Michelle Rhee and the “Parent Trigger”

by Scott Baumgartner
January 24, 2011

When Michelle Rhee’s organization Students First released its policy agenda last week, it tracked closely with many of the things she tried to do as chancellor of the DC Public Schools. But her agenda contains some surprises that have traditionally been part of the conservative approach to education reform, as noted by Stephen Sawchuk at Education Week. One such aspect is her support for vouchers, though she takes great pains to avoid calling them by that toxic name. A somewhat newer idea she supports is the “parent trigger.” (Though many of the leaders of the parent trigger effort in California were actually Democrats, similar proposals in other states have been championed by Republicans.) In this radical reform option, dissatisfied parents can initiate a petition in an attempt to restructure a failing community school. California passed the first such law in the nation last year and in December, parents in Compton collected the necessary signatures to restructure McKinley Elementary School.

The parent trigger may sound like a bold idea to improve parent involvement in children’s schools. Rhee and Students First calls it “radical community empowerment” that “shifts power to the parents whose children are fated to attend chronically failing schools.” But the truth is somewhat cloudier. The parents who delivered the petitions to the Compton Unified School district were organized by Parent Revolution, a group whom, according to the L.A. Weekly, Michelle Rhee herself consulted with. It has an operating budget of about a million dollars, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among others.

Does a private organization’s involvement in the petition to restructure McKinley invalidate the signatures? To whom has the power been shifted – parents or opportunistic private organizers? On the one hand, some might argue that Parent Revolution simply brings political expertise to parents who are advocacy neophytes, but want to change an irreversible situation in their children’s schools. Others are more cynical and see Parent Revolution as a front for a sneak attack on public education; more Astroturf than grassroots, it’s the education reform analogue of the tea party group Americans for Prosperity. If business-minded education reformers believe that competition improves educational opportunities, they could have opened a charter school in Compton and convinced parents to send their children there instead. The parent trigger, however, doesn’t increase competition. Instead of adding a charter school, the parent trigger swaps one in for the public school. That doesn’t seem to provide a better set of choices, especially for the 49 percent of parents not required by law to sign a petition initiating the parent trigger. And John Fensterwald, writing for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, argues that of the four restructuring options for schools after the parent trigger has been pulled, handing the running of the school over to a charter is the only plausible choice (the other three are shutting the school down, firing the principal and half the staff, or firing the principal and instituting other reforms).

McKinley Elementary was, by all accounts, a poorly performing school in need of fixing. Parents who send their children to a school like that should be outraged and demand better. Speaking from my own experience as a teacher, it’s frustrating to sometimes think that you care more about a child’s educational success than that child’s parents do, and so in a lot of ways, it’s refreshing to hear about parents being invested and involved. That is, unless the parents, who want to do well by their children, have been sold a bill of goods by people or organizations with other motivations. Generously speaking, it’s up for debate whether charter schools perform better than the nation’s public schools. Some do, but a lot more are worse, not just in student achievement but also in issues such as segregation. And at the end of the day, the parent trigger doesn’t change any of the environmental or socioeconomic factors that also contribute to poor student achievement, so there shouldn’t be the expectation that life under a charter will be substantially different.

When assessing reforms that involve charter takeovers, Michelle Rhee should consider the experience of Friends of Bedford, whom she brought in to Washington, D.C. last year to take over struggling Dunbar High School. Parents, teachers, and community members, however, raised concerns about Friends of Bedford’s leadership, after the arrest of six Dunbar students for the rape of a fellow student on school grounds, allegations of drug use in the school building, an administrative response that focused on hiring more security guards than providing meaningful support services, to simply poor academics. Friends of Bedford, for their part, placed some of the blame for its poor performance on the differing responsibilities of Dunbar and their other charter schools – namely, the requirement that they accept all students. But in December 2010, interim chancellor and former Rhee deputy Kaya Henderson removed Friends of Bedford from Dunbar. Other charters may not fare so poorly, but this illustrates how a parent-triggered charter takeover may not be the solution to a failing school, and it shows how a responsive school administrator can obviate the need for such a law.

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2 Responses to Michelle Rhee and the “Parent Trigger”

  1. CarolineSF says:

    Good, clear-eyed take on the Parent Trigger situation in Compton. To be still clearer, Parent Revolution (which was founded by the Green Dot charter chain and has made wan attempts to misrepresent itself as a grassroots parent group) looked around the state for a vulnerable school to target. Then it sent paid operatives out into Compton to cold-call door-to-door in search of parents at McKinley Elementary.

    This was not a crusade launched or run by the parents in any sense of the word. The operation was run on behalf of a small charter chain, Celerity Education Group, that was pre-selected by Parent Revolution, not by any means chosen by the parents. (I don’t know any details about why Parent Revolution chose Celerity, what Celerity’s connection to Green Dot is, and so on.)

    The Los Angeles Weekly is a fiery libertarian “advocacy journalism” publication that has made supporting the Parent Trigger its cause. The Weekly’s perspective is not reliable, but its detailed coverage has been invaluable. The Weekly live-blogged a Compton school board meeting after the Parent Trigger signatures were delivered — one ignored by the rest of the press — at which 200 anti-charter parents came to protest, while the pro-charter parents stayed home. The Weekly described the conflict as “civil war” among the parents — and, again, the Weekly is PRO-Parent Trigger.

    Needless to say, it is not beneficial to at-risk children in a vulnerable community to have an outside force ignite “civil war” among their parents.

  2. CarolineSF, thanks for your comment.

    Via MotherJones, here is an update on the Parent Trigger situation: http://motherjones.com/riff/2011/01/comptons-parent-trigger-update-compton-school-districts-letter-parents

    In short, the plot thickens. Compton Unified School District is giving parents only a limited amount of time over two days to come and verify their signatures on the petition with government ID. That said, “Louis Freedberg over at California Watch rightfully calls it a ‘stealth campaign.’ The district, the school, and even McKinley’s PTA didn’t know anything about it in advance. As state PTA president Jo Loss told California Watch, the Parent Revolution’s petition gave parents only one option: to turn this school into a charter, even though the law provides three other choices.”

    It’s a mess.

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