Should Parents Take Over Failing Schools?

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.

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.

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.