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Should Parents Take Over Failing Schools?

Introducing "parent-trigger" laws, the newest tool to restore America's failing educational system.

by
Paula Bolyard

Bio

April 1, 2013 - 7:00 am
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Should parents take over failing schools? Currently, seven states have “parent-trigger” laws, which empower parents to take control of the fate of low-performing schools their children attend. Depending on the state, parents can vote for various options when schools are failing their children: They can vote to convert to a charter school, replace teachers and administrators, have the state take over the school, or even close the school altogether.

Last year’s movie Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, told the story of a group of parents who took over their children’s failing school. “Inspired by true events,” it illustrated with heartbreaking clarity the frustrations parentsand often teachers feel when children become lost in bureaucracies and schools where it seems rigor mortis has set in. Not surprisingly, the movie was panned by unions and other anti-school choice activists.

In California, the only place parents have actually pulled the trigger on a “Parent Empowerment” law, it has been tried twice. The first attempt was the Compton Unified School District, where fewer than half of students graduate from high school and just 2% attend college. Under the California law, parents can use the trigger law if a district has failed to meet adequate yearly progress three years in a row and is in “corrective action” status under the federal No Child Left Behind law. It seems like a no-brainer that a major overhaul was in order, but it will surprise no one that when Compton parents organized to call for change, the unions and administration objected. Strenuously. They promised that reforms were right around the corner and that they just needed a little more time for their programs to work. It’s understandable that parents grew tired of waiting for promised reforms that might never come while their children languished in lousy schools.

In order for parents to take control of a school, they must file a petition with signatures from 50% of the parents of each targeted school. Parents chose to try out the California law on McKinley Elementary School, ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in the state. They turned in signatures from 62% of parents in the district and that’s when the claws came out. The school district demanded that parents verify their signatures in person and—I am not making this up—that parents show photo identification. Some parents claimed the schools threatened them with deportation, and others said teachers told children the school would be closed or the kids wouldn’t receive special education services if the parents succeeded. Some parents rescinded their signatures. Board members claimed “outside groups” pressured the parents to sign the petition. Leaders of the trigger movement dispute that claim, as does the state school board president. The board also said the petition was “materially non-qualifying” and rejected it on a technicality with a 7-0 vote, saying it cited the wrong education code and didn’t contain correct information about the charter school operator they had selected.  Despite pro bono legal help, parents failed in their bid to reform the school.

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The second parent-led effort to reform a school in California came at Desert Trails Elementary School in Aladento, where parents voted to allow a high-performing charter school to take over. Again, unions and school administrators battled parents. Doreen Diaz, president of the Desert Trails Parent Union, described the tactics used against the parents:

Then representatives of the district and union struck back with a calculated [signature] rescission campaign. Their tactics made the dirty tricks depicted in the movie “Won’t Back Down” seem tame by comparison. They told some parents the school would be shut down as a result of their efforts. They took photographs of the parents who refused to rescind their signatures. Some parents who were undocumented felt their immigration status was being used against them.

Diaz, whose daughter was reading at a second grade reading level in fifth grade had been told by a Desert Trails teacher that, “We teach to the kids that get it, and too bad for the ones who don’t.” She joined with other parents and the non-profit group Parent Revolution to lead the effort to transform her neighborhood school. A judge ruled last fall that the Board could not rescind parent signatures under the parent trigger law and ordered the board to comply with the terms of the parent trigger.

The school will be taken over next fall by a charter organization whose existing school, LaVerne Preparatory Academy, received a 911 (out of 1,000) Academic Performance Index score last year.  Desert Trails scored a pathetic 699 this year, 13 points lower than the previous year. The Sun reported:

Tarver and her team expect to take possession of the campus on July 1. When their new charter school opens at the end of the month, the teachers and staff will be gone, along with many other elements of Desert Trails Elementary: The school’s coyote mascot will be replaced with a scholarly owl, for instance. Students will also wear uniforms.

“When they come in, they’re going to learn how to take off their hats,” Tarver said. “Young men are going to learn how to be young men.”

And DTP students will be expected to abide by a strict code of behavior.

“We don’t have discipline problems” at Tarver’s other schools, she said. “I think in the last eight years, I’ve had one suspension. I have never expelled a child.”

There will be other changes as well: The school won’t offer busing, the school year will start at the end of July, classes run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for most grades, and there won’t be a long October break.

“Our goal is 20, 25 kids max” in a classroom, Tarver said. Some parents applauded: Currently, some Desert Trails classrooms have 33 kids, several said.

A third effort is underway in the L.A. Unified School District, and backers are hopeful that they’ve learned valuable lessons from the previous attempts and are confident they will be successful.

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So are parent takeovers the answer to failing schools?

Detractors object to charter schools in general and have issues with groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and “right-wing billionaires” backing parent trigger efforts. They concede that the laws have received support from some prominent Democrats, but in many cases, loyalty to teachers’ unions is a powerful incentive for continued support of the status quo.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes the parent trigger is a bad idea. Her answer to schools that have failed to teach year after year after year under her watch is to establish “School Governance Councils”:

In Cincinnati and elsewhere, AFT locals are partnering with parents and communities to mitigate the impact that poverty and other out-of-school factors have on students by offering wraparound services, including physical and mental health services, meal programs, tutoring, counseling, and after-school programs. And just last month, the AFT joined with parents and community members to launch a series of town hall meetings, teach-ins, workshops, and other events in 11 cities across the nation.

So the answer is more social services, apparently. Compare that to what the charter school in California is offering to parents. Which would you choose for your children?

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the D.C. schools, has explained that students need an advocacy group to compete with the interests of teachers:

“The purpose of teachers unions is to prioritize the pay and privileges of members. That is their job. I don’t think that’s the problem,” she said in an interview. “What I think the issue is is we don’t have an organized national interest group with the same heft … advocating on behalf of kids.”

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said, “If the teachers can have a union, parents can have a union.”

The parent-trigger law gives families a voice and a powerful seat at the table.


Adam Emerson at the Fordham Institute wrote recently that  even the threat of the parent trigger may be the catalyst for change in some school districts:

Ben Austin, the executive director of the Parent Revolution (the group that helped to organize Desert Trails parents), has long said that the trigger can be most effective when used as a bargaining chip. The threat of pulling the trigger could spur complacent district administrators and school board members to respond to parental concerns when they otherwise might not.

To be sure, whether the parent trigger can be a sustainable reform strategy remains far from clear. As Rick Hess pointed out in the summer, the trigger could be counterproductive if families bicker and ineffectually micromanage their schools (and Desert Trails parents did, indeed, fight with one another early in the process). And New Schools for New Orleans chief Neerav Kingsland may be right when he argues that “choice, not a say in management, is the only real power parents need.” But ultimately, the trigger threat may motivate school boards to provide more choice—not just in Adelanto but also in the seven states that have their own trigger laws or in the twenty states currently considering the measure.

Of course, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the parent trigger since it’s still in its infancy. But when schools like Desert Trails and McKinley have been so bad for so long, parents have to believe that things could not possibly get much worse. In the movie Won’t Back Down, there’s a powerful moment when Viola Davis’s character, a teacher helping to lead the reform effort, speaks at a rally and tells parents that the state is calculating the number of prison cells they’re going to need for the generation of kids who aren’t being educated in these failing schools. The seven in ten who leave their school unable to read are expected to fill those spots. “Nona Albert,” whose son attends the school, leads parents in chanting “Hands off our kids!”

Parents in schools like this don’t have ten years or five years to wait for the next great mandate to come down from the federal government. They need radical restructuring right now.

One thing we do know is that when parents are involved in their children’s education, the schools improve, so in a roundabout way, the parent trigger accomplishes this purpose and schools may necessarily improve just from the effort. And anything that empowers parents and gives them a strong voice and a wider array of choices in education is a step in the right direction. The key is for parents to educate themselves about the options available so they can make truly informed decisions. They must embrace a new mindset that accepts responsibility for the education of their children instead of handing it off to the schools. In the end, that’s the best way to turn around failing schools.

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In addition to writing for PJ Tatler and PJ Lifestyle, Paula also writes for Ohio Conservative Review,. She is co-author of a new Ebook called, Homeschooling: Fighting for My Children’s Future. Paula describes herself as a Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third. She is also a member of the Wayne County Ohio Executive Committee.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (14)
All Comments   (14)
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I thought many parents were already doing just that,with kids being homeschooled.YET!goverment seems to like all else to take away the freedoms that are around.Liz
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My wife is retiring from teaching in 3 months. She loves teaching but has had enough of government interference with her trying to do her job. Every year, teachers are directed to teach using a different method and yet none of them seem to work.

I find it strange that those of us who were educated in the 50's and 60's have been able to survive even though we didn't take "politically correct classes". We were taught how to read, how to add 2 + 2, how to write/spell and use correct grammar, and where we live in the world. We were taught to be proud of our country. We were taught how to learn, not how to take tests.

If parents are willing to become involved in their kids educations and the educators/schools aren't doing their job, then the parents need to take control and determine what is to be taught and how it is to be taught.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The question is without merit. Parents should never have allowed federal interference
in the school systems. It should always have been parental/community/state in
charge. Get the federal gov't out of our lives, our states, our pockets.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The next GOP candidate needs to make this the next HUGE civil rights issue of our time. It is a crime what is happening to our kids in school.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
IMHO parents of even relatively successful schools should be able to throw the union bums out on their ears, and teach kids classical Western Civ and American history along with the 3 R's instead of the brain-washing crap that passes for curriculum today.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks for taking the time to write about this, Paula.

The facts you elucidate here should demonstrate to anyone how vital the institutionalized left sees their stranglehold on the education and indoctrination of our children. That stranglehold forms the basis of their power, as it enables them to indoctrinate practically every U.S. citizen with the broken, socially suicidal mindset they hold, and to prolong the state of moral adolescence well into adulthood. This has been going on for decades, and it's the core of what's destroying the Republic; it has fundamentally transformed the U.S. into a nanny State of pathologically dependent subjects who are incapable of critical thinking and, therefore, incapable of making a rational choice regarding sane public policy.

If conservatives were to refocus their efforts: AWAY from arguing with the left about "gay marriage" / abortion, quit pouring money into campaign funds for barely-conservative Republican candidates, forget about trying to "reform" the GOP and, instead, turn their energies toward breaking this one stranglehold, we might see a ray of hope for this Republic.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Good article that points up how overrefinement and politicizing everything in sight is a failure. People have warned for decades that America wasn't broke and to stop fixing it.

Now the simple act of having a building and putting kids and teachers in it becomes like a manned mission to Venus. It also highlights an even simpler failure of perception: the reason Mexico is like it is is because of the people in it, which would be Mexicans.

I am to believe that the onset of feminism, the charm of aborting your own children, no-fault divorce, immigration, diversity and multiculturalism as a response to the racist and conformist preceding generation is a complete coincidence resulting in a nation so stupid they put David Duke on TV to fight racism and can't figure out if their kid is a boy or a girl.

It is not our schools that need a trigger but our country. Unfortunately there is a shortage of benevolent aliens, and even if there weren't, their suggestions would be considered racist and conformist.

Duh!!! "Meritocracy?" Wut's dat? Don u know 'bout colonialist tendencies to the 4th generation and statistics that victim my gay arnsbarger and dah-ha-da and tra-la-la?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What good are "parent trigger laws" if the teacher's unions are able to find sympathetic judges who will supercede their decisions?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Perhaps while we've all been "Waiting for Superman," he's been here all the time - looking back at us in the mirror.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We have to admit that parents have been a significant part of making bad schools bad. I'm not talking about the teacher line about lack of parental involvment; schools really shouldn't need much of that, it is their purpose to socialize kids on society's behalf despite their parents. I went to school in rural Georgia in the '50s and '60s. Many of my classmates had illiterate parents or grandparents and your farm animals weren't safe with some of my classmates, but there were by God desks in rows, kids in them, and you WOULD address the teacher as M'am or Sir. No, the parents who won't accept the authority of the school has been a real problem. The plaintiffs' bar did as much as groovy profs in the Ed Schools to destroy discipline. When a recently "integrated" school has statistically more disciplinary events with black than white students and loses the lawsuit, schools stop disciplining students. When black students perform less well on tests and the school loses the lawsuit, schools stop testing. When black students make lower grades than white students and the school loses the lawsuit, grades get inflated and academic standards get lowered or go away altogether. And, while race was a major issue, it isn't just race; groovy parents who can't bear the thought of their darling being disciplined or making a bad grade have been an issue as well. Suffice it to say that I don't much like the parent trigger though it might be better than what we have most places, but fundamentally there are as many bad things that might trigger parents as good ones.

I propose two things to reform education: vouchers and stringent restrictions on the political activities of public employees and their organizations. The second may be more important than the first. Vouchers will give parents the opportunity to escape a failing school or even a school that they or their child just doesn't like. Voucher proponents need to accept, though, they parents may choose to take their darling out of a school that is demanding as well, so the government still has a major role in setting and enforcing standards.

Those who've read my stuff know that I'm not really troubled by public employee unions qua unions. I've never been afraid of a union at the bargaining table or in arbitration or before the labor board. I didn't always win on behalf of my employer but Jimmy Johnson doesn't win every race either. I am deathly afraid of public employee unions in an election! That is especially true of teachers' unions in a union state. The teachers could put Lenin's corpse on the school board in most union states. At least until Obama if private sector unions didn't like the management, they had to find a way to get along with them. If a public sector union doesn't like the management, they just buy a new one. Even when I was a non-political classified employee, my head was on the auction block in every gubernatorial election. The Hatch Act and its state analogs had been steadily eroded for many years and was all but destroyed under Clinton. Unfortunately, GWB and the Republican Congresses did nothing about it. In large measure their failure to rein in the political activities of public employees, many of whom receive or handle federal funds at the state and local level was a major factor in Comrade Obama's election and reelection. The price of being a public employee, including teachers, is that the only political right you should have is your individual right to vote and your individual right to speak to an issue so long as your speech isn't under color of office. Public employees and organizations that represent them whether unions or voluntary associations should have NO right to attempt to influence an election, legislation, initiatives, ballot propositions, NOTHING. With that, unions would be collective bargaining representatives, not political parties with the legal right to compel contributions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Art,

What are your objections to the parent trigger? I think one advantage to the trigger as opposed to traditional vouchers could be that students stay in their neighborhoods (of course, this could go the other way, too). If a high-performing charter comes in and takes over or other measures are implemented to improve the school, that could benefit the entire neighborhood if done right. Again, for schools that are already at the bottom of the educational barrel, things couldn't get much worse.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Truth to tell, Paula, I ain't much on that direct democracy stuff; I like stuff filtered through legislative bodies to slow the will of the mob. What if the School Board really does try to improve a school and puts in a new principal who tries to run a tight ship and the kiddies don't like it - which they wouldn't- and the mommies don't like the kiddies not liking it - which they wouldn't?

I used to have a sign over my desk that said, "When the enemy is within range, so are you." I often pointed to that sign when some newly minted political appointee came in with his latest, greatest idea and asked him how he'd like it if the other guys had the power he was asking for. I just think that parental trigger is just as likely to be used to make a school worse as it is to make it better. Likewise, I think some parents will use vouchers to get their babies to a school that makes them feel better about themselves rather than giving them a reason to feel good about themselves.

I also like the charter school management companies only a little better than I like private prisons. The immutable rule is that if you give a government contract to somebody, you'd better really like them. As soon as they get that contract, they're going to form a PAC, start spreading checks around, and you will never get that contract away from them no matter how badly they perform once they've secured their hold on the business. They also get to do like the private prison firms and even correctional officers unions do and lobby legislatures for new crimes and longer sentences so they can make more money. So, suppose Acme School Management Corporation throws a little money around and gets a legislature to pass a law saying Johnny is entitled to 200 days, and, of course, Acme will get paid for that 20 extra days. That's really the way government contracting works.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Art, you make some really informed points and while I would not presume to challenge your knowledge in this area, I will (respectfully) suggest your point about the trigger going the other way may be a little on the cynical side - perhaps justifiably so. While I too can imagine the scenario you describe (the "tight ship" example), I like to think this the rare exception and that most likely the trigger would be used properly. I would at least like to see this idea tried on a larger scale (i.e. in other states) and with tight monitoring of results. One thing I think is for certain: What we have now ain't working. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this - great input!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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