Can Parents Take Over Schools?

New "parent trigger" laws are triggering debate, but not enough attention is being paid to what happens afterwards

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Alex Gallardo / Reuters

Chrissy Guzman speaks in frustration during a Adelanto School District board meeting regarding the parent trigger law, in Adelanto, California, March 6, 2012.

If your child’s school is lousy, would you want the option to band together with other parents and take it over? That’s the idea behind “parent trigger” legislation that enables parents in low-performing schools to vote to change the governance of their children’s school — and remove teachers and the principal if they want to. Although only four states have enacted such a law (California was the first to do so in 2010), legislators in Florida are debating this week whether it should become the fifth, and similar bills are pending in a dozen states.

But so far parents have yet to make a trigger vote stick. Yesterday, parents in Adelanto, Calif., resubmitted a petition to take over a school there after their first petition was rejected by the school board following a frantic campaign by the teachers union to dissuade parents from signing. At a school in Compton last year, parents backed away in the face of pressure so intense a Los Angeles court found their First Amendment rights had been violated. In perhaps the most offensive allegation, teachers union activists have apparently told immigrant parents that supporting the trigger campaign could result in their deportation.

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Pretty dramatic stuff. (A fictional version is coming soon, with a parent-trigger themed movie due out this year, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter.) The controversial parent triggers got a big boost this week from the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, California Representative George Miller, who in a statement said, “parents must be empowered to stand up and say the status quo isn’t good enough for their children.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, also spoke in favor of parent triggers this week, in support of the Florida legislation. But with all eyes focused on the debate over whether to give parents the right to pull the trigger, is enough attention being paid to what will happen after one is pulled?

In California, a nonprofit organization called Parent Revolution is supporting trigger campaigns in several schools where the support of 51% of parents are needed to force the district to bring in new management.

The people behind Parent Revolution aren’t right-wing anti-union types. The group’s leader, Ben Austin, a former member of the California Board of Education has led efforts to close low-performing charter schools and worked in the Clinton White House (as did I), and Parent Revolution’s lead community organizer cut his teeth with Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers. Parent Revolution is trying to change the way districts make education policy decisions, i.e., by school officials making deals with union leaders to the exclusion of parents. “We just want a seat at the table,” Austin says. He’s right. Before the trigger law, school officials and the unions could and frequently did tell parents, “Thanks for the input. Now go have a bake sale.”

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Trigger legislation is exposing the hypocrisy of the teachers’ unions, which fight furiously in Washington for legislation that would allow teachers at a particular school to vote to unionize using secret ballots and a 51% majority while vehemently opposing the same kind of empowerment for parents. And it shows that much of their rhetoric about empowering low-income parents is a sham. But great political theater is not necessarily great public policy.

Let’s say the second time is a charm in Adelanto and that school becomes the first one in the U.S. to be taken over by parents. What happens the day after that? People close to the action say many parents involved in trigger campaigns are understandably skeptical of outside management, so they’re reluctant to turn the schools over to others to run. Meanwhile, many of the country’s most effective charter operators are leery of trying to turning around existing schools. They’re having much more success starting new ones. Let’s face it – if it were easy to run great schools, we’d have more of them.

The thinly veiled assumption of many parent-trigger supporters in the policy and political world is that these schools could hardly be worse. Actually, they could. Austin knows this, and that’s why Parent Revolution has developed an eight- to 10-week curriculum for people thinking about taking over a school. “We help parents understand how schools are run and the latest research about turning around and transforming failing schools,” says Austin.

The potential for chaos is due in part to the requirement that only 51% of parents are needed to drive radical changes, a simple majority that could breed factionalism and ongoing instability especially if buyer’s remorse sets in. Schools should teach about the French Revolution, not have their parents act it out. That’s why Adam Emerson, a school-choice analyst at The Fordham Institute who is more bullish on parental empowerment than most in the education world, has suggested that a supermajority or two-thirds benchmark makes more sense as a way to ensure there is a core consensus at a school. The initial signatures at Adelanto would have met a supermajority threshold.

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Too much disruption and not enough improvement will validate critics’ claims that the reform movement is more interested in destruction than creation. That’s why Austin cautions parents that with this “power comes a profound responsibility about how to use it.”

The parent trigger is not the first parental empowerment effort in education. For decades school decentralization efforts included provisions designed to let parents help make decisions about personnel and curriculum. (One such effort propelled legendary American Federation of Teachers leader Al Shaker to national prominence in 1968 after community run schools fired white teachers without cause and sparked a legendary teacher strike in New York City.) Overall, the record of this sort of parent involvement is decidedly mixed.

As the father of school-aged children, it’s hard for me to oppose the parent trigger, and I don’t. But I do see school choice as a more sustainable way to give parents options and control in the long run. If my own children’s school was failing, my wife and I would pull them out and send them somewhere else. But too few families have that ability, and the resulting desperation many parents – particularly poor parents – are experiencing is a national travesty. However, as an analyst, I’m cautious about what we can expect once parents pull that trigger. When it comes to handling real firearms, there are some age-old axioms: never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot, and never fire unless you know where the round is going to end up. In this case these rules apply to schools as well.

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