Aaron Regunberg: Parent Trigger Laws are Not the Answer

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Folks who have read what I’ve written previously about education probably know I spend a lot of time harping on the importance of community engagement. The only way to fundamentally improve a school is by allowing its stakeholders (students, teachers, and parents) to take ownership of it in real, lasting ways.

That’s why it’s so important to be able to distinguish between authentic parental engagement, empowerment and organization and a new school privatization strategy being pushed in several states in the form of “parent trigger” laws.

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These laws are about to get a major public image boost with the September release of “Won’t Back Down,” a movie starring two of my favorite actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, that spins a fictional account of frustrated parents trying to transform a school in Pittsburgh. I’ve only seen the trailer for this movie, so I don’t want to jump to conclusions about it (though I think I have a pretty good idea of what to expect, considering it is being produced by Walden Media, an outfit owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has spent millions pushing corporate charter schools and previously produced the very one-sided “Waiting for Superman”). On the one hand, I’m excited for a movie that highlights strong parents advocating for their children. On the other, I’m very worried that these themes of grassroots advocacy are being manipulated to generate support for a law and “reform” strategy that is decidedly not about the authentic empowerment of parents.

So I wanted to provide some background and a brief breakdown of how these policies actually work. Parent trigger laws allow parents to mandate the conversion of their school into a charter school through a petition drive—all you need to do is get 50% of a school’s parents to sign their names, and the school gets put out for contract. The petition trigger an interesting concept, I think, but unfortunately it’s riddled with major problems.

For example, you probably won’t hear it from “Won’t Back Down,” buton of the most significant force behind the spread of parent trigger laws has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC works by letting corporate lobbyists vote on model legislation duringvacation-like conferences which are attended by conservative lawmakers, who are then expected to use that legislation to shape their own bills (it’s the same right wing lobbying group that gained so much notoriety for its key support of “stand your ground” legislation in Florida; dozens of companies, including Rhode Island’s CVS, have recently dropped their membership in the organization after these actions gained attention).

Unsurprisingly, the laws’ biggest supporters other than ALEC have been large charter providers. Here’s why—parent triggers do not offer real parental empowerment, but rather were designed (pretty explicitly) as another means for charters to take over public school campuses they have an eye on.

This can be seen very clearly in the only two cases of the parent trigger being utilized, both of which took place in California. A well-financed organization called “Parent Revolution” (which was founded and led, not by parents, but by chanter-entrepreneur Steve Barr) paid a large number of staffers to circulate a petition calling for the two schools in question—McKinley Elementary in Compton and Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto—to be turned over to a charter operator. Both efforts immediately encountered charges of fraud and intimidation, and the trigger petition in Compton was thrown out by a court after a large number of parents withdrew their support, claiming that they had been harassed or deceived into signing. An article from the Los Angeles Times quotes Karla Garcia, whose two children attend McKinley, saying, “They told me the petition was to beautify the school. They are misinforming the parents, so I revoked my signature.” Another quote: “Parents said they were told if they didn’t sign, the school would close or they would be deported.”

That’s seems to be the extent of these triggers so far. There was also a recent effort (also led by Parent Revolution, in partnership with Jeb Bush’s Foundation For Excellence in Education) to pass a parent trigger law in Florida. This campaign was defeated when a coalition of parent organizations, led by the Florida PTA, opposed the bill. I guess state legislators there realized something was fishy about a “parent empowerment” bill that didn’t have the support of a single major Florida parent group.

The real tragedy of these trigger laws is that they’re a corruption of what is an essential and necessary ideal—that parents take ownership and control of their neighborhood schools. And I can see some ways in whichthese laws could, perhaps, be designed to do this. For example, why not have the law mandate that parents actually have a role in choosing and shaping their school’s transformation, in redesigning the school’s decision-making processes so that parents are allowed a collaborate and legitimate say, instead of simply opening the school up for privatization?I think that’s a reform strategy that would find major support among parents. But I guess the idea of giving real power to parents is not exactly what the major charter-operators that back these trigger laws have in mind.


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