Why Democrats Should Oppose Parent Trigger Laws

Jeff Bryant

Last week in Florida there was an important victory for progressive Democrats that not many Democrats know about. Even worse, most Democrats may not even be aware why this was a victory.

The important win was generated by a coalition of parent groups, schoolteachers, and advocates for public education who were able to pressure the Florida State Senate to block HB 1191, called “The Parent Empowerment Law.” The law creates a process known as the Parent Trigger, in which a majority of parents at a “low-performing school” (usually defined by test scores) can sign a petition to trigger one of a narrow set of options, which often include firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to a charter operator, or closing the school outright.

According to the education trade newspaper Education Week, the first Parent Trigger law passed in California in 2010, and two similar laws were then passed in Texas and Mississippi. Now, Parent Trigger laws are being considered in more than 20 more states.

When the Parent Trigger narrowly passed the California state legislature in 2010, it was widely portrayed as a grudge match between “parent rights” advocates and “the education establishment.”

But in traveling cross-country from California to Florida, something happened in the Parent Trigger debate. By the time the Parent Trigger arrived in Florida, parents were against it, as Valerie Strauss explains in her blog at The Washington Post, and the coalition against it was led by none other than the Florida PTA. What happened?

Those who back these Parent Trigger measures couch their support in the progressive rhetoric of “giving parents a voice” and “getting parents engaged.” Those are good things, right?

So how did the Parent Trigger become a lightening rod for opposition led by parents? And why should Democrats care?

So far, Democrats at the national level have few if any answers to these questions. Indeed many may not even be considering the questions at all.

As Beltway edu-gadfly Alexander Russo explains, “Democratic lawmakers and centrist think tankers are all struggling to figure out what to do with the ‘parent trigger’ idea.”

Russo points to evidence that influential Congressman George Miller, who is minority leader of the committee determining education policy, already favors the idea. And so does Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“So where will Barack Obama be on this,” Russo asks, “as well as the rest of the Democratic Caucus? Nobody seems to know.”

Well, here’s where they should be . . .

Look At Whose Fingers Are On The Parent Trigger

As with lots of education-related legislation that’s being peddled by the “reform” movement, Parent Trigger laws have a patina of “bipartisanship.”

In Florida, boosters of the Trigger ranged from former Republican governor Jeb Bush to self-avowed Democrat Michelle Rhee.

According to an Orlando Sentinel blogpost, a leading national proponent of the legislation is California-based Parent Revolution which is “run by a former President Clinton aide.”

“Mayors in Los Angeles and Chicago — both Democrats — have praised trigger legislation in Parent Revolution’s press releases,” the post continues and then quotes ex-governor Bush claiming that, “it came from an organization …whose roots are from the left.”

But let’s be accurate in locating where the idea of the Parent Trigger really came from. Like so many policy proposals rolling out in state houses across the country, the source of the Parent Trigger is the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which is funded primarily by big corporations, trade groups, and Republican-favoring foundations such as those funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

As the Wikileaks site ALEC Exposed reveals, one of the templates for “model legislation” conceived by ALEC reads very similarly to how Parent Trigger bills in both Florida and California were written:

The Parent Trigger places democratic control into the hands of parents at school level. Parents can, with a simple majority, opt to usher in one of three choice-based options of reform: (1) transforming their school into a charter school, (2) supplying students from that school with a 75 percent per pupil cost voucher, or (3) closing the school.

True, some of the “reform” options tend to change with the context, but the main thrust of the ALEC model is identical to what is being rolled out in one state after the other.

Also, behind these Parent Trigger laws are the loudest and most deep-pocketed proponents of charter schools. As Valeri Strauss writes, again, on her blog, backers of the Florida Parent Trigger endeavor were the “big money” and “big business” interests that are identical to funders and leaders of the charter school movement, including the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, big publishing firms, e-learning “solution providers” such as Apex Learning and Cisco, and charter proponents like Charter Schools USA.

This undeniable overlap of interests was not lost on the parent and educator groups in Florida who beat down the Parent Trigger push. Writing in yet another post on Strauss’ Washington Post blog, Jean Clements, president of Florida’s Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association, explains that the Parent Trigger “is designed to give private companies and charter management organizations an open invitation to exploit parents and take over schools — destroying school communities. Rather than a grassroots process, it’s an Astroturf mechanism by which companies circulate petitions to take over schools.”

By now, the fact that charter school organizations frequently resort to backroom deals and strong-arm tactics to force their way into reluctant communities should not be a surprise to Democrats. Charter school organizations are known to have engineered deliberate shut downs of popular public schools and are big lobbyists behind legislation that forces charter schools on communities that reject them.

Parents and educators in Florida quite rightly saw through the promises of the Parent Trigger and identified it as a “power grab” being engineered by the for-profit charter industry.

This Is Not About Accountability

A major selling point for the Parent Trigger is that it makes local schools more “accountable” to parents in the community. And Democrats should all be pushing for public schools to be accountable to their communities.

But Parent Trigger laws in fact lead to schools being less accountable, as parents in Florida who led the charge against these laws quickly realized.

Writing in an op-ed appearing in The Florida Times Union, Kathleen Oropeza — co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, a non-partisan Florida-based education advocacy group — points out that “not one legitimate Florida parent group has asked for this Parent Trigger/Parent Empowerment legislation.”

These parents realized that wrestling schools away from local school district control and putting them in the hands of private entities like charter boards and education management organizations headquartered nowhere near the schools — not even in Florida — would actually make neighborhood schools less accountable to parents.

Perhaps in Florida, more-so than elsewhere, parents now see that “the bloom is off the rose” in the charter school movement.

Even if politicians can’t see it yet, parents notice that study after study show that charter schools do no better than traditional public schools. In fact, they may do worse.

Adding to the faded luster of the charter school movement is the persistent news reports about charter school fraud, embezzlement, and violence – especially in Florida.

Are there innovative charters making a difference in their communities? Of course. But there are traditional public schools that fit this profile as well. So the “innovation” argument alone does not justify the need for more charter schools. Parents are starting to realize this.

So what charter proponents are doing more often is pivot to the idea that the main purpose of charter schools is to offer parents a “choice.” As charter school analyst Gary Miron recently observed in Education Week, “As charters are increasingly well-studied and the variation in quality becomes clearer, there’s been an interesting change in the discourse. We don’t hear as much about innovation or performance. Instead, we hear that charters promote parent choice.”

So much for putting students first.

Parents Don’t Own Schools

Finally, Democrats need to renounce the whole notion that education is a commodity that parents shop for like groceries.

“Empowering” a group of parents to shut down or hand over a local school to a charter outfit makes about as mush sense as allowing people who live along a stretch of a public street to close the street when they find it doesn’t “serve their needs.”

Parents don’t own schools and are not the only stakeholders in public schools, although, granted, they are one of the most important. All taxpayers in a local community have contributed to their local schools and therefore all have a stake. That’s why we have democratically elected school boards.

Furthermore, that a single cohort of parents — a snapshot in a long portfolio of families — should have the power to forever alter the trajectory of a local public school is a violation against all that the parents preceding them and an injury to the generation of parents to come.

But parent ownership aside, the reality is that parents in general do not feel that they are being shut out of their children’s education by their local public school. In fact, the most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy found that parent engagement in schools is in fact steadily on the rise. And “fewer parents now than 25 years ago believe that there is widespread parental disengagement with their children’s school and education in general.”

So in many ways, the Parent Trigger is a solution in search of a problem.

Where Democrats Should Stand

If Democrats want to see firsthand what Parent Trigger laws are more apt to result in, they should cast their eyes toward Compton, California where the nation’s first attempt at a Parent Trigger-initiated school makeover was attempted.

What they’ll see is that rather than uniting a community behind the interests of children, it divided parents into factions. And instead of using competition to generate better approaches to teaching children, it pitted parents in a competition against each other over dueling interests and visions for their children’s education.

Democrats are making a very bad mistake if they continue to see that the only way forward in rewriting the nation’s education policy is to start with ideas born in conservative think tanks and then hew them into something resembling “bipartisanship.”

Their party and the nation’s school children would be much better served if they looked at policy ideas that have shown some evidence to have actually worked.

The Parent Trigger is simply not one of those.

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