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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 12/14/2010

The 'Parent Trigger' doesn't help schools or parents

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, and prior to that, a community organizer for 19 years. He is the author of Building Parent Engagement In Schools and writes two blogs, including one on Engaging Parents In School. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Larry Ferlazzo
Building genuine parent engagement is a critical element of improving our schools. Two-way “conversation” and not the all too common one-way “communication” between schools and parents needs to be developed through strategies such as teacher home visits to build relationships and working together to address the two-thirds of outside school factors that affect student achievement (health care, affordable housing, neighborhood safety).

The so-called “parent trigger” law in California, which allows a majority of parents (from a school or from their “feeder” schools) to sign a petition that forces a school to be converted into a charter, is not one of those genuine parent engagement strategies.

The recent effort to apply this law for the first time in Compton highlights all the reasons why it is an unwise strategy for students, families, teachers, and administrators.

When organizers are interested in helping community residents build leadership skills, develop genuine ownership of the group they are creating, and leave a lasting organization for the long-term, they do not work “under the radar” as the Parent Revolution (the group behind the law) organizers did in Compton (their first contact with school officials apparently occurred when the petitions were delivered).

Organizers with the primary goals of leadership development, resident ownership, and creation of a long-term organization operate under the assumption that problems exist for one of three reasons: because decision-makers don’t know the problem is there and need to be told; they know the problems exist but don’t know what to do about them; or they know what they are and don’t want to make the change because there is a competing interest stopping them.

The job of real organizing is clear on all three – tell them, give them ideas, and/or create an equal or greater amount of pressure to get them to do the right thing.

This kind of process, which is not staff-intensive (unlike the eight paid staff who worked on the Parent Revolution Compton campaign), has an organizer working with residents to learn which one of those reasons is accurate.

Out of this process, residents will learn who their allies and opponents genuinely are – publicly. This kind of public organizing can also include connecting with other local institutions in the area – religious congregations, neighborhood groups, small business associations – all of whom also have a vested interest in these issues and with whom many residents are also connected.

The “parent trigger” law, however, does not provide any incentive to either schools or parents to engage together in this kind of organizing. It encourages a polarizing strategy of “us” versus “them.” As is happening in Compton, it is also pitting parents against other parents as many are now withdrawing their signatures from the petition.

Finally, it provides a huge incentive to charter school operators to parachute into communities and engage in what community organizers call “slash and burn” organizing. When unions organize in a hostile workplace, it’s essential to work “under the radar.”

Retribution from employers can be swift and traumatic – people can lose their jobs and be “blackballed” from getting jobs in other companies.

It requires a large number of staff to contact workers one-on-one in locations other than the workplace, and, if successful, union dues will allow a high staff level over the long-term. The union’s self-interest is to organize the workers – they have no interest in creating a union-owned and operated company to compete with the one they are trying to organize.

Unions were not begun, nor led, by leaders of groups that want to start competitive companies (the chair of Parent Revolution’s board is the head of charter operator Green Dot Schools). They are also not funded by groups that want to do so (Parent Revolution’s primary funders are the same ones who are the biggest funders of charter schools).

Genuine parent engagement with schools will not happen with the attitude of Parent Revolution, whose website video says, "The only way to change [schools] is to give power to the only people who only care about children — parents."

The better way to improve schools is to develop a partnership between parents, teachers, and administrators, and to have all share power. Power is not a finite resource – the more it is shared, the more possibilities are created.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 14, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Larry Ferlazzo, Parents  | Tags:  california schools, california's parent trigger, charter schools, larry ferlazzo, parent revolution, parent trigger, parent trigger law  
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Larry has the right approach. This method of "parent trigger" in all probability will backfire.

Parents should be careful what they ask for...they just might get it!

Posted by: educ8er | December 14, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Because I live near the city of Compton, I know parents and teachers with first-hand knowledge. All of them say that parents are being misled and even pressured by the charter operators, who are focused on profits, and not improved learning. Fortunately there is now a group of informed parents who are fighting the takeover of their school.

Personally I believe parents should have charters if that's what they want, but at the very least they need to be informed. It doesn't take a genius to see where the movement is headed at the present time: First-rate public schools for the affluent kids in Scarsdale and Beverly Hills and charters, with the money going to entrepreneurial "operators," for the poor kids. Once these charters get a strong foothold, money for teachers, books, supplies etc, will go into private pockets and children with severe behavioral and learning problems will be even more marginalized than they are now.

For a good insight into the true goals of the charter movement, read the blog "Eduwonk." Almost every word is about "Edujobs" that pay big salaries and almost never about instruction or teaching positions. Almost all these "reformers" have several things in common: They do not teach, they don't intend to teach, they don't want their own children to teach and they do not respect teachers who work for average incomes. Almost all these people, like Michelle Rhee, make large incomes from money intended to educate children, but none are teachers or principals.

For people who want to know what might result from the K-12 charter movement , just take a look at the profit-making "higher ed" tech schools and colleges that cater to young adults in poor communities. Not good. Many of these diploma mills leave their students with little education and huge debts. Now we might be headed in this direction with charter schools. In many cases the taxpayers are left to foot these bills and that's exactly what will happen with these unscrupulous profit-making charters. Even with the "non-profit" charters, "managers" are often able to award themselves large salaries, much larger than principals would make in traditional schools.

If citizens want to open these schools, they should be able to do so, but taxpayers have a right to complete transparency and strict oversight of the process and the money.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 14, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

In 'Waiting for Superman,' Green Dot founder Steve Barr shared the chilling statistic of how since 1968 40 of the 60 thousand students who attended Locke HS in South LA dropped out. You get one shot to raise your child, and urban parents have been waiting on 'reform' for close to 40 years. The American auto industry didn't come out of its doldrums in the 70's and 80's until the threat of foreign competition. As long as public schools get a guaranteed stream of customers there will never be just as there's never been any real meaningful reform that affects positively the students who need it most. It's human nature to respond to threats, because that response spurs innovation which spurs growth. Choice, or the threat of choice is the only thing that will spur meaningful change in public schools; that we're having the discussions we are today proves that point.
I don't want to hear any more educators complaining about poverty and families, because none of us have credentials in 'poverty abatement' or 'dysfunctional family mitigation.' We have credentials to teach math, science, language arts, art, history, etc., and can only do that to the best of our ability. Let social workers or private charities work with dysfunctional families; the mayor only needs to keep the streets clean and safe, parks and libraries stocked and staffed. I've got to teach that poor kid to the best of my ability; he or she may not know algebra after one year, but they better leave me with more skills than when they came.

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 14, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree that organizers with the primary goals of leadership development, resident ownership, and creation of a long-term organization operate “under the assumption” that problems exist for the mentioned reasons. However, these concerned citizens need to be educated that although educators may know that the problem exists, necessary funding may not always be available to correct the problem; thus giving “the appearance” that the problem is being ignored. As an administrator in a rural middle school, I am forever searching for ways to motivate the unmotivated, to get better parent participation, to find cost effective ways to break the negative cycle of at-risk students.

I am fortunate to work in a school system that focuses on the individual child and does whatever is necessary to meet the needs of all children within its school system. Parents who have to deal with schools/systems that are not child centered should be given a choice of where their child is educated. Every child deserves the opportunity to receive a quality education. I really don’t blame parents for doing whatever is necessary to make this point a reality.

Posted by: LindaCrim | December 14, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

As Joel Klein, the outgoing chancellor in NYC, and many others have asked, "Why should any student have to settle for a neighborhood school, if it's awful?" Mr. Feriazzo seems to have many concerns with the particular actions that parents in Compton took to return some level of accountability to their school. They didn't organize in quite the way that they should have. They didn't engage others in quite the right order. They may not have responded to years of school district intransigence with quite the right strategy. But I applaud their actions.

I wonder, did Mr. Feriazzo ever question the tactics or personnel in the Compton schools, over the many years that they presided over failure after failure?

Let's be honest. There are some people with allegiances to the status quo who will oppose school choice in any context. Although they exercise choice in many domains of their OWN lives, these policy-makers and insiders seem to have one objection after another to parents exercising choice over one of the most important dimensions of THEIR lives -- their children's education. Choice is going to happen, and we will see the results, case by case. If the charters are as nefarious as Mr. Feriazzo suggests, they will fail and parents will be free to choose other options. But citizens are no longer willing to tolerate the unresponsive, geographically-based school monopolies that take years to change, while generations of students suffer. It is unconscionable to deny these families the chance to choose a better future.

Posted by: k12reboot_com | December 15, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure it's a great idea. Can't wait to see the final product - and the enormous line of teachers (certified or uncertified)that will stretch around the corner to teach the kiddies, who are, no doubt, the best behaved, most respectful, prepared kids in the district.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 17, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

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