What Backers of the “Parent Trigger”/Parent Tricker Law Don’t Want You to Know: Real Democratic Involvement in Public Schools Works

Around the country, REAL parent heroes are putting the lie to the version of the story told in the movie Won’t Back Down.

The “parent trigger”, or “parent tricker” law is in the news again, this time with a glossy film starring popular actors Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The heart-string-tugging movie is called Won’t Back Down, and at the most simplistic level, the message is appealing if vague: parents and teachers should work together to make sure every child has an excellent education. Who can argue with that? Wouldn’t life be great if you could gather 51% of the signatures of parents at a school (the point of the “trigger”) and in the space of two months, flip the school into a magic charter school?

But as with most fairy-tale Hollywood movies, reality takes a back seat. And if the people behind the “parent tricker” bills have their way, that’s the only version that the American people will be exposed to. It’s in the interest of many “ed reformers” to hide how real parents work with community members, teachers, superintendents, and districts to bring about authentic improvement in local neighborhood schools. They want you to think charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution, and that “innovation” was invented there. This lack of information in most people’s minds about the many different kinds of public schools serves the interests of hedge fund wheelers and dealers, private equity investors, and billionaire philanthropists who take advantage of New Markets Tax Credits that make one solution, charter schools, seem like the only solution even when it’s not.

Just look at the op-ed piece by Frank Bruni, “Teachers on the Defensive,” for an example of this ignorance. He doesn’t seem to realize it’s not about unions, it’s about what this parent and blogger quickly saw:

if a parent can get all those signatures, make t-shirts for hundreds, and get teachers on board to change the school, couldn’t she have started a seriously killer PTA?! [emphasis mine] If she was able to get over 150 parental signatures and have them come out for a televised march on the school, couldn’t she get those very same parents to participate in the school culture itself and make changes that way?  All before fomenting a coup d’etat in the hood?  With all the time the Gyllenhall character [the mom who’s not a teacher] spent outside the school getting those signatures, couldn’t she have been in the classroom volunteering, setting up school breakfast or just helping around the school for whatever they needed?

Don’t get it twisted, we know what works. We, America, just won’t do it.

Parents and families are heavily overburdened. Poor families even more so. And yet — coalitions of middle class and working class families can pull together with the people in the community to lift up the school that everyone uses and needs to flourish. More on this in a bit, with some real-life concrete examples.
What Backers of the “Parent Trigger”/Parent Tricker Law Don’t Want You to Know

Parents have a multitude of ways they can be involved, in a meaningful way, with their children’s education. In my home state of California, I can think of five:

  • Parent-teacher(-student) organizations
  • School site councils

In Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves 650.000+ students, there are several types of bodies where parents are seated on committees with district and school staff, and actually have a say into budget decisions and policies that affect children at their schools or districts. They are:

  • ELACs (English Language Advisory Committees)
  • DELACs (District English Language Advisory Committees)
  • District Compensatory Education Advisory Committee (CEACs or DACs)

In addition, many school districts have ad hoc committees where parents with special needs advise the district superintendent about issues pertaining to the methods of educating these kids. In just about every case, the school district mentors and facilitates parent involvement, to varying degrees of success.

In Chicago, parents whose children attend Title I schools are involved in Parent Advisory Councils. In other states, these might have different names, but all Title I schools that receive federal funds are supposed to have an infrastructure that enables parents a say in the democratic governance of their children’s schools, including some say over budget specially devoted to programs helping disadvantaged kids.

The people who back “parent tricker” laws hope you don’t know this. They hope that you don’t value the “small-bore democracy” in local schools that former chancellor Joel Klein so sneeringly dismissed. They hope you ignore or overlook the many ways parents can get involved — in fact, they hope you ignore groups like Parents Across America, who have been working hard to expand meaningful parent input into how schools are run and has issued a report on the reauthorization of NCLB and how this important support can be strengthened and increased.

Why? Because if you knew how schools really worked, you might not so easily hand over a public school — a public trust and common good we all share — to charter school management organizations, many of which are for-profit or pursue a religious agenda.

Luck, Preparedness, and Opportunity: Some Highly Motivated and Capable Parents Show You How To Use Elbow Grease And Community Resources To Improve Public Schools

And how do we know that democracy works when a school needs the help?

Here’s a two part radio series I did with two amazing women, both moms in Alameda Unified School District in Northern California. They worked extremely hard over the course of two and a half years (a little more, actually) to attempt two parcel taxes and write a proposal that ultimately won approval for their “failing” school to become a wonderful global education and arts magnet elementary. It wasn’t easy. The first time the community didn’t pass the parcel tax. They went back to the drawing board and worked hard to alter their proposal and respond to community concerns. In the end, voters responded, the district approved their proposal, and now they have a school that’s starting to attract attention to the school from residents within the district who’ve chosen other schools for their kids.

Meet Lorrie Murray and Kirstie Atkins who live in a modest, middle class/mixed income school district in Northern California. Their children’s elementary school has perpetually been on a “watch list” of “failing” schools. But what the school has in fact are many bright children who don’t speak English as their first language, so scores used by California to assess the overall proficiency of a school are low largely for that reason. Murray and Atkins refused to accept the verdict of “failure” for the kids at the school or the school itself.

What I’ve done at K12NN is provide a “toolkit” so other parents interested in achieving what these parents have can try it in their neighborhoods. It isn’t a magic bullet. Success in every case isn’t guaranteed. There are some families in neglected and impoverished neighborhoods who face hurdles so high, only a hugely focused effort requiring many resources to uplift the entire community and empower the families there will succeed. But at the same time, these families deserve more than a band-aid solution like a petition that funnels them down to one solution, and one that suits people with business interests in school failure. And more and more parents around the country — here’s another one, Pamela Grundy in North Carolina — are seeing the necessity and the wisdom of pulling together to make the local neighborhood school stronger.

Part 1 is about 45 minutes long, Part 2 is about 35 minutes long.

Part 1: working to pass the parcel tax (two tries!), bringing together the community in extensive town hall meetings to inform and solicit information, drafting the magnet school proposal.

Listen to internet radio with MOMocrats on Blog Talk Radio

Part 2: “innovative schools” applications, the nuts and bolts of proposal writing, and working with the business community and parents/school communities to pass the parcel tax, plus what kind of school they now have, and who’s eligible to attend the magnet.

Listen to internet radio with MOMocrats on Blog Talk Radio
I'm Cynthia Liu, Owner/Founder of K12 News Network. I'm the proud product of public schools through post-grad, the mom of a child in public schools, and the daughter of two teachers. Connect with me professionally on LinkedIn.

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