The Disempowerment of Public School Parents

Posted on: Wednesday March 13th, 2013

Jeff Bryant, Education Opportunity Network

For years, policy initiatives stemming from right-wing belief tanks have been wrapped in the rhetoric of positive outcomes that are, in fact, the complete opposite of what the measures are really intended to do.

A bill called Clear Skies that called for more pollution. Another called Healthy Forests offered incentives for cutting down valuable trees. No Child Left Behind, perhaps the crowning glory of duplicity, worsened the education of disadvantaged children it was purported to magically improve.

But without a doubt the most enduring of these wolf-wrapped-in-sheep’s-clothing ideas is the promise of “school choice” that’s been promoted to parents since the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan.

Sold as a way to “empower” parents to improve the education attainment of their children, school choice initiatives take on many forms, including vouchers, “scholarships,” and tax credits. But the most radical form of school choice is the so-called “parent trigger.”

The parent trigger has been relentlessly marketed to parents and policy makers as an “empowerment” that enables parents to conduct a petition campaign in their community to fire their school’s staff and change its governance.

This has all the rhetoric of democratic activism – a majority of the parents deciding “what’s best” for the education of their children. But what are the results?

So far, the trigger has only been carried out to its fullest extent in one school: Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California.

A new video “Parent Triggers: Another Reform Misfires,” released by the Education Opportunity Network, recently looked at the results of the parent trigger in Adelanto and found that rather then uniting parents in doing what’s best for children, the parent trigger brought deception, division and disruption to the community.

Thus, parent trigger bills join the ranks of other school choice schemes that are proliferating across the country. And rather than giving parents more control of the trajectory of their children, these policies are leaving more parents overwhelmed and powerless.

Welcome To The School Choice Maze

So what should parents expect when the parent trigger or any other school choice scheme comes to town?

In New Orleans – perhaps America’s choiciest school district, where 70 percent of students attend charter schools – most of the schools remain the lowest performing in one of the lowest performing states, and parent activists have come to the conclusion that choice means “a choice to apply” while still remaining “trapped” in the same lousy schools.

A recent article in The Washington Post told the story of how the District of Columbia’s complex school choice landscape has resulted in more parents having to hire education consultants who can help navigate the system. More than 40 percent of the District’s 80,000 students attend charter schools. Even when parents do choose traditional public schools for their children, “more than half do not attend their assigned neighborhood school.”

“It’s just totally overwhelming,” complained one parent.

And the results? D.C. schools have the lowest high school graduation rate in the country and an ever-widening gap between high and low performing schools.

Parents in New York City face a similar, if not more daunting, “school choice maze” that leaves thousands of children “shut out” of any real choice at all. Parents trying to navigate the complex system end up “feeling inadequate, frustrated and angry.”

Not to worry, school choice advocates reassure us.

We’re told to rejoice in the fact that while “it used to be that when it was time to find a school for the kids, most Americans looked no further than the neighborhood school.” Now we have a wonderful “open” system where our precious little darlings get to “compete” against the precious little darlings of our friends and neighbors.

Just make sure you’re one of the “smart parents” who knows how to “work the system.”

School Choice: Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

How could choice possibly lead to fewer options for parents?

In cases where parents are forced to charter or private schools, the schools operate with less regulation than a typical public school, so they can practice abhorrent discipline policies, deny access to hard-to-teach students, or, if it is a private school, teach a religion-based curriculum that would never be allowed in a traditional public school.

So all of a sudden a “choice” becomes a consequence where parents don’t have the leverage of any democratic governing system.

Further, more taxpayer dollars diverted to charter and private schools means less money for traditional local schools, which affects the options of the parents “left behind” in their community schools.

And regardless of the choice scheme, more well-off parents will always have the means to game the system while less well-off parents are left scrambling in the wake of a more competitive landscape.

The parent trigger is all this and more.

Parent Trigger Pablum

Writing at The Huffington Post, Mary Bottari from the Center for Media and Democracy has explained where the parent trigger came from:

"While parent trigger was first promoted by a small charter school operator in California, it was taken up and launched into hyperdrive by two controversial right-wing organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute."

The bonus of the trigger is that the parent activism comes with the supposed feel-goodiness of kicking some schoolteacher butt. If enough parents in a community sign a petition they can force the school governance body to do one or more of the following, according to Bottari: “1) fire the principal, 2) fire half of the teachers, 3) close the school and let parents find another option, or 4) convert the school into a charter school.”

Over 20 states have considered laws enacting the parent trigger, and seven states have passed those laws: California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Texas, Indiana, and Ohio.

Now lawmakers are pushing parent trigger legislation all over the place: Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

This is indeed school choice on steroids. But is it “empowering”?

Looks Good In Fiction

To date, the most ambitious marketing effort for the parent trigger has been the Hollywood production of Won’t Back Down, a movie starring the popular actresses Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, in which a parent empowerment law is used by a group of sympathetic parents to wrestle school governance away from educators, who are negatively portrayed.

According to the grassroots parent advocacy group Parents Across America, “While the movie depicts an inspiring story of parental revolt, actual efforts to use the Parent Trigger have been driven by billionaire-funded supporters of privatization, and have sparked acrimony and division. None of these efforts has actually improved a school.”

The movie, according to PAA, resulted from a collaboration between Rupert Murdoch and Philip Anschutz, “an oil-and-gas billionaire who co-produced the anti-teacher film, ‘Waiting for Superman’” and who gives financial support to “organizations that oppose gay rights and support teaching creationism in schools. Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights.”

Reviewers of the film called it “inept and bizarre” . . . “sentimental and hackneyed.” And it completely tanked at the box office.

But among the many insults committed by “Won’t Back Down,” and there were many, probably the worst was the movie gave the parent trigger a pretty face by casting something that has actually never been done in an aura of moral certainty and right-headedness.

The truth, it turns out, isn’t so pretty.

Another Reform Misfires

Our video, “Parent Triggers: Another Reform Misfires,” interviewed witnesses to the implementation of this mistaken policy in Adelanto. In talking to real people, rather than actors, we learned that the trigger agenda was propelled into the town by an outside organization called Parent Revolution.

According to an article in Mother Jones, Parent Revolution is “funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.”

We also learned that rather than empowering parents, many parents felt they were deceived in signing the petition.

According to local media accounts, most parents had no idea the change in the school would bring in a charter operator, and 93 parents who had signed the petition filled out forms to rescind their signatures.

This prompted the district board to initially reject the petition in March of last year.

The rejection prompted deep-pocketed Parent Revolution to eventually take their case to court where, in July, a judge ruled the petition could not be revoked.

According to an article at The Huffington Post, “In the fall, the district tried to implement curriculum changes and an alternative governance committee comprised of parents in place of a charter conversion. But in October, another judge ruled the district must let the charter conversion press on.”

Now the board has selected a charter, which will take over next school year.

But anyone thinking this is a “happy ending” like in “Won’t Back Down“ needs to actually listen to the teachers and parents in Adelanto.

They talk of how their community has been divided and how their children’s learning has been disrupted for what is a completely unproven idea coming from rich people outside their town.

Rather than feeling empowered, they feel disenfranchised.

Get Ready For More “Choice”

Although “Won’t Back Down“ was so unpopular it was quickly taken off the market, the movie isn’t going away.

As education historian Diane Ravitch warned from her blog site, “with the help of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” the movie is being shown “to legislators in conservative states, hoping to keep their campaign alive with a zombie film that died months ago.”

As long as the even more enduring zombie of school choice remains a right-wing bromide, the parent trigger – like its cousins, vouchers and tax credits – is going to continue to be sold to parents as an empowerment. But parents don’t need any more false promises about the power of choice. What they need from the nation’s leadership is a guarantee that all children have access to high quality schools.

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