Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group responsible for California’s Parent Trigger law, did something rare in education politics: it outmaneuvered a powerful teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers basically admits as much in a guide used last month at the union’s TEACH conference to describe how the Connecticut chapter diluted that state’s version of the parent trigger. There, on page four, third bullet point down, it reads: “We learned from mistakes made in CA.” A few pages later, under the heading “Plan A: Kill Mode,” is list of lobbying strategies.

The guide had been posted on the union’s website along with all the other presentations from the conference. It was quickly taken down, however, after RiShawn Biddle, author of the blog Dropout Nation, posted it on his site. A note where the link used to be states, “We have posted all the presentations from the sessions to make the information available to all the attendees. However, we have received complaints about these materials and have removed them because they do not represent AFT’s position.”

The loudest complaint came from Parent Revolution at a press conference earlier this week. Executive Director Ben Austin called it a “cynical strategy to disempower parents” and released a letter sent to AFT president Randi Weingarten demanding an apology. As of this writing, there was no response from Weingarten.

Austin felt especially betrayed by the AFT because he says Parent Revolution has long supported and lauded Weingarten’s progressive approach to negotiating contracts. “She has really demonstrated that teachers union leadership can simultaneously advocate for teachers and children.”

Are you a good shift or a bad shift?

Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no question that Parent Revolution took parent power to a new level. Until now, grassroots organizing around education has remained local. Even the historic, game-changing 1968 New York City teachers strike was a battle over control of local schools in the City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood.

“The more traditional grassroots community-based organization model is one where they’re putting pressure on school boards, mobilizing in microcommunities around micro issues, like the closing of a school,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is a group that is working at the state level, which I think you have to do these days.”

Henig stops far short of Ben Austin’s claim that Parent Revolution is creating a new paradigm in the way we think about education. During a phone call after the press conference, Austin told me that support for the parent trigger from members of the State Board of Education (SBE) and California School Boards Association “speaks to the fact that the political tectonic plates are shifting underneath us.”

“It’s too grand to say it’s the wave of the future,” responded Henig.

Parent Revolution did lose its first takeover bid, in the Compton Unified School District, when the judge rejected the petitions (which we reported here).  But, that was before the State Board of Education drafted regulations.  Austin doesn’t expect that to happen again.  In fact, he says, they may not even have to submit the petitions; just the threat of having them may be enough to force change.

“It has more to do with giving parents leverage to bargain,” said Austin.  “The reality is that when parents have organized 50% of the parents in the school, they do have the ability to sit at the table and look the leadership in the eye and say, ‘For all intents and purposes we have the ability to fire you,’ and to look at the teachers and say, ‘We have the ability to cancel your contracts.’”

If it is a trend, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, worries that another outside group pushing its agenda adds to the confusing pile of reforms foisted upon superintendents and principals.

“How do they prioritize? What’s the right thing to do? I think it actually makes the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis very difficult, and it’s already very difficult,” said Levine. He argues that California needs to commit to a single strategy for the next five years “to try to change the trajectory of low-performing schools.”

Grassroots vs. ‘Astroturf’

Parent Revolution isn’t the only parent group focused on statewide change. Over the past few years a number of organizations have emerged, including Educate Our State and Parents for Great Education, with an eye on Sacramento. As we reported here last spring, Educate Our State launched a campaign during the budget negotiations that generated more than 35,000 letters to state lawmakers urging them to support Gov. Brown’s proposal to extend the temporary taxes.

Although they weren’t successful, the effort was more organically grassroots than Parent Revolution.  There were no major donors, no professional educators, and no former elected officials. Parent Revolution, on the other hand, was started by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, out of his frustration with Los Angeles Unified School District. [Update:  Barr founded LA Parents Union which evolved into Parent Revolution in 2009 under the leadership of Austin]. Ben Austin worked in the Clinton administration, served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat on the State Board of Education.

But the key difference between those other organizations and Parent Revolution is money. The group is funded by the biggest players in education reform – Gates, Broad, and Walton – giving opponents something more filling to criticize.

“They’re much less grassroots; they’re Astroturf,” said California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass, using the new tag for groups allegedly doing the bidding of wealthy business leaders. “We see Parent Trigger as just one little piece of the overall assault on education by the billionaire boys club,” said Glass, barely containing his irritation.

What he didn’t say is that Parent Revolution has a $1 million annual budget, or that the AFT has also been a beneficiary of Gates largesse. The union received three grants in recent years totaling nearly $4 million, and is a partner to a $335 million grant to support intensive training programs to improve teacher effectiveness. Ironically, Green Dot is also one of the partners.

The larger question, however, is whether parents know enough about teaching and school administration to decide which schools live and which schools die.  Loving your children and having attended school, doesn’t make parents – or legislators – experts.

“Schools can, like all institutions, be improved,” said UC Berkeley education historian and professor Daniel Perlstein. “But allowing parents, rather than educators, to direct inadequate resources simply will not revolutionize the education of children living in an increasingly unstable and unequal society.”

Ben Austin said he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  “At the end of the day,” said Austin, “all we’re saying is parents should have some power and that power should be real.”

28 thoughts on “Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

  1. CarolineSF

    Education “reformers” have leaped on the AFT PowerPoint that describes Connecticut lobbying to portray it as outrageous and improper. But it isn’t, unless one opposes all lobbying at all — which, obviously, the education reformers don’t.
    The California state PTA did the same kind of lobbying against the Parent Trigger (Parent Empowerment Act) here. It consists of meeting with legislators and trying to convince them of one’s viewpoint.
    Unlike the notorious anti-teacher campaign by Stand for Children in Illinois, there was no purchasing of legislators and no deception involved.
    As Fred Glass says, Parent Revolution is not grassroots at all. Educate Our State, by contrast, grew out of a Town Hall Meeting at San Francisco’s Marina Middle School a couple of years ago to address the education funding crisis, which attracted a crowd of 1,000. It was organized by six moms of young kids at San Francisco’s Sherman Elementary School. That’s the definition of grassroots. The two organizations really shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.
    It is evident that Austin and Parent Revolution never intended for parents to have power. But actually, at the end of the day, the organization exists to benefit and enrich charter school operators.  If Parent Revolution had intended to empower parents, it would not have approached the McKinley campaign with a charter operator already pre-selected and a stealth, paid signature-gathering operation in which parents had no opportunity to discuss the options or the pros and cons.

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  2. Pingback: Engaging Parents In School… - I Think These Critiques Of Parent Trigger Laws Are Missing The Point…

  3. el

    If Parent Revolution’s Compton effort had actually been led by Compton parents, the outcome would have been completely different.
    I find it absurd that they think that 50% of actual parents don’t have that power already. If 50% of the parents showed up at the school board meetings, there’s no doubt in my mind that they could get those meetings with leadership and make dramatic changes without needing any new law.

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  4. SLH

    As far back as 2006 with the formation of the LA Parents Union by Steve Barr, the intent was explicit: Take on unions, using union tactics.  Parent Revolution’s roots are in the LA Parent Union; its success is precisely due to deploying the very strategies it decries in CT.
    Crying foul now is nothing more than game-playing.  If anything, it belies that there is a very real gap between real grassroots parents groups and what they want for their neighborhood schools vs. the Parent Revolution agenda.  The overlap between parents/community members/Parent Revolution/reformers in the Venn diagram of education politics will fluctuate.  The question is what lasting change will come from this moment in time and who really has the children placed first.

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  5. Dennis Kelly

    From Randi and Sharon Palmer, AFT-Connecticut President

    A presentation at our TEACH conference last month described our successful effort to enact a law in Connecticut that empowers parents and teachers to improve struggling schools. Unfortunately, the presentation included wording that does not reflect our views, and we removed it from our website. Parents and teachers must work together, which was a central theme at TEACH.  So, we apologized for both the PowerPoint and the concern it raised.

    Not surprisingly, media critics, right-wing bloggers and advocates for “parent trigger” legislation have made much of the presentation, but we must remain focused on what’s important: This law achieves the goal of empowering parents to influence the governance and direction of public schools in the state. It sets up school governance councils that will be filled by a majority of parents and will include teachers and community members. These councils will work with principals and other school administrators to make recommendations on hiring personnel, developing school budgets, offering suggestions on instruction and curriculum, and developing school improvement plans. The law sets up a real and abiding partnership, and it will help improve public schools across the state.

    Those with an ideological agenda will never stop inventing fake controversies and omitting important facts, which is why it was important to set the record straight, in a very public way, on Huffington Post <> .

    Despite efforts by our opponents to misrepresent our views or create wedge issues that divide teachers and parents, we will continue to focus on issues that have a real impact on teachers and students.

    In solidarity,
    Randi and Sharon

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  6. Mary Thompson

    The entire agenda is summarized in the last paragraph of Baron’s article, in which it is reported that according to Ben Austin, “he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  ‘Parents should have some power and that power should be real’ “.   Surprise, surprise!   What a shock that must be for the bamboozled parents who were marshalled for the
    effort by thinking Parent Revolution equaled “Power to the Parents”.  Class revolution always follows  the same modus operandi since the early 20th Century when whole nations were brought to disaster.  Leaders enlist the naive and vulnerable for purposes of achieving power for themselves and their own agendas which are not  what the duped (in this case parents) think the agenda to be.  Leaving aside, the legitimate issues re: the concept of parent trigger activity itself,   the logical question  misled parents and others need to ask is, whom is intended to have most of the power?    A starting point might be to followed the money financing the so- called Parent Revolution.

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  7. el

    @Paul, I think your school board is worth your time. Obviously the things that you can change and influence are different at the school board level versus the state level. But I also think, if you have ambitions to make a difference at the state level, that dealing with school board minutia is part of understanding the whole problem. (And further, it has become apparent to me that districts within California are wildly different depending upon the communities they serve and their size.)

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  8. CapitolReader

    Kathryn – I’m a bit troubled that in all this you conclude the “larger question” is whether parents are smart enough to handle this responsibility .  Or whether we should continue to let the “experts” make decisions for parents whether they like it or not. 

    The “experts” have been handling the situation for decades and that hasn’t worked out too well for us. But when you do give choices and yes, some power to parents (otherwise known as the consumers of the most expensive public program in CA), you end up with positive results.  Go ask the head of the ministry of education in Sweden – he’ll tell you all about parents’ ability to understand a good education versus a bad one.

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  9. Paul Muench

    @el, my district doesn’t decide what to teach students (maybe the state won’t do that much longer either), it doesn’t decide how to determine which students have learned what they were taught, it doesn’t decide how much revenue to raise, it doesn’t decide who is a certified teacher, it doesn’t determine what constitutes a legal teacher labor contract, etc. etc..  The one real decision the school board makes is to evaluate and hire a superintendent.  And mostly the hiring job is contracted out to retired superintendents.  And per the previous items I listed a large part of a superintendent’s job is to live within the rules set by the state.  I’m open to having my mind changed, but you’re going to have to be more concrete about which minutia is worth my time.

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  10. CarolineSF

    The claim that it’s patronizing or insulting to parents to raise that question is, of course, being used to defuse (to use the correct spelling) doubts about the Parent Trigger.
    I call out that line as bogus. It’s the equivalent of “playing the race card” — calculated, insincere and contrived
    I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to run a school. How many parents who were not experienced educators would? It’s a completely valid question to raise and is not patronizing or insulting to parents.

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  11. Ze'ev Wurman

    Paul Muench’s musings about participating on a local level, and el’s response touched something.
    Most local school boards are staffed with well-intentioned people that have limited knowledge and understanding of both curricular and organizational school issues. The superintendent and most of the staff like it this way, and will typically do anything to prevent it from changing. Consequently, local movements rarely effect serious changes in the operation of a local school district. Except when it comes to more fund raising, that is (smile).
    My own experience with a school district — and a relatively decent one, at that — is that it is difficult even for 50% of a given school parents to do much. Anything changed through the school board takes months and years to implement. The standard bureaucratic steps are responsible — we need to study it, we need to solicit other inputs, we need to assess the possibilities, the impacts, etc. — and one cannot keep 50% of the parents deeply involved for something that takes at least a year and often two or three.
    The state level activity is potentially more rewarding, but at the same time it is much more prone to political issues outside one’s control. So it is a mixed blessing. Good luck, Paul!
    And as to Parent Trigger itself? It wouldn’t be necessary if school districts were truly run by competent school boards. Unfortunately, they are not, and that’s why PT is needed. I don’t care if PT gives parents “some” power or “full” power. Anything is better than the situation now when administrations and unions hold all the cards and parents are pushed away. We tried it with PTA, and it became just a money collecting machine. We tried it with school site councils, and they were quickly co-opted by the staff in most schools. Perhaps it is time for a “Parent Spring” in addition to the Arab Spring.
    Let me put it another way. The goal of every parent is to provide the best education for his/her child. It is not to harm the school, to take revenge on the board, or to get on a power trip. I cannot blindly say that of every administrator, teacher, or school board member. Giving the latter an  absolute power, with only a minor check at the board every four years at an off-year election, strikes me as naive.

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  12. CapitolReader

    CarolineSF – you wouldnt have any idea how to build a car or run a health care system either, but you still have the ability to ascertain which ones are good and which ones are complete failures. By the way, the new graduation rates released by the state today show that in Compton Unified, nearly 50% of students don’t graduate by their 4th year of school.  These are the same “experts” who want to stop parents from transforming their schools.  That is what’s bogus.

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  13. Katie Valenzuela

    Grassroots organizing around education at the state level includes several key players not mentioned in this piece. Public Advocates has been working since 2001 with organizations like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Californians for Justice, the Campaign for Quality Education, PICO California, and many others to achieve legal victories that have affected schools across the state (see an overview here). These victories have entailed extensive work bringing the voices of parents, students, and low-income communities to Sacramento. To name just one example, in 2009, our grassroots partners sponsored and were a key force in the passage of AB 8 (Brownley), a bill that would have required a bipartisan governmental working group to propose a new funding structure to the Legislature that would make California’s school finance system equitable, rational, and based on the costs of educating students. When Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 8 despite its wide bipartisan support (79-0 in the Assembly; 31-6 in the Senate), these organizations and their members sued California to enforce their right to a quality education. You can hear some of their stories in this video. We feel fortunate to count these groups, as well as the more than 500,000 California families they represent, among our allies in Campaign for Quality Education v. California.

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  14. el

    @paul, it appears my local district is much more involved in those issue than yours. It is clear to me that California districts are very different from each other, even ones serving similar communities.
    If your impression is solely from attending school board meetings, you might not have a full picture of the involvement, though. For example, it’s common in my district for individual board members to serve on teacher hiring panels and to work closely with the superintendent and principals on other projects.
    And the Board certainly has a lot of potential input into what goes into the contracts.
    Depending on the dynamics, I can certainly see that in many cases the board would defer almost entirely to the superintendent. The key is to choose a superintendent worthy of that trust.

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  15. el

    “My own experience with a school district — and a relatively decent one, at that — is that it is difficult even for 50% of a given school parents to do much. Anything changed through the school board takes months and years to implement. The standard bureaucratic steps are responsible — we need to study it, we need to solicit other inputs, we need to assess the possibilities, the impacts, etc. — and one cannot keep 50% of the parents deeply involved for something that takes at least a year and often two or three.”

    I would say that rebuilding a school from scratch is also going to take months or years to do. I’m not sure how Parent Trigger changes that, unless the plan is just to put the school into the hands of someone completely different with no oversight so that the parents can stop thinking about it. It still takes months or years to actually effect the change, though.

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  16. KZS

    Paul & Ze’ev, it seems as though you’re saying that school boards & district administrations are impenetrable to parents.  My experience in several California districts is markedly different.
    Successful strategies vary by district, but things I’ve seen from the front lines include forming a non-profit foundation (raising money brings leverage to advocacy), creating a council of schools (I’ve seen both PTA councils and district-wide parents groups outside of PTA), launching a parcel tax campaign (brings together groups from across school boundaries; if successful, an oversight committee gains an important seat at the table), working with state legislators to form an advisory group of parents.  Perhaps the most successful parent-led effort I’ve seen took place in our own district where a group successfully ran for the school board becoming the new majority.  The subsequent hiring of a new superintendent and a slate of student-focused district-wide goals has led to great results for kids and a dramatic new level of engagement for parents. Parents have a seat on every district committee, are included in hiring panels, are invited into goal setting and policy discussions, etc., etc.  These are truly grassroots, parent initiated efforts that have created lasting change.  I’m not convinced that’s what the trigger authors were actually after.
    There are alternatives to the narrowly prescribed turn around options under the parent trigger.  Establishing a sustainable model for community engagement far outlasts the rupturing process of a closure, mass termination of staff or hand off to a charter organization.  I’d be a bigger fan of the trigger if it went beyond the single act of taking over a school to how that school will work within the community after its transformation.  It seems that trigger advocates have little interest in the long view of a community beyond wresting control of a school.

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  17. el

    @paul, obviously the school board has no  direct authority to raise revenues – though that was only one of the things on your list. The board does have significant power, should it choose to exercise it, over how the revenue is spent.
    Members of the school board do have the ability to spearhead fundraising efforts and to reach out to the community to work on a parcel tax initiative, if they so wished. For that matter, so do teachers and parents and other community members. The local community values the school, which makes a huge difference, even if there is not a lot of extra money to be had.

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  18. el

    In general, for a school district, if you want to control and influence the money, the first job is to understand the money. This is a substantial commitment: to understand all the ways money comes in and all the ways it is spent is going to take more than a weekend. It takes time do dig through all the numbers and a willingness to ask stupid questions, either in public at the meetings or by making appointments with people who have the answers. All the funds, all the codes – it’s all there and it mostly makes sense, but it takes effort. The bigger the budget, and the bigger the ‘crumb’ size, the harder it is.
    That pile of money labeled ‘consultants’ sounds horrible until you find out it pays for the nurse, the on-call psychiatrist, the speech therapist, and some special ed… all of which are now purchased in units too small to hire as full time employees. Or the big money that went out for the new school bus in tough times – until you realize an earmarked grant from the local AQMD paid for 90%, and the new bus gets twice the gas mileage of the old, 40 year old bus. Any time a pile looks surprising, ask.
    I said above that districts cannot raise revenues – and as I thought about it, it’s not strictly so. Districts can pursue grants… all of which have to be balanced with the cost to apply versus the likelihood of getting the grant and the amount in play. Districts can also work at maximizing the revenue streams they do have – improving attendance and increasing enrollment (as in understanding why kids in their area might choose other educational options). They can look for partners who may be willing to support specific programs, like field trips or special events or sports or the cafeteria.
    Both sides of the ledger are important, and there are levers for the school board to address both.

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  19. Robert D. Skeels

    Parent Revolution is hardly a “Parent’s rights group.” Instead they are a front group for the California Charter Schools Association, and are funded by far-right-wing Walton Family Foundation, and other deep pocketed foundations that want to do away with public education entirely. Parent Revolution’s wealthy executive director has a shady past and was recently exposed as having broken the law in not disclosing his employer while lobbying for the charter trigger law. See:

    “Parent” Trigger co-author Austin knew he was breaking laws while he lobbied the California State Board of Education.

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  20. Paul Muench

    @el, yes a school board can participate in those activities.  But its not clear that having an actual vote allows a school board member to make more of a difference than a parent.  I’m assuming the goal is to make a district run better as a whole and not to divert resources for one’s own interest.
    @KZS, I have no idea how you came up with that interpretation of what I wrote.  For clarity I will reiterate what I said, the real action in education politics is happening at the state level and not the district level.  Administrators and parents alike have to deal with this.

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  21. CarolineSF

    CapitolReader — yes, I would have some ability to ascertain which cars or health care systems are failures.
    But the Parent Trigger is sold as offering parents the ability to decide how to run a school, with one of the options being that the parents do much of the management.
    Actually, the Parent Trigger is NOT about offering that option — it’s about handing schools over to charter operators. That’s why in the high-profile Compton Parent Trigger, the organization Parent Revolution pre-selected the charter operators before a single Compton parent was even approached for a signature, and why Parent Revolution kept parents entirely in the dark about the fact that the Parent Empowerment Act even offered other options. That’s also why Parent Revolution worked furtively and kept the whole process shrouded in darkness, of course — so there could be no open discussion of the options or the pros and cons.

    That’s not parent empowerment. It’s parent exploitation.

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  22. KZS

    @Paul, in my experience, local schools boards can have a great deal of impact on their students’ experience, beyond the hiring of a superintendent. There’s a world of work that can be done to insulate or mitigate damaging state and federal policies within a classroom. It’s at the district level that you protect arts, music and keep libraries open.  Districts institute alternative, vocational, magnet, academy, intensive, online, etc., programs. Contracts are negotiated between district leaders and the local union – that process alone can make a world of difference between one district and another.
    Having had a close up view of the state policy process, I find my work in my community to be much more immediate and lasting. Sure, Ed Lucia, Ben Austin and Gloria Romero ramrodded legislation through during the winter of 2010 that has huge implications for California.  But it will have little impact in our community because we make different choices for our schools. There is a vast territory within compliance that allows a school or district to right by kids yet adhere to the law and policy du jour.
    So go ahead a joust with the state and feds, but don’t assume that will make a whit of difference for the kids on your block.

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