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.