that she can do the job. Despite the Parent Trigger’s 100% failure rate, if she’s responsible for bewitching editorial boards around California and the nation into rewriting Parent Revolution press releases endorsing the Parent Trigger – damn, girl! I might hire her myself if I had money to pay someone to promote my causes.

      Below is my comment that got me temporarily banned from Russo’s blog, and excerpts from his response below that. I admit my comment is a little sharp in tone, but it is simply not maligning anyone to point out that they’re a paid spokesperson – it’s just a fact.

      Me: I think the comments from both sides overlook the fact that Serrato, like Parent Revolution director Ben Austin (the main force behind the Parent Trigger) and the rest of that crew, are purely hired mercenaries who promote whatever position they’re paid to promote. A lot of the conversation seems to be based on the mistaken assumption that they are heartfelt advocates who infuse their work with their deep belief in the Parent Trigger, wherever they go. That seems naive to me. Once the last paycheck is deposited, Parent Trigger will be forgotten.

      Excerpt from Russo’s response to me: “You insist on disagreeing with others via attacks on motivation, character, and intent — a slippery and offensive slope. i don’t know what else to do so for june you’re banned from commenting here.”

      Another commenter referred to my post as “needless character assassination.”

      Again, I dispute that it’s an attack on motivation, character, and intent, or offensive, or character assassination, to point out the difference between a heartfelt advocate and a paid spokesperson, and I dispute that it’s an attack to point out that someone is a paid spokesperson. It’s a perfectly legitimate job. It’s just not the same as a heartfelt advocate.

      This orange chicken from the Lucky Supermarket Chinese takeout counter is really delicious, by the way.

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