Are Parent Trigger Laws Our New 'Superman' – Or Union Kryptonite?

July 11, 2012

Though they're being pushed by the biggest names in corporate education reform, and politicians of every stripe, there's little proof that parent trigger laws actually work.

 

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Here’s a question for you: Which political party, Republicans or Democrats, supports expanding charter schools, test-based teacher evaluation, and most recently, parent trigger laws? (In school, this would be called a trick question.) The answer is: both.

The latest piece in the corporate education reform puzzle, parent trigger laws reveal just how desperately Republicans and Democrats are seeking ways to appease corporate America’s hunger for education reform -- without addressing the central issue of poverty that lies at the root of an overburdened U.S. education system.

These laws, which allow a majority of parents “to sign a petition to trigger one of a narrow set of options -- firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to a charter operator, or closing the school,” are packaged as free-market levers to empower parents with children trapped in poorly performing public schools -‑ a similar strategy to that being used to support the expansion of charter schools across the nation. As Stephanie Simon reported for Reuters, politicians are jumping to endorse them:

Hundreds of mayors from across the United States [recently] called for new laws letting parents seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to private management.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Orlando, Florida… unanimously endorsed ‘parent trigger’ laws aimed at bypassing elected school boards and giving parents at the worst public schools the opportunity to band together and force immediate change.

That “unanimous” endorsement naturally included plenty of Democratic mayors -- including some rather high-profile ones, as Stateline points out:

Led by a posse of mostly Democrat mayors, including Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa, Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson and Newark’s Cory Booker, the city leaders on Saturday (June 16) threw their support behind ‘parent trigger’ policy initiatives, which would allow parents to demand changes in chronically troubled schools that the politicians dubbed ‘drop-out factories.’

So the politicians have bought in -- but how promising a solution are parent trigger laws, really? Do they actually support the public and democratic purposes of schooling? On her All Things Education blog, Rachel Levy poses the following critical questions about parent triggers, and what they may or may not achieve:

So, if we grant parents more choice or power to turn their schools into charters, for example, is the charter going to provide what they want? Will parents be more engaged or involved? My sense is that perhaps in the short run they will be, but I'm not sure about the long-run. … Furthermore, once the school is turned over to private or unaccountable hands and is detached from any democratic process, the parents will have even less say.

Levy isn’t the only one who is skeptical. Parents Across America has released a position paper that takes a bold stand against the laws, noting that parent triggers are “not workable or effective” -- because, in the end, they are about neither parental choice nor empowerment. What they are about is reinforcing the broader goal of corporate reform: dismantling public institutions and workers’ rights protected by unions.

Parent Trigger as the Next ‘Superman’

Alongside charter schools, parent trigger laws share bipartisan support from politicians who increasingly embrace school choice arguments historically rejected by the public, as well as the misleading claims made popular in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. According to Guggenheim’s narrative, U.S. public education is failing, “bad” teachers and their unions are to blame, and school reform’s “Superman” comes in the form of charter schools like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and teacher training programs like Teach for America (TFA).

Just as Waiting for Superman served as a mechanism for disseminating a particular message about the failure of America’s schools to the public, efforts are now also underway to use the media to lift up parent triggers as the solution to our educational problems --not least by way of a big budget movie called Won’t Back Down, which champions the parent takeover of a struggling school. As it turns out, this soon-to-be-released film was produced by the same company, Walden Media, that funded Guggenheim’s documentary – and the concepts that drive both (charters as saviors; parent trigger laws as saviors) have been funded significantly by many of the same deeply conservative forces. As Simon reported:

Though it has not yet been shown to work, parent trigger has support from many of the big players seeking to inject more free-market competition into public education, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Major philanthropies and wealthy financiers have poured money into backing political candidates and advocacy groups, including one called Parent Revolution, that promote parent trigger, according to campaign finance records in several states.

The concept has even inspired an upcoming Hollywood film, ‘Won't Back Down,’ in which Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays a single mother who organizes parents to take control of their failing school over union opposition. The movie was financed by Walden Media, which also backed the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting for “Superman,”’ which advocated for another central goal of education reformers - expanding charter schools.

Diane Ravitch has dubbed Gates, Walton, Walden Media’s owner Philip Anschutz and his friends the Koch brothers the “billionaire boys club” -- highlighting the powerful money behind corporate-style education reform that favors free-market ideology over evidence-based education policy reform.

Gates is a typical and disturbing example of how these billionaires use money to influence the direction of education reform, without any real expertise in education; for example, Gates initially poured millions of dollars into small schools projects, only to drop that commitment when a new concern -- teacher quality – caught his eye. In fact, the recent history of free-market advocacy for education reform reveals a pattern of shifting commitments that endorse one silver-bullet reform before evidence is available, and then moves on to the next reform du jour.

Big dollars and big budget movies notwithstanding, neither the expertise nor motives of these billionaires can be trusted to lead education reform – not least because their most basic claims are discredited by research. Charter schools, which they promote heavily, have proven to be no more effective than public schools in terms of measurable student outcomes, while also revealing a pattern of segregating students by race and class. The “bad teacher myth,” also promoted by these reformers, is similarly flawed. Adam Bessie explains their illogic thus:

All alone, the Bad Teacher is single-handedly, with one lazy bound, destroying a generation.

“The corporate media has unabashedly promoted this myth as fact. … Bill Gates…notes that public schools have been ‘struggling for decades,’ and then a few paragraphs later, claims, ‘the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.’ In other words, the single most decisive factor for public schools' failures is the teachers. Gates has committed $500 million of his own money, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to more definitively identify the precise ingredients that compose a good teacher and, thus, by contrast, the Bad Teacher, who will then be fixed as though he's an annoying bug to be rooted out in the latest edition of Windows.

In short, corporate advocacy in the form of “the billionaire boys club” and their media bully pulpit have repeatedly misrepresented the efficacy of charter schools and the role of teacher quality while ignoring the overwhelming evidence that social inequity and school inequity are the primary forces driving the student data used to claim schools and teachers are failing.

As the evidence grows on charter schools and teacher quality, it’s hard not to feel that parent trigger laws are simply the next phase in the march to endorse corporate-friendly education policies whose agenda includes breaking teachers’ unions as one lever to dismantle workers’ rights across the U.S. And even beyond the hidden agenda driving these trigger laws onto the market, there are other problems to consider -- including the fact that experiments with parental choice have already revealed that “parents as consumers” are more apt to create problems than solutions.

Parents as Consumers: Two Tales of Failure

Given their unproven efficacy and close ties to conservative forces, why have parent trigger laws resonated so strongly with the public in general and Democrats in particular, despite their long-time supporter of both public education and unions? It’s about accountability. “A major selling point for the Parent Trigger is that it makes local schools more ‘accountable’ to parents in the community,” progressive strategist Jeff Bryant recently explained. “And Democrats should all be pushing for public schools to be accountable to their communities.”

Politically speaking, both accountability and parental empowerment resonate as populist messages with voters, and Democrats often use that populist cover to hide their shared corporate interests with Republicans. But however powerful a message holding schools and teachers accountable to parents may be, like the evidence on charter schools, parental choice has a clear record of failure -- leading Bryant, in the same article, to conclude: “Democrats need to renounce the whole notion that education is a commodity that parents shop for like groceries.”

In fact, consumer-driven approaches have failed in other fields in ways that inform skepticism about parent trigger laws as effective education reform. For example, in medicine, the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)has forced the medical field to confront the devastating impact of the over-prescription of antibiotics – a direct result of allowing parents to impose consumer pressure on doctors for a “cure.”

When patients are viewed as consumers, even with the knowledge of the dangers of antibiotic-resistant infections, we now know that ER doctors tend “to prescribe antibiotics when they [believe] that patients expected them.” In this model, antibiotics become “a commodity that [patients] shop for like groceries,” displacing the expertise of the medical professional -- with dire results for the community at large.

In education, too, ample evidence already exists that although choice (parent trigger laws included) may make parent consumers “happy,” it doesn’t necessarily improve school outcomes. For example, in one of the largest and longest running school choice experiments in the U.S., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, parents were indeed pleased with the public school choice program available to them -- but, as Alan J. Borsuk explained,

The optimistic conclusions about school choice [revealed in a University of Colorado study about Milwaukee school choice] -- in the broadest sense of the term -- do not include an assessment of whether parents were actually making good choices in terms of schools where academic achievement is strong or where their children specifically would thrive.

In other words, parental happiness about and plentiful access to choice did not result in parental choice leveraging positive education reform, even in the pro-school choice Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) report that explicitly stated dissatisfaction with its own findings. Parental choice “did not yield the results we had hoped to find,” confessed George Lightbourne, a senior fellow for WPRI.

“Taken as a whole,” the 2007 WPRI report notes, “these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools].” The report concludes that:

Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.

This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.

Given parental choice’s overall history of failure, what evidence do we have that parent trigger laws are anything more than experimentation with free market mechanisms to reform education? What proof do we have that this is more than a philanthropists’ pipe dream?

Triggering Kryptonite

Since there is slim to no evidence to support these education reforms on their own merits, there’s little doubt that the real reason the billionaire boys club and its ilk are funding parent trigger laws is to privatize our public institutions and dismantle union protection of workers’ rights commitments. Corporate reformers use the allure of parental empowerment to mask the larger purpose of parent trigger laws: leveraging parents as proxies for corporate billionaires to break unions and move the U.S. closer to a service industry that provides those corporations with cheap and interchangeable workers, even in our schools.

Dissolving unions and supplanting tenure -- both of which are inevitable results of parent trigger laws -- benefit only corporate interests. By allowing democratically elected school boards to be supplanted, and by replacing public schools with charter schools that may exclude or underserve certain populations of students, parent trigger laws effectively work against the very democratic principles that make claims about parental choice appealing -- and the promise of universal public education for all Americans, regardless of background.

Without context—funding and support from Walden Media, TFA and KIPP charters—Waiting for Superman offered narratives that resonated with the public in the same ways that parent trigger laws do, and Won’t Back Down will, as well -- unless, again, we follow the money, examine the evidence, and consider how reforms supported by Republicans and Democrats alike work against public education and all workers, and for corporate interests, funded by the billionaire boys club.

Just as there are no “miracle” charter schools, parent trigger laws are not Superman; they’re not even credible education reform. But they are likely Kryptonite to unions and workers’ rights, thus fulfilling the ultimate outcomes sought by prevailing corporate interests.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...