In 2010, California enacted education legislation known as the “parent trigger.” The legislation empowers parents of children at schools that have failed to meet annual yearly progress for at least four years to change the administration, convert the school to a charter, or shut it down completely if they gather signatures from at least 51% of parents at the school. Similar legislation exists in Mississippi and Connecticut, but has failed to become law in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, and Maryland. Parents at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified – a school that only met yearly progress once in the last eight years –were the first in the nation to “pull the trigger” and remain the sole group to do so to date. As a result of their action, the State of California required the district to hire a “direct assistance intervention team,” and later, an attempt by parents to convert the school to a charter was rebuffed by the school district on technical grounds. A case is currently pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. Many school reformers believe that this law puts the interests of children ahead of teachers and helps to save children in failing schools before the clock runs out. Many education professionals, among them the president of the California Federation of Teachers, view the law as a “lynch mob provision,” intended to dismantle the public school system. The politics of the “parent trigger” are confusing, with the lines between conservatives and liberals often blurred. This debate will examine the arguments in favor and in opposition to this reform, focusing on the experience to date in California and developments in other parts of the country where similar legislation is being considered.
|Ben Boychuk is associate editor of City Journal, where he writes on education and California politics. FULL BIO >>||Julie Cavanagh has been a special education teacher for more than ten years in Red Hook, Brooklyn. FULL BIO >>|
|DAY 4 - CONCLUDING REMARKS|
Ben: Readers only slightly acquainted with the more arcane and highly nuanced disputes within the education policy world might wonder at this point whether Julie and I are merely squabbling over semantics. I favor parent empowerment. She favors parent empowerment, too.
I also agree with Julie “every child in this country should have access to the kind of education that Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and Barack Obama choose for their kids.” By all means, give them a voucher and make it so!
So whats all the fuss about, then?
Ah, but thats just it. Just as Julie would be horrified at my voucher idea, she has endeavored to prove that my version of parent empowerment is phony. Whether or not shes made her case, Ill leave readers to decide.
Ive argued there is nothing necessarily wrong with the brand of parent empowerment she espouses - only that a well-written “parent trigger” law would ensure in particular circumstances that parents are indeed full partners in reform and school governance. (Or as one cheeky blogger put it, so that parents may “have a seat at the table with some juice.”)
Julie correctly identifies a limitation in the law: schools currently eligible for the “parent trigger” are those classified as “failing,” and the definition of failure is tied to a flawed regime of high-stakes tests. Lawmakers should expand eligibility to give more parents access to the law, beyond those at so-called failing schools. (Again: Happy parents dont sign petitions!)
Yesterday, Julie made a passionate appeal for “democratic governance” that includes parents and even students, and argued, “every school should have a school-based team comprised of administration and elected parent, teacher, student and community representatives” that make decisions at the school site. One of the remedies offered under the California parent empowerment law is “alternative governance,” which would lend itself perfectly to what Julie advocates.
Opponents of the “parent trigger” have done everything they can to stop it. Theyve unapologetically characterized the law as a “lynch mob provision.” Theyve said the law is a backdoor way for charter operators to “privatize” public schools. Theyve employed the usual 11th-hour lobbying and arm-twisting tactics in legislatures from Connecticut and Colorado to Indiana and New York. Theyve tried to encumber the law with gimmicks and vetoes.
Theyve tried everything except the one thing that might do a bit of good.
They havent tried to use the law.
Julie: Ben, you say that short of putting a camera in parent homes and a social worker on their couch, we cannot find ways to empower and encourage parents who, your readers feel, are part of the problem. I have known parents who demonstrate the negative characteristics you describe, after ten plus years in the classroom, I have experienced the spectrum in terms of parent involvement. But do you know what every single one of those parents wants, despite what you might see on the outside? They want a good education for their child, they want better for their child. They might not know how to get it or how to be a part of it, but doesn't it benefit us as a society to find ways to empower and engage them? More importantly, isn't it our moral imperative to do so?
It is hard to be empowered when you have been historically disenfranchised. This is precisely why we need parent empowerment and schools that are responsive to community. This is why we need school-based teams led collaboratively by administrators, parents, educators, young people and community - so that we can provide the supports and services every child and their family needs to be successful. We do not live in isolation in this world, we are all connected.
As to the issue of school choice; it is in our collective interest to have a public education system that serves all children. We are an interdependent society, and because we are not all independently wealthy, we must provide access to a free and fair public education. When we begin to siphon dollars away from that system in the form of vouchers, scholarships, or charter schools, we weaken our public schools. These programs only serve to segregate and are nothing more than the equivalent of a poll tax; weeding out the disadvantaged, limiting their rights and access. It makes much more sense to give every child a world class education at nearby public schools. If a parent doesn't want a public school, they can go elsewhere, but that does not dissolve their civic duty to support a public education system that benefits us all. Public schools are a legacy left to communities; they are not only for the parents and children who are currently there. Public schools are a public good and they must remain in the hands of the public.
Finally, there is nothing adaptable about a "parent trigger." It is not a resource; it is a tool created by those with the desire to privatize our public education system. Waiting until there is a problem to involve parents is not empowering. We need to create policies that meaningfully engage families and benefit all children from the ground up.
There is no doubt greater parent empowerment will improve learning conditions for our children. We must be cautious however of those that claim they want to empower parents, when the goal is in fact something else altogether. Let's call a cease fire and demand policies that build rather than destroy.
|DAY 3 - From PSI Editor, Michael Allegretti, “You seem to find common ground in the fact that you favor elevating the role of the parent in schooling. Ben refers to ‘parental involvement while Julie refers to ‘parental empowerment. If you both find limitations with the current “parent trigger” law Ben saying that “…a ‘parent trigger is not a substitute for traditional parental involvement, but rather a powerful supplement to it” and Julie saying that “…the ‘parent trigger is an illusion of choice and an impediment to empowerment,” then what would you each prescribe as the best means to elevate the role of the parent in schooling?”|
Ben: Id reiterate part of what I mentioned yesterday: just as happy parents do not sign petitions, neither do indifferent ones.
The most common criticism I hear from readers as opposed to professional policy wonks, but I wouldnt say the groups are mutually exclusive is that parents cannot reform schools when they are themselves a big part of the problem. They dont pay attention to their kids. They work too much, or they drink too much. They dont monitor their childrens homework. They complain when their kids get into trouble.
“Parent trigger” laws offer no direct solution to that problem. Im not certain any law could be, short of one that puts a camera in the living room and a social worker on the couch. I wouldnt go for that.
Inasmuch as the “parent trigger” can be helpful, it is through choice. Here Julie and I have a fundamental disagreement, one that this debate is unlikely to bridge much less resolve. Choice in education should mean giving parents an option of schooling that best fits their childs individual needs whether that is a government-run school or a private school, both serve a public purpose.
The “parent trigger” is and can be adaptable. The remedies that might work for one state may not work for another. Elsewhere, Ive argued for making a scholarship or (forgive the expression) voucher one of the options available to parents under a “parent trigger” law. That might work in Indiana, Ohio, or Florida. It almost certainly wouldnt work in California.
Last year, I co-authored a policy brief with the Heartland Institutes Joseph Bast, Bruno Behrend, and Marc Oestreich, which discussed other ways to strengthen the “parent trigger” in California and beyond. We favored expanding eligibility beyond a narrow definition of failure, one that is tied to dubious federal guidelines such as those established under the U.S. Department of Educations Race-to-the-Top contest. Although we recognized political circumstances vary by state, we didnt particularly care for placing an arbitrary cap of 75 schools that could be triggered in California, especially when more than 1,300 schools would qualify.
Parents should certainly have as many resources made available to them as possible. Under the regulations near final approval in California, the state department of education would be required to publish each year the schools eligible for the parent empowerment law and would also need to post model petitions that parents could download and circulate. And if a school district overrules a parent petition, there should be a clear appeals process.
The point of all these suggestions would be simply to place parents on a more level playing field with the powerful interest groups that currently dominate the education reform debate. Nothing more, nothing less.
Julie: As I made clear in my post on day one, we need something bigger than a trigger.
Schools that face immense challenges are often labeled failing schools and thus could be subject to “parent trigger” legislation. These schools have higher concentrations of children with special needs, English Language Learners and children who live in poverty as determined by reduced and free lunch rates. Since a failing school is determined mainly by tests, the trouble with “trigger” legislation comes into focus. Test scores are the best measure of one thing: socioeconomic status. As Diane Ravitch highlights, on the international test (PISA), our schools with less than 10% reduced and free lunch rates, are first in the world, schools with 25% reduced/free lunch rates tie with Finland, Korea and Japan at the top. Whether you measure with SAT, NAEP, ACT or even state tests, the same pattern always emerges: as poverty increases, test scores decline. Closing a school, converting to a charter, nor firing administrators and teachers will fix a failing school.
In New York City approximately one hundred schools have been closed in the last eight years due to failure. Not one parent, teacher or child attending these schools has spoken in favor of shuttering them. Closing schools and creating charter schools in New York and beyond, is not a reform that works. Instead segregation increases, more schools are set up for failure, and the supporters of these failed reforms profit. What parents and students have spoken in favor of is democratic governance and they speak about resources: small class sizes, materials, facilities, and wrap-around programs.
There are other school communities that do not face a test score crisis or failing school designation. In these communities pulling the trigger would not be an option for parents regardless of their dissatisfaction with administration, teacher quality, class size, or any number of issues that are of concern to parents. Dont these parents want and deserve democratic governance and better resources too?
So, what do we do? First, every child in this country should have access to the kind of education that Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and Barack Obama choose for their kids. Their children attend schools that have small class sizes, experienced educators, rich curriculum, and they engage parents. Instead of wasting our precious resources on corporate consultants, high stakes tests, and failed reforms we should fund the real reforms that would transform our public education system.
Second, every school should have a school-based team comprised of administration and elected parent, teacher, student and community representatives. These teams should make collaborative decisions about school budget allocations, programs and services, and administrator and educator evaluations. Every district should have elected boards, with campaigns that are publically financed, with seats designated for stakeholders in education.
When we create governance structures that are bottom-up and collaborative we truly empower parents and create schools that are responsive to the communities they serve. When we do this, childrens needs are met and we can achieve the promise of equitable schools for all.
|DAY 2 - REBUTTALS|
Ben: Julie, who could possibly argue that the outcome at your school offers anything other than cause for celebration? Not me. Local reforms that actively engage parents and produce self-governing citizens should be the norm, not the exception.
But where that isn’t the norm—where parents are routinely dismissed or where their involvement is answered with condescension and suspicion—then the “parent trigger” is indeed “real parent choice” and genuinely empowering.
Happy parents don’t sign petitions. Neither do parents who are indifferent to their children’s education. Parents won’t always agree that a particular course is the right one—what else is new? The point is: a “parent trigger” is not a substitute for traditional parental involvement, but rather a powerful supplement to it.
A quick example of what I mean: In the Compton Unified School District, where parents at McKinley Elementary petitioned to convert their school into an independent charter, a two-year state audit concluded: “[T]he focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs. There’s a lack of civility for people in various meetings and throughout the school visits. We have evidence that adults are not being held accountable for their work nor for their ethical behavior.”
In other words, “increasing parent engagement and leadership” was not on Compton Unified’s agenda.
I’m pleased you cited that Parents Across America position paper, which amid the usual bromides about “proven, common-sense strategies” and “meaningful reforms” makes some dubious claims worth further discussion. But isn’t the real problem that the parent trigger promotes what PAA regards as the wrong kind of reforms and grassroots activism?
It’s useful to read the PAA position paper in light of the recent revelations about lessons the American Federation of Teachers’ took from its successful effort last year to “diffuse” (sic) the “parent trigger” in Connecticut. When union lobbyists couldn’t kill the bill outright, it convinced lawmakers to adopt a “compromise” whereby parents at a failing school could form a local governing council with no power whatsoever. Writing at the Huffington Post last week, AFT President Randi Weingarten called this outcome “a good one.” Good for whom, exactly?
I’m all for schools as “humane places,” as opposed to widget factories. But I worry your position—and that of your friends at Parents Across America—taken to its logical conclusions would leave parents as little more than junior partners whose concerns are tolerated up to the point they conflict with other, less humane interests.
Julie: “Parental choice increases parent involvement.” This statement is a very loaded claim. First, let’s clarify some terms because there is an important distinction. Parent involvement does not necessarily signify meaningful engagement. Parent empowerment on the other hand signals something more: power and leadership. Parents must have both in order to ensure the best public education system for their children.
Stating that parent choice increases involvement, let alone empowerment, is not entirely accurate. What is parent choice? Are we ensuring choices that are authentic and meaningful or are we giving the illusion of choice? What is involvement? Are we ensuring parents are given the power to demand the programs and services they want for their children or are we giving them a voice, but ignoring their choices? Parent activist Karen Harper-Royal often points out, in the world of school choice, “schools choose and parents and kids lose.”
The “parent trigger” is an illusion of choice and an impediment to empowerment. True choice and empowerment would include parents having a genuine seat at the table; preparing the menu, gathering the ingredients with administrators and educators, and together cooking the meal, setting the table, and enjoying their collaborative educational feast. Policy such as the “parent trigger” leaves parents with one option: clean up after all of the wrong ingredients have been purchased and the meal is burnt.
If the goal is to cultivate parent choice and empowerment there is a simple solution: give parents what they want. In parent surveys across the country, and every year here in New York City, parents demand one reform consistently: small class size.
Groups like the Parent Revolution, funded by corporate reformers, aren’t calling for real reforms such as small class size, which is documented as having the greatest in-school impact on student achievement in addition to experienced educators. Instead the charter-backed group calls for a “parent trigger” with the rationale that charter schools are one weapon in the parent choice arsenal, even though here in New York City, charter schools have an abysmal record of even having parent associations; parents fought to have a mandate in the law and charter schools have overwhelmingly ignored it.
Ben suggests that unions oppose a “parent trigger” because it lessens their power; this is exactly why corporate reformers are advocating for it. Their agenda is to gain power and privatize public education and the most significant road block is teacher unions. The very reason these proponents tout the “parent trigger” is because, in part, it would usurp teacher and union power, even though there is no evidence that teacher unions have a negative impact on student achievement. In fact, the opposite is true, which is well documented in my film. While proponents of the “parent trigger” like to blame teachers and their unions for obstructing parent empowerment, unions advocate for the reforms parents actually want, like small class size.
There is no doubt that both government and teacher unions can do more to empower parents, but the “parent trigger” will not be the catalyst. Real Reforms will and these are the basis for a true parent revolution.
|DAY 1 - OPENING STATEMENTS|
Ben: Empowering parents to compel school districts into enacting reforms is a positive step for improving the public education system. Merely giving parents “a voice” is meaningless if the education establishment is free to simply ignore that voice. “Collaboration” is worthless when one of the collaborators can be routinely locked out of the room.
The “parent trigger” is one way to ensure parents have access to that room, and to give them more than just a voice, but rather a genuine say in reform that the education establishment can neither easily dismiss nor ignore.
I’m obliged to explain what the “parent trigger” actually does, as opposed to what its critics say such laws might do. California is the forerunner. The idea was first conceived in Los Angeles in 2009 and went statewide in 2010. Since then, 16 states have considered their own parent empowerment legislation. The “parent trigger” is nothing if not adaptable.
Under California's law, if at least half of parents at a failing school sign a petition, the local education agency must undertake one of several prescribed options. Transferring management of a failing school to an independent charter school operator is the remedy that gets the most ink. But other choices include implementing the “turnaround” and “transformation” models established under federal Race to the Top guidelines, which might mean replacing staff, extending school hours, or tinkering with the curriculum. A somewhat open-ended “alternative governance model" might allow parents to have a more direct role in the way a school is run. In the worst case, parents could elect to close a school altogether.
Or, parents could gather signatures and use the threat of “pulling the trigger” as leverage to win concessions from an otherwise intransigent school board.
Parents generally demand the best possible education for their children. There are always caveats and exceptions. But the truth is, the education bureaucracy has many interests that sometimes conflict; it serves parents and children while mollifying teacher unions, political overseers and career bureaucrats. As proponents of the parent trigger often like to say, parents are the one “stakeholder” in public education without a conflict of interest.
In the year and a half since California’s law was enacted, parents at one school have attempted to use the law. Their effort fell short. New state regulations should make that outcome less likely in the future.
Regulations or no, opposition from teachers unions, especially the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers (an affiliate of the AFT) is unlikely to abate. The reason for union opposition is simple: more parent empowerment means less union power. The “parent trigger’s” remedies threaten union interests. Most charter schools, for example, aren’t unionized.
All that said – and please forgive the mixed metaphor – the “parent trigger” is no silver bullet. Then again, nothing in the public policy realm ever is. At its best, however, the “parent trigger” is one more weapon in a growing arsenal of parental choice. The “parent trigger” can change the dynamic, making for a fairer balance of power and giving parents crucial leverage against well-entrenched interests. Because parental choice increases parental involvement, it should be expanded—and embraced.
Julie: Nine years ago the school I serve was placed on a state “Needs Improvement” list. In a world with the “parent trigger,” the gun would have been out of the holster, but instead of focusing on reform that would have destroyed our school, we aimed to authentically improve it. Those reforms included a focus on small class sizes, retaining experienced educators, developing rich curriculum and most importantly increasing parent engagement and leadership. Today we have maintained an ‘A’ rating for several years, performing better than 95% of elementary schools in New York City.
While high-stakes tests, which an ‘A’ rating is largely based on, does not satisfy my requirements for what makes a good school, for many, it does. For me, I also see our success in moments such as this past Thursday when we held a school-community stewardship day. More than 30 families and educators came on a hot summer day to garden, chat and share a meal. Or, when families and children, long graduated from fifth grade continue to engage, volunteer and visit. This is what schools should look like.
If our target in education reform is to increase student achievement, the aim must be to create schools that are humane places where parents and educators collaborate and children succeed. The “parent trigger” is a distraction that blurs our focus and misses the mark. Instead of aiming for policy and legislation that promotes parent power only in the case of catastrophe, the focus should be on creating conditions for parent empowerment and collaboration early and often. The battle over improving our public education system for all students will not be won by pulling a trigger, but by building bridges.
Decades of research shows that parent empowerment is the key to successful schools and high student achievement. If those behind “parent trigger” legislation truly intend to increase parent empowerment in our schools, their aim should be to create meaningful parent teams in schools like those originally sought in Chicago. Or they should look to Deb Meier’s work where she extensively highlights the importance of and models for parent empowerment and teams in her book, In Schools We Trust, and in other writings and practice where she discusses transforming schools into powerful communities. In Chicago, in Deb Meier’s work, and even here in NYC where you have functioning School Leadership Teams, there is a constructive place for parent voice, collaboration, and leadership that has the potential to create not destroy, to build not punish. In contrast, the “parent trigger” leaves parents with restrictive requirements, many of them punitive, that they can only lock and load after a school is already failing. As Parents Across America states in their position paper, the “parent trigger” does not represent real parent choice or empowerment.
The idea of a parent trigger is off target and is nothing more than a band-aid on a bullet wound. If we want real reform that includes parent empowerment, we need something bigger than a trigger.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of City Journal, where he writes on education and California politics. Previously, he served as managing editor of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News and the Claremont Review of Books. He is also a former editorial writer for Investor's Business Daily and the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California. Boychuk writes a weekly column for the Sacramento Bee and Scripps-Howard News Service. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the New York Post, National Review Online, the Korea Times and newspapers across the United States.
Julie Cavanagh has been a special education teacher for more than ten years in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She currently serves children with intellectual disabilities in grades first through third and previously served children with learning differences in grades four and five. Julie received her BS in special education from Indiana University, her MS in curriculum and teaching from Fordham University, where she was an Ennis Cosby Scholar, and her advanced degree in administration and supervision from Brooklyn College. She is a member of Grassroots Education Movement; advocating for equity and real reform in our public education system. Julie is also the co-producer of the documentary The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.