(Pat DeTemple, Senior Strategist for Parent Revolution)
At a neighborhood park in Los Angeles this past April, the mostly Latino parent union of nearby 24th St. Elementary was conducting a secret ballot election to decide who should run their chronically failing school next year. The contenders were high performing charter schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District that had run the school ineffectively until parents organized and used California’s controversial “Parent Trigger” law to shake things up.
The voters are parents who signed a petition that the parent union submitted with about seventy percent support. At the end of the day over eighty percent of the parents chose to approve a unique solution that largely returned control to the District, but with an added pre-k year and substantial improvements in staffing and resources, but also integrated an existing co-located charter school into the mix by turning over the previously overlapping fifth grade and improving coordination between the Pre-k through 4 District and the 5-8 charter schools.
The vote and subsequent district approval of the plan were the culmination of an organizing campaign assisted by Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution but driven by frustrated low-income parents who had tried without success for years to improve their school. The success at 24th Street also marked a turning point in the long fight over parent empowerment as a strategy for improving the quality of education in our worst schools.
The parent-trigger law is a response to the problem that too many children are stuck in schools that are not providing them with educational opportunities – and the resulting lack of preparation for meaningful work or active citizenship are devastating to the child and their communities. The reasons for persistent failure in the worst performing schools are many, and the challenges to teachers and administrators are great, and in the worst schools staff often become demoralized, the culture dysfunctional, and the expectation for significant improvement minimal. Particularly in urban areas where such schools are concentrated, the obstacles to anyone in authority significantly changing the culture, expectations, practices and outcomes are often insurmountable. And too often the will to change is not even present because competing adult interests trump what is best for the students.
The premise of the parent-trigger law is the belief that radical improvement of failing schools is possible, not through any of the magic bullets that have been fashionable over the years but by focusing attention and organizational will, through the instrument of organized parents exercising legal power, on improving a failing school or facing the prospect of loss of control to a high quality charter that, under the law, would be required to serve all the children. The proponents of Parent Trigger are unapologetic about placing the needs of the child in a failing school in front of all others. There should be no sacred cows blocking the path to a good education for all children, and that includes aspects of the collective-bargaining agreement, financial resources, or quality of leadership. There is no formula for resolving all those challenges, but exercise of the parent-trigger law lights a fire under an often unresponsive system and shines a light on the problems in such a way that positive movement becomes possible.
So, in the end it’s a lot about power, and for that reason there has been resistance from those who have it towards those who might use it. Teachers unions, administrators’ organizations, school boards, and all of their allies have demonized the law and its proponents from the start when a California Teachers Union spokesperson denounced it as a “lynch-mob law.” Since then the line of attack has mostly been to accuse proponents of acting as surrogates for a right wing corporate conspiracy to privatize public education through charter conversion, in spite of the fact that Parent Revolution, the originator of the law, has helped kill copycat legislation that would sneak voucher programs into law or primarily benefit for-profit charters. The job description for the director of their national work actually specifies that they work against legislation such as that put forward by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), and most of the staff of Parent Revolution are drawn from labor and community organizations and have deep roots in progressive politics and the Democratic campaigns.
In this context the campaign at 24th Street, presented the opponents of the parent-trigger law with a test. If the issue was corporate privatization, and if the parent activists and their supporters were now proving that to be untrue, then common ground in the fight for quality education might exist as well as around issues such as school funding and salaries and benefits. On the other hand, if the issue were the preservation of power and privilege, and "privatization" a mere pretext, then the effective use of the law in an "in district" context would be doubly threatening.
The results came a few weeks after the success at 24th Street when parents at another horribly failing LA school with a history of parent struggle, Weigand Elementary, filed a parent-trigger petition to remove the principal and demanded a plan to improve the school while leaving District control and teachers untouched. The response from the opponents has been swift and feverish with one prominent critic, Diane Ravitch, stating that Parent Revolution staff and supporters deserved “a special place in hell,” the executive director “loathsome,” and the local teachers union deploying “rapid response teams” to counter organize at any site where rumors of parent organizing emerge.
The 24th Street parents were instrumental in helping to expose the roots of opposition to parent power. This did not come as a surprise, and, to paraphrase Malcolm X, this isn’t something that makes us lose confidence in what we’re doing. As long as there are failing schools there will be the opportunity for the teachers union and many others to get on the right side of the fight for a quality education for all.
Patrick DeTemple is a Senior Strategist for Parent Revolution and developed their organizing model. His long history in organizing and progressive politics began in the anti-war movement, continued through the UFW and other labor and political movements and organizations for over three decades and, before Parent Revolution, two years on the ’07-’08 Obama campaign.