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Down with parent power

I have been exchanging emails with Gabe Rose, communications director of something called the Parent Revolution in my home state, California. Rose and his organization are part of a movement that has, to my open-mouthed amazement, persuaded the state government to give parents the power to close or change the leadership of low-performing public schools.

It sounds great. It has many parents excited. It could shake up the state educational establishment, including the education department, school boards and teacher unions. They could use some shaking up.

Yet I can't shake my feeling it is a bad idea, a confusing distraction that will bring parents more frustration, not less, and do little to improve their children's educations.

The parent trigger has become part of the state's proposal for federal money under President Obama's Race to the Top educational innovation plan. That shows how daring its sponsors are. The Obama administration didn't ask for anything like this. It could put a chill on California's chances for the big federal bucks, since the president of the California Federation of Teachers--big supporters of the president--has already called the parent trigger a "lynch mob" provision.

Here is how it works:

If a school's average test scores are low, parents may circulate a petition demanding one of a set of options set out in the law, including closing the school, turning it into a charter school or firing or reorganizing the staff. If 51 percent of the school's families, or 51 percent of a larger group of parents whose children are on track to attend the school, sign the petition, the change takes place unless the school district can persuade the state to choose a different option because the parents' solution is impossible or harmful.

The law says no more than 75 schools will be subject to the trigger. That is still a lot since the number of schools that have undergone this process in America so far is zero.

Rose and I agree that getting that 51 percent will be very hard to do. He thinks that is good, because "no school will have a chance at hitting such a high metric unless there is extremely broad parental consensus around whatever change they want."

I think it is bad because it will lead some of us parents interested in politics to use some of the worst tricks of the game, like distorting data, ignoring information contrary to our argument, offering material inducements, you name it, in order to get that 51 percent. It is likely to split the parents into factions, since not all will agree on the solution they want to support.

Most importantly, at the end of the process parents will be even more cynical and disheartened about our education system than they already are. Here are some likely scenarios, and what conclusions parents will reach because of them:

1. They fail to reach agreement on what to say in petition. Likely conclusion: This community just can't get its act together.

2. They fail to collect the 51 percent of signatures. Likely conclusion: The school district bought off those parents on the next block with a big party. Or, this parent trigger was just a scheme to make us waste our energies on a dead end. Or, this community just can't get its act together.

3. By some miracle they get the 51 percent, but the district persuades the state to reject their chosen solution as unworkable or bad policy. Likely conclusion: We did all this work, passed the test, and the system still ignored us.

4. They get the 51 percent, the change is made, and it doesn't work. Likely conclusion: The law was flawed from the beginning. They didn't tell us how rarely reorganizing or firing the staff works.

The two options in the trigger that have in my view the best chance for success---closing the school so parents can transfer to better schools or turning the school into a charter---are the least likely to happen because closing the school would seem inconvenient to petition signers and it would likely be difficult for them to find a charter organization willing to commit to taking the school over.

Rose makes one reasonable point: "Just the threat of a trigger, even if it's never pulled, will give parents enormous bargaining power vis-a-vis the district and other powerful interests," he said.

That makes sense to me, at least at the beginning. But if the first few attempts to trigger change end in failure, the establishment's fear of this tool will diminish rapidly.

I think parents would be better off if we relieve them of the burden of fixing their local schools and instead create systems where they have a wide choice of schools in their localities. We parents don't know much about how to make a school better. But we know more than anyone else about what our children need and haven't gotten from their schools so far. The proposals in a recent Brooking Institution report for making every school in each district available to every family would take us further than the parent trigger.

Nonetheless, the trigger idea may spread. Education blogger Alexander Russo says legislators have introduced it in Connecticut. Its successful passage in our most populous state will have an impact.

I wish legislators would stop wasting their time on schemes that won't work and instead forge solutions for the many parents who find state laws in their way when they try to get more information about their school and its personnel. State privacy laws keep parents from knowing what abusive teachers are doing in their classrooms if the abuse is not directed at their child. State education department Web sites usually have little information on the relative level of challenge in state high schools. The data on crime incidents in schools is particularly distorted.

I like Rose and his organization. I wish them luck. Maybe my fears and doubts will be proven groundless. Maybe just getting parents together to fix their schools will bring improvements even if they fail to pull the trigger. But the parents I know whose children attend low-performing schools already have very busy lives. I am not sure many of them have time for this.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | February 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  California Parent Revolution, California parent trigger law, Gabe Rose, parental cynicism, school lynch mob controversy  
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"I wish legislators would stop wasting their time on schemes that won't work and instead forge solutions for the many parents who find state laws in their way when they try to get more information about their school and its personnel. "
Solutions that work from politicians?
Meh, don't think that will happen.

Posted by: edlharris | February 19, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

California's dysfunctional politics have been featured in the news a lot lately. This sounds a lot like many other "proposition" oriented initiatives that have hamstrung their state leaving them with inflexibility and moving towards bankruptcy.

Is their current system so blind that the voice of 51% of the parents of a school wouldn't generate meaningful change in a school? I have confidence that if 51% of the parents in a school in MoCo spoke in a unified way regarding their concerns and desires for a poorly preforming school, that this would be taken seriously in Rockville - without the need for a rigid law.

The fact that the teacher's union opposes it makes me think it may be a good idea. However, looking at the state's other populist oriented moves I wonder if there isn't a better more flexible way to achieve higher student achievement.

Posted by: RedBird27 | February 19, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

The teachers union would also oppose a law mandating that school be 45 minutes long and lessons must be done in a crazy Jamaican accent, would that be a good idea too?

The fact is that as sad as it is, in most low performing schools, the parents ARE the problem, and everyone knows you can't get 51% of the parents to even show up for back to school night, this is just a smokescreen.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 19, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse

My children attended a school where the parents were involved with hiring a new principal.
One parent was a teacher and the other parents were different professionals.
They hired a person whose qualification seemed to be that they had a Dr. in front of their name,
This principal managed to lay ruin to many things at the school including teachers and children.

Parents aren't necessarily the best judges all the times.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | February 19, 2010 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Jay says, “I think it is bad because it will lead some of us parents interested in politics to use some of the worst tricks of the game, like distorting data, ignoring information contrary to our argument, offering material inducements”

Good job. Now change “us parents” to “DCPS administration” and see what you deduce.

Also, “They didn't tell us how rarely reorganizing or firing the staff works.”

What – You have data on this? Please share. Sort of shoots down the whole NCLB idea, if true.

And I agree with someguy – it’s a smokescreen - these parents are not likely to get that involved. So what’s really going on? Hmmm.

Another point – would the government ever see value in a system in which community members would have similar power over the police department? The fire department? Any other tax-payer supported services?

Posted by: efavorite | February 19, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

How does choice across the school district work? Could someone out of zone bump someone in zone? This would play havoc with real estate, because obviously some people choose a home based on the local schools.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 19, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

As a parent, I think this is a dumb idea. Voters already elect the school board--that should be enough.

If it isn't, parents can also opt for charter schools, private schools, or any other school choice option available in their locality.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 19, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Funny how in all this columnist's predictions of what might happen, the parents are disorganized, incompetent ninnies:

"community just can't get its act together,"

"school district bought off those parents on the next block with a big party,"

"the change is made, and it doesn't work,"

but the best option, turning the school into a charter, is just presumed to work.

This columnist has failed to educate himself on the instances when parent involvement in a neighborhood school has had beneficial effects.

I don't know anything about this California proposal and I doubt I'd like it, but I do object to this columnist's repeated assertions that parents cannot contribute to turning a school around.

Posted by: Trulee | February 19, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I think the notion is idiotic. But Jay's post is condescending and very poorly thought out.

"I think parents would be better off if we relieve them of the burden of fixing their local schools and instead create systems where they have a wide choice of schools in their localities. We parents don't know much about how to make a school better. "

Notice in the first sentence Jay uses "we" to refer to the experts--the people who know better, who can guide these silly parents. Then in the second sentence, he reverts to the "we" that he adopts for rhetoric's sake--Jay, who sent his kids to Harvard while telling everyone else that state schools are fine, is pretending that he's a parent just like these parents of broken schools who are too ignorant to fix a school. Which "we" do you want to belong to, Jay?

Even more absurdly, Jay's a big fan of charter schools, and even says in this passage that "we" (not sure which one) should give parents a choice of schools. So parents are competent to pick schools individually, but shouldn't be trusted in groups. Right.

Of course, the real joke is that schools are determined by their population. All Jay and other school "fixers" want to do is move the population around a bit to see if the poor-performing kids can be spread out so the impact of their scores are hidden.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 19, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse


Are one of many reasons the State of Maryland school system is 1st in the nation.


Because partnerships are and continue to be established with schools (principal, teachers, and staff), school boards and its members, and elected officials.

Glad to See Parents STEPPING UP and demanding the best for their children!

Posted by: TwoSons | February 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

From: Crescenzo Scipione
Sent: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 2:46 PM
Subject: Mayoral Control (DC/Rochester)

Hi, my name is Crescenzo Scipione. i'm a student and community organizer
in Rochester, NY. Our mayor is currently trying to abolish the school board
and institute Mayoral Control over the city schools. In answer to the fairly
massive popular opposition, he has cited New York City and Washington DC
as models. We've been able to find information refuting NYC's "success" so
he's harping more and more on DC as a model. We've also been hearing through
the grapevine that our Mayor may be bringing Michelle Rhee to Rochester to
help him with his takeover. We were wondering if, in the event that Michelle
Rhee does come here, you might know a DC Student or other credible community
member who would be willing to come up here and help us counter the DC
argument? We'd be able to provide food and housing and probably a stipend
for said person. We don't know for sure that this will even happen, but I
wanted to get some contacts so that we'd be prepared if it does happen.

Sorry for the long email. Please let me know if you or anyone in your
organization knows anyone who might be able to help us if we need it. Oh and
just in case you were wondering, Jasper Conner gave me your contact info.

Crescenzo Scipione
------------ ------
Community Education Task Force
Rochester Students for a Democratic Society

Posted by: lacairaine | February 19, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

This idea was inspired by the takeover of Locke High School in Los Angeles Unifed School District, a dropout factory that was taken over by Green Dot charter school with the help of community members and teachers. Today attendance and graduation rates are dramatically improved at Locke, and although acheivement levels are not much higher, that could be due in part to the fact that students who would have left and may have been far behind in school are now present and taking the tests. I believe that so far only two schools are "threatened" by parent takeover, though of course the legislation is new.

The much more pressing and unaddressed challenge in California is the large number of extremely low performing schools (look at any number of reports) and low marks on any number of metrics that might get them to better outcomes. Look, for instance, at the National Council on Teacher Quality's latest rating of the state (D+). Or read this latest article from the LA Weekly chronicling the enormous expense and low likelihood of removing a teacher who has been documented to be performing poorly: Many of these teachers wind up in front of the most disadvantaged, neediest students (I am speaking from direct experience here, as well as looking at data). On top of that, the CTA has enormous clout and cash to back candidates for the LAUSD board of education and fund Democratic Party legislators in a state where districts are safe and legislators on both sides tow the party line. This has resulted in resistance to meaningul reforms, although the state's effort to qualify for Race to the Top funding has prompted some recent important movement. Nevertheless, lately a bunch of districts, including school boards and teachers unions, have refused to sign on to California's Race to the Top proposal and reform measures, jeapardizing their eligibility for winning this much needed funding. This type of gridlock, playing itself out in every dimension of the state budget, is what leads to these blunt instrument uprisings from parents.

This parent trigger law definitely has issues, and it is unsettling to think what the outcome might be in the worst case. However, the status quo in many schools right now is so bad, isn't the question how much worse could it be?

Posted by: emilymb1 | February 19, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Good posts. I would like to hear what examples Trulee is referring to. I don't know of any that started with parents and produced significant gains in achievement. For pittypat, the Brookings Study suggests a system to match families with schools based on their ranked choices, sort of like the system used to put med school grads into residencies.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 19, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The Parent Revolution reeks of sneaky ulterior motives, manipulation, and stupidity. I’d say the same thing even if I didn’t know the ever-scheming, pro-charter billionaire Eli Broad was involved.

In 2007, the Broad Foundation gave $75,000 to a Green Dot project called the Small Schools Alliance “…to support the launch of the Los Angeles Parents Union.” That same year it also gave $75,000 to the Los Angeles Parents Union (aka “Parent Revolution”). It gave the LAPU $25,000 more the following year. The Broad Foundation also gave Green Dot Public Schools $1,210,040 in 2007 and $1,859,000 in 2008.

Then Ben Austin, a former employee of Green Dot and now assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, was hired to be the Executive Director of the LAPU/Parent Revolution. Austin was also a Deputy Mayor under Mayor Richard Riordan, who is Broad’s longtime friend (incidentally, the two friends are busy helping Gloria Romero to become the next CA State Supt.).

So the money supplied by Broad is what helps to pay for the organizers and the propaganda (leaflets, on-air spots, websites, etc), to make it seem like the movement is being generated by "the people," when in fact it is a carefully planned, targeted marketing campaign to wipe out the public schools. Community members in LA have even stated that they were offered monetary compensation [by Green Dot] in exchange for their signature on a petition. This was in local LA news last September.

As a 17-year veteran active public school parent in a struggling, urban school district largely inhabited by kids of poor, and often non-English speaking parents, who worked as a parent coordinator with the same type of parents for seven years at a local public middle school, I can assure you that most of them are quite naïve and could be whipped into a frenzy and persuaded and/or conned by an aggressive campaign whose goal is to push them into supporting the conversion of their school to a charter. Most parents don’t want their schools shut down, and they don’t dream about getting brand new schools. They know the schools need more help than they are getting; they just want to be listened to more than they are because they have ideas of their own for what needs to get fixed.

For more, read Danny Weil’s 10/5/09 piece about G.D. and P.R. at The Daily Censored: “Say you want a revolution?: Parents Revolutiion, ‘Astro turf’ organizations and the privatization of public schools”

Posted by: pondoora | February 19, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

To my post above, I will add that what all parents want are things like a well-maintained campus, a well-cared for school library, enough adults circulating on campus to manage student behavior, a responsive and polite front office, a responsive and polite, non-burned-out teaching force, proactive communication from the school, appetizing school lunches, a sense of school pride and high staff morale, enriching experiences for their kids (art, music, field trips, fun competitions and assemblies), enough school counselors, a regular chance to offer their feedback, and other things of that sort.

This is what ed reform should be all about and is what the billionaires should be helping to secure for children at ALL public schools.

Posted by: pondoora | February 19, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

J.O. Wilson, Ludlow-Taylor, Tyler, Brent, Maury, Peabody, Watkins, Stuart-Hobson. Those are just the examples I know in my neighborhood where parent volunteers have made a difference in the positive developments at each of those schools. If you tossed out the same challenge generally, I am guessing parents in other neighborhoods would have other examples to offer.

Posted by: Trulee | February 19, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse


Parent driven organization such as:

PARENT Teacher Association
PARENT Student Teacher Association
PARENT Student Teacher Organization

The Maryland Parent Teacher Association continuously lobbies on behalf of students in Annapolis, especially during legislative sessions.

Like I said, the above are just a few organizations, primarily supported by parents, that have historically benefited children while supporting individual schools and have always supported student academics both inside and outside classrooms.

Throw in their churches and civic associations as well organized by PARENTS to support children as well.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 19, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

"Voters already elect the school board--that should be enough."

No, the teachers' union is the one picking the school board. Just look at the dismal success rate for candidates who actually represent parental interests rather than the union's. Those that have the most money to spend in the election are the ones who are successful.

"If it isn't, parents can also opt for charter schools, private schools, or any other school choice option available in their locality."

Sure, if there is a charter or if they can afford to pay pricey private school tuition on top of all the taxes they pay to support the government-run schools.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 19, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

For Trulee--- We commenters are not going to let you get away with assertions that lack data. Tell us what the parents did to change each school, and when, and then tell us how the proficiency rates changed after that. You might be able to make a case for Stuart Hobson, but I would have to see it. If you can make the case for all of those schools, with data, then it is a good story which I promise to turn into a column.

And for Cal Lanier, one of my kids went to Berkeley, and my brother worked at the College of San Mateo for 25 years.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 19, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

For TwoSons, same response: show us the data in which those organizations produced change that raised achievement in schools. Lobbying at the capital is, sadly, not an activity that is easy to tie to achievement gains anywhere.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 19, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Parents should be the trigger, but 51% of the parents of school population is joke on me and others parents. This is just another smoke screen to fool parents that our voices are important in school reform Anyone that work in urban schools know that it impossible to get 51% of parents to agree on anything. Any parent leader could have told our polictical leaders this policy was doom for failure. I hope in future our leaders consulting with several real grass root organizations, before taking action on parents behalf. Yes, Parent Leaders should be leading school reform in our community. We cannot no longer wait on polictical leaders to do it for us. Plus the best advocate for our children is their parents,there no hidden agenda (KIDS FIRST).

Mary Johnson,

Posted by: mjadvocate2004 | February 19, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

So I need to hire a lawyer to sue the Brookings Institution for stealing my idea! I've contended for years that a form of Open Enrollment across a school district is the best way to introduce parent choice and competition into a regular public school system.

Posted by: pdfordiii | February 20, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

More detailed information about the connections between the Parent Trigger, Steve Barr, Green Dot, Eli Broad, the LA Parents Union(aka the Parent Revolution) at

Posted by: pondoora | February 21, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

pondoora: Thank you so much for posting this information. Few in California understand the connection between Broad-Barr-Green Dot-Austin-Romero. This is the team that wrote the "parent trigger" language in the bill and acted as staff to Senator Romero during the hearings. I was shocked to watch the hearings live online and see that her "staff" identified themselves as Green Dot/Parent Revolution staff. Jay gets it right only to the extent that the law is designed to make it difficult for a grassroots movement within a school community to be successful. It is designed cynically and successfully to favor the organizational framework of Parent Revolution, whose mission in turn is to expand the Green Dot and other Broad=aligned privatized charter organizations.

While California is in a fiscal crisis, they have quietly sold public education. No one was looking.

Posted by: zurcatnas | February 21, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

Parents love to think they know more than teachers--and sadly, sometimes they do. That, however, doesn't justify giving them control. Perhaps some shared power--how about non-voting delegate--works for DC!

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | February 22, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Posting this for Caroline Grannan:

Parent Revolution is not a parent group; it's an "astroturf" (fake grassroots) organization created by a group of charter school operators led by Green Dot. The "organizers" are all paid employees. There's nothing shameful in being a paid organizer or lobbyist, but it's troubling that they make a pretense of being genuine advocates.

I'm watching from afar, 450 miles away in San Francisco, but so far, the schools that have been targeted have been mobilized by outside organizers coming in to woo parent support -- not by parents within the schools. Rumors are that the organizers are offering rewards for parent signatures on petitions -- fast food gift cards is the one I've heard of -- and these rumors are widespread enough that I'm not reticent about mentioning them. (I know one charter advocate who heatedly denied the rumors and then contacted me sheepishly to acknowledge that he'd learned they were true.)

Even if the parent community within a school genuinely rose up and initiated a revolt on its own, the potential for disruption -- for tearing down a school with no effective plan to replace it -- would be significant. But so far that's not what's happening. In fact, that seems unlikely to happen, as both surveys and anecdotes tell us that while parents often agree that "public schools are failing" in general, they so often like their own kids' school -- even low-performing schools. And parents so often fight hard against districts' efforts to close "failing" schools. That makes it seem highly unlikely that many parents would initiate efforts to dismantle their own kids' schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 22, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Hello all,
Please do some research into Chicago Public Schools and Local School
Councils (Parents) which have had a big voice in the hiring, retaining, or firing their local school principals. Dedicated parents worked with professional educators and focused on what was educationally right for their children. As parents and educators know, positive parent involvement is a must.
Occasionallly, LSC members abused their positions and cronyism resulted and students were no longer the focus--the school as a cash cow was the focus.
Another caution from Chicago has to do with student safety. The horrible beating to death of a high school student from "the wrong neighborhood" caught on cell phone videos and played nationally should weigh heavily on those who talk about closing schools and sending students to other schools. Chicago parents are currently protesting the planned closure of an underperformiong high school having this incident in mind.

Posted by: southsidemike1 | February 24, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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