Public Schools Face a New Nemesis in Parent Trigger Laws



Already bombarded from every side by entrenched problems, public schools are facing a new nemesis. Championed by the American Legislative Executive Committee (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute, notoriously regressive right wing organizations, “parent trigger” policies are cropping up across the nation. Parent trigger laws allow parents of students at a particular school to petition to fire half of the teachers, fire the principal, and even turn the school into a private, charter school. Ostensibly designed to give local communities control of public schools and empower parents over elected school boards to rehabilitate purportedly failing schools, these parent trigger laws are typical of most right wing initiatives; they masquerade as having one set of goals while in reality having an entirely different set of objectives. Parent trigger laws are supposed to improve public schools, but their actual intent is to undermine teachers’ unions, fire “undesirable” teachers, and privatize schools. One of the most alarming trends regarding these laws is that Democrats, including progressives, have sometimes supported them. In fact, the U.S. Conferences of Mayors, which is non-partisan, but represents large numbers of Democratic mayors, recently voted to support parent trigger laws.

One of the best indications that parent trigger laws have not been designed to put parents in charge of public schools, but instead to turn them over to private businesses, comes from the experience of Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust in Michigan. Her Education Trust organization works to close the achievement gap that stubbornly persists between minorities and whites, particularly African Americans and whites. She is highly motivated to see dysfunctional public schools improve, so she is an excellent observer of how policies impact them; she isn’t even entirely hostile to the idea of parent trigger laws, but currently does not support them. She notes that in Michigan, the loudest advocates for parent trigger laws are not community-based or parent organizations, but instead the businesses that run 84% of the state’s private charter schools. She further reminds people that charter schools have not lived up to their promises, offering an education no better than existing public schools, and sometimes even performing worse (as I noted in a previous column).

California has embraced parent trigger laws, passing legislation that is considered to be the prototype for other states to follow. According to their new law, if 51% of parents sign a petition to close a neighborhood school that falls into the bottom 20% on standards set by No Child Left Behind, it is done in favor of one of three outcomes: 1) turnaround, which is when the school principal is fired along with half of the teachers; 2) transformation, which is when the school principal is fired and institutional reforms are put into place; and 3) restart, which is when the school is essentially closed and a private, charter school is opened in its place. In the case of restart, the charter school only has to serve the students from the original public school for the first few years, and then it becomes like any other private, charter school.

Parents then targeted their first school, McKinley Elementary School in Compton, CA, under the outside influence of an organization called Parent Revolution with the goal of having a private charter school. Basically, to try to enact the California parent trigger law, dissatisfied parents in the district organized a “parents’ union” and gathered signatures for a petition to close their school, although a lawsuit by the school is currently preventing implementation of the parent trigger. Clearly, the public school targeted by parents in Compton is failing, as it falls into the bottom 20% of schools on academic measures. However, so far, the only explanation for failures like these seems to center on teacher shortcomings or teachers’ unions. For example, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa accused unions of being an “unwavering roadblock to reform.” What no one wants to admit is that poverty itself affects students and their ability to learn.

On a personal note, I currently work as a college tutor with students who are from poverty backgrounds. I am frequently stunned at just how poorly the students I work with read, write, or do math. It isn’t just that they come in with inadequate educational preparation; they also learn at a diminished pace. What I consistently realize from the slow learning abilities of my students is what public school teachers come to know as the gospel truth: poverty significantly disrupts learning. This is not surprising given that researchers have been able to demonstrate that the stresses of poverty have an effect on the developing brain equivalent to having a stroke! It is for this reason that schools that serve neighborhoods with high levels of poverty need extraordinary injections of resources to overcome the obstacles they face. I also mention this because I myself grew up in a family that lived in long-term, deep poverty in a neighborhood classified by some as “underclass” (though more squarely in the African American side of it). Luckily, we benefited from a government educational intervention called Upward Bound that helps low-income high school students, as well as from Head Start. However, programs like Head Start serve only 6.8% of the children eligible to receive services.

There are always protective factors, even in environments of poverty, which can allow some students to become academically gifted. When their peers are struggling, however, the teachers tend to teach to the average comprehension of the classroom, frequently a reduced level of understanding compared to the same grade level at schools with low levels of poverty. Students with greater capacities to learn are left to languish.

Given that  the nearly total unwillingness to acknowledge that failing public schools must deal with the consequences of poverty and all of its concomitant social ills, teachers and their unions are likely to continue to be blamed when students do not do well on achievement tests. As a result, conservatives will continue their assault on public schools using underhanded methods like parent trigger laws that claim on the surface to empower parents, but in practice, are designed to undermine public schools and dismantle teachers’ unions. Diane Ravitch, historian and expert on education, has called parent trigger laws a “clever way to trick parents into seizing control of their schools and handing it over to private corporations.” Unfortunately, with conservatives and progressives backing these initiatives, we will all have to watch as they simultaneously take down public schools and fail to improve education for the most vulnerable children in our nation.

19 Replies to “Public Schools Face a New Nemesis in Parent Trigger Laws”

  1. Take out Provision Three, and the other two might be salutary. Other than that, students need to be able to stay on the grounds either using the library or in supervised athletic/rec programs until five, and to get a meal there, free for those who pass a means test, until six. When both parents have to work, this is necessary. So are summer day camps. Expenditure? Of course, but the expenditure up front means huge savings down the line in people not unemployed, not in gangs, not in jail. And not dead, and not born to an unplanned pregnancy. Where will the start-up come from? Try prying private contractors’ hands out of the public crookie jar, and the funds will magically appear.

  2. Note that the reason I am not altogether opposed to the first two is that several of my elementary school teachers were mean dolts and the principal an outright pervert.

  3. Parents, aunts, community members, and others have to SHOW UP and help in the schools to make a difference, keep an eye on what’s happening and make their school boards toe the line. This trigger looks like the latest in suicidal nonsense.

  4. As the writer hinted, more resources need to be put into early childhood education. The average upper middle class kindergartener has a greater vocabulary that the poverty class parents do. Headstart has a parenting component that needs expanding. I remember we were just telling people “read to your child”. Then we watched a mother reading to her child. She had not a clue what to do. It hadn’t occurred to us that we had to teach the parents how one engages a child in the reading process. In the years I worked with early childhood, poverty class families I only met one mother I truly thought didn’t care for her child. I met lots of parents who dearly loved their children, but didn’t know how to effectively parent. They grew up in dysfunctional, poverty homes and had no decent role models on how parenting is done. The exceptions the writer mentioned are generally children whose parents did have effective parents. Going to Charter schools or whatever is not going to change the achievement gap. By the time the child starts Kindergarten the die has been cast in the vast majority of the cases.

  5. Parents of poverty level kids do not put the emphasis on the kids education as much as much better educated parents do.(my opinion). Therefore the kids have no desire to learn unless they are naturally gifted.

    I get emails all the time from Students First group. Thats exactly what they want, everything to go to Charter schools. That will show them minorities, we dont promise an education to anyone! Rich? Good, come on in.

    We have to find a way to make their money worthless.

  6. Parents already have at least three choices by my count:

    Take their children out of the school to send them to private schools or home school them.

    Elect different people to the local school board.

    Petitioning is already a right guaranteed by the first amendment that parents are free to use to the school board.

  7. You are right, but the only choice that works for these people is the eventual privately owned school.

  8. That could be good, but it also could be very bad. My wife substituted for a couple of years, and political volunteer parents were sometimes a source of misery for teachers. In fact, political parents combined with the post 9-11 racist bigotry is what caused my wife to loose her job – she went from being one of the most popular subs in the system to unwelcome in a few weeks, right after 9/11. (We’re both American Indian and local racism jumped significantly and noticeably immediately after the disaster.)

    The “Good Christian” churches in the area encourage parental participation… They’re to keep aware for the slightest hint of evolution or cultural relativism (or opposition to teaching hatred for LGBT people) and try to get the teacher fired if its found. It’s been said that teachers in many areas of Florida are scared because of the churches and their watchers… their “volunteer parents”.

    Needless to say, they’re big on privatizing, and the “Trigger” has been used in this area already. They’re trying to privatize one of the high schools, although it’s been put on hold because of improprieties.

  9. Certainly, if a principal is unzipping in front of little kids, or a teacher is siccing most of her pupils on one she doesn’t like, or there is a class where the kids can’t learn, or if either physical plant or discipline is so deteriorated as to constitute an impediment or hazard to learning, parents should have remedies. If it’s a case of, “Well, *that* subject impinges on *my* beliefs – a considerably higher rate of skepticism, guys.

  10. Talking about children of poor parents… often the parents don’t have the time or energy to help their children with schoolwork, because they’re working two or three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. I’ve also heard comments to the effect of “Education is a waste of time, because it doesn’t improve anything.” They’d lost all hope of a future, and could only see the drudgery of work-work-work. Even the kids are aware of how things are (at least, this is true for this area).

    My best friend said that when he was in high school, most of the kids didn’t give a damn about school because they already knew they were being tracked… the boys to work in the mines or in the groves, the girls to work in convenience stores or other low-wage positions. They already felt there was no chance for them to have a real life, and acted it out. They knew that the rich kids were already being groomed to run their parent’s groves and businesses, and there would be little left for them except low wages and long hours. Not an appetizing prospect to put it mildly.

    Part of the problem is just that – poor people don’t have hope, or their hope is very slim… “if I can keep a roof over our head long enough and keep buying lottery tickets, someday I might win and then we’d have a real life”. That’s how “those churches” succeed in getting and keeping new converts, because their preaching reinforces the self-denial and self-discipline that is required when you’re poor – not taking that day off to rest and be with your family because if you do, they’d end up homeless, for instance. Their preaching actually helps in some ways to make life a bit easier, although it’s not the best way. I never thought about this until I read an article about it this morning… but their preaching can help the poor to stay focused and not distracted by dreams or hopes… so they can just survive.

    I know that life only too well… that was our reality for years.

    I do know that there can be a life away from the constant misery of poverty, if we can ever get from here to there. Education and a living wage are keys to a better life, but that flies in the face of the Republicans’ beliefs about poverty and how to help people. The problem is the culture has reduced the poor to a life of living hell, and of course those damned bastards the Republicans think that by making life even more miserable, they can “make” people better.

    The scary thing about these “triggers” is that I strongly suspect that any changes won’t be for the better, but will be more pressure – more self-denial – more misery for the poor.

  11. Hi Deborah — I’ve followed the Parent Trigger saga closely from here in California, on behalf of the organization Parents Across America.

    I appreciate your perspective on the issues, which is much more in-depth than most observers’. You have a firsthand understanding of the impact of poverty on education.

    I have a little more information about the Parent Trigger at McKinley Elementary in Compton. Actually, parents at McKinley didn’t initiate the petition. It was created by Parent Revolution, an AstroTurf (fake grassroots) organization created by and for charter school operators. Parent Revolution conceived the Parent Trigger to begin with. It was enacted into California law, the Parent Empowerment Act, by former state Sen. Gloria Romero, acting on behalf of Parent Revolution. (Romero now works in the lucrative so-called education “reform” sector.)

    Anyway, Parent Revolution decided it was time to try a Parent Trigger petition. Parent Revolution’s paid staff determined that becoming a charter would be the goal, and pre-selected the charter operator, an enterprise called Celerity. Then Parent Revolution looked around the state for a vulnerable school and decided on McKinley in Compton. Parent Revolution set up a professionally staffed door-to-door signature-gathering operation. All this was mapped out before a single parent at McKinley Elementary heard about the Parent Trigger at their school.

    After the petitions were submitted, many parents at McKinley protested the proposal to become a charter, and many who had signed the petition said they had been deceived. Many have said they were told the petition was to beautify the school or to improve parking around the school.

    Chaos and controversy ensued. In the end, McKinley did not become a charter school. Celerity opened a charter school nearby — and only 1/5 of the McKinley students were transferred to the charter school, demonstrating that only a few McKinley families actually wanted to have their kids attend a charter school.

    By the way, I don’t use the term “failing school.” It’s an anti-public-education term used to denigrate schools that serve low-income students, and the educators in those schools. Schools that serve a critical mass of high-need, low-income students become overwhelmed and struggle, and those are the schools we harshly, cruelly brand “failing schools.” I hope that people of understanding and compassion will discard that coldhearted, mean term.

  12. A form of the Triggers Program is already in place here in GA. One of the high schools in my city was taken over by the state in 2010. An official from the state was sent to takeover the day to day operations of the school. The principals were reassigned to elementary or middle schools and some of them retired. In one Atlanta area school, all of the teachers were fired last year and had to reapply if they wanted to keep their jobs at the school. Many of them weren’t rehired. There is definitely a strong tendency to blame everything that goes wrong in a school on the teachers. The role of poverty, high absenteeism, dysfunctional families, etc are not factored in when a majority of a school’s students fail to meet state mandated performance standards and test scores. This is why I don’t like having the state legislature and parents make so many of the decisions about schools without adequate input from teachers and school administrators. Many of the state legislators and parents have no background in any area of education. Ga is currently in danger of losing over $30 million in Race To The Top Funding because it is rushing to implement a new teacher evaluation system. The one thing that always bothered me when I was teaching was that the state would change performance standards and teacher evaluation methods quite frequently and wouldn’t allocate enough time to training teachers on how to use them. I retired in 2009, and I must admit that I’m not sorry that I did. I’ve been back to visit the school from which I retired, and I saw a lot of changes. The biggest change was the added stress that many of the teachers were under because of changes in performance standards for students and in teacher evaluations. More paperwork was added to that that teachers were already required to do and more record-keeping for each student was required. Quite a few of the teachers informed me that they were looking for other jobs. GA and other states will have a teacher shortage sometime in the near future, and I wonder how the demanding parents and board members will fill those vacancies. Our state legislature has a republican majority and is busy creating more charter schools and pushing virtual schools which funnel public money to private entities. There’s still a lot of complaining but the complainers don’t seem to realize that if they want change, they’re going to have to stop electing the same type of politicians to serve in the state legislature. Until then, very little will change.

  13. That sounds like Florida. They’re pushing so hard for privatizing and the virtual schools it’s not funny (and they also expect the teachers – if it’s not all prerecorded – of the virtual schools to carry huge numbers of students… at the university level the virtual classes I’ve helped teach had between 150 and 500 students, every time).

    One thing that they also don’t take into consideration is that all students don’t learn at the same pace, and some students may be so stressed (as from bullying) that they cannot study appropriately. Also students don’t all respond to testing styles the same. In this last, I’m a perfect example. My memory is very strongly associative, but I cannot “puke information” on command. When I was a kid, if you gave me a fill-in-the-blank test, I would fail it EVERY time. EVERY TIME. If you gave me a multiple choice test, I’d ace it EVERY time. I got punished and punished and punished for not studying enough, and combined with bullying, it was a miracle I graduated from High school… much less with a C average. The only hint that I was not “average” material was my SAT scores… I took the SATs during a period of reduced stress (bullies were rather quiet for one thing), it was multiple-choice or True/False, and I ended up with the highest score in the school. Far higher than most of my college-prep classmates.

    The expectations that I hear… that students progress at the same speed, respond the same to tests, etc. sound very much like rants I got subjected to when I belonged to the Assemblies of God cult. The usual rant was how it was a major sin that people didn’t progress “spiritually” at the same pace, and the hint was that anyone who didn’t was sinning against God. I just wonder how much of the things being demanded today are an extension of that attitude.

    I consider what is happening to the schools to be a part of the attempt to force theocracy on this country. It’s all about control and limiting what people can learn.

  14. I should expand… I studied adequately, and even tried different study techniques. I couldn’t tell the teachers (or my folks) why I failed on some tests, did mediocre on others, and aced some – and nobody caught on that the failed tests were all fill in the blank, the ones where I did mediocre were a mixture, and the aced ones were multiple choice or True/False. I also was regularly punished for being lazy about my handwriting (which was unreadable), and it was only a few years ago that we learned that my bad handwriting was medical… I now take medicine that has strongly improved it – to the point of being readable. I wonder how many kids have to deal with these sorts of issues today, on top of all the politics and theocratic pressure.

  15. Thank you for your insights! I will definitely heed your advice and steer away from referring to them as failing schools. It has always been done with hesitancy on my part anyway.

  16. I have to humbly apologize for a glaring error in the second sentence. I copied the name of ALEC from another website, and didn’t carefully double-check what I was copying. Therefore, I wrote, “American Legislative Executive Committee,” when in fact, it is supposed to be American Legislative Exchange Council. Again, I am sorry for this error.

  17. ‘Parent trigger’ is the 3-card Monty system for extracting public education monies from taxpayers, without giving anything on return.

    Here in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby “The Exorcist” Jindal has leveraged decades of legislative neglect of education to bring the poor back into indentured servitude.

    If we spent one-tenth of the money on education that we spend on ‘tax credits’ Louisiana could give Japan a run for its academic record.

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