Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group responsible for California’s Parent Trigger law, did something rare in education politics: it outmaneuvered a powerful teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers basically admits as much in a guide used last month at the union’s TEACH conference to describe how the Connecticut chapter diluted that state’s version of the parent trigger. There, on page four, third bullet point down, it reads: “We learned from mistakes made in CA.” A few pages later, under the heading “Plan A: Kill Mode,” is list of lobbying strategies.

The guide had been posted on the union’s website along with all the other presentations from the conference. It was quickly taken down, however, after RiShawn Biddle, author of the blog Dropout Nation, posted it on his site. A note where the link used to be states, “We have posted all the presentations from the sessions to make the information available to all the attendees. However, we have received complaints about these materials and have removed them because they do not represent AFT’s position.”

The loudest complaint came from Parent Revolution at a press conference earlier this week. Executive Director Ben Austin called it a “cynical strategy to disempower parents” and released a letter sent to AFT president Randi Weingarten demanding an apology. As of this writing, there was no response from Weingarten.

Austin felt especially betrayed by the AFT because he says Parent Revolution has long supported and lauded Weingarten’s progressive approach to negotiating contracts. “She has really demonstrated that teachers union leadership can simultaneously advocate for teachers and children.”

Are you a good shift or a bad shift?

Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no question that Parent Revolution took parent power to a new level. Until now, grassroots organizing around education has remained local. Even the historic, game-changing 1968 New York City teachers strike was a battle over control of local schools in the City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood.

“The more traditional grassroots community-based organization model is one where they’re putting pressure on school boards, mobilizing in microcommunities around micro issues, like the closing of a school,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is a group that is working at the state level, which I think you have to do these days.”

Henig stops far short of Ben Austin’s claim that Parent Revolution is creating a new paradigm in the way we think about education. During a phone call after the press conference, Austin told me that support for the parent trigger from members of the State Board of Education (SBE) and California School Boards Association “speaks to the fact that the political tectonic plates are shifting underneath us.”

“It’s too grand to say it’s the wave of the future,” responded Henig.

Parent Revolution did lose its first takeover bid, in the Compton Unified School District, when the judge rejected the petitions (which we reported here).  But, that was before the State Board of Education drafted regulations.  Austin doesn’t expect that to happen again.  In fact, he says, they may not even have to submit the petitions; just the threat of having them may be enough to force change.

“It has more to do with giving parents leverage to bargain,” said Austin.  “The reality is that when parents have organized 50% of the parents in the school, they do have the ability to sit at the table and look the leadership in the eye and say, ‘For all intents and purposes we have the ability to fire you,’ and to look at the teachers and say, ‘We have the ability to cancel your contracts.'”

If it is a trend, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, worries that another outside group pushing its agenda adds to the confusing pile of reforms foisted upon superintendents and principals.

“How do they prioritize? What’s the right thing to do? I think it actually makes the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis very difficult, and it’s already very difficult,” said Levine. He argues that California needs to commit to a single strategy for the next five years “to try to change the trajectory of low-performing schools.”

Grassroots vs. ‘Astroturf’

Parent Revolution isn’t the only parent group focused on statewide change. Over the past few years a number of organizations have emerged, including Educate Our State and Parents for Great Education, with an eye on Sacramento. As we reported here last spring, Educate Our State launched a campaign during the budget negotiations that generated more than 35,000 letters to state lawmakers urging them to support Gov. Brown’s proposal to extend the temporary taxes.

Although they weren’t successful, the effort was more organically grassroots than Parent Revolution.  There were no major donors, no professional educators, and no former elected officials. Parent Revolution, on the other hand, was started by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, out of his frustration with Los Angeles Unified School District. [Update:  Barr founded LA Parents Union which evolved into Parent Revolution in 2009 under the leadership of Austin]. Ben Austin worked in the Clinton administration, served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat on the State Board of Education.

But the key difference between those other organizations and Parent Revolution is money. The group is funded by the biggest players in education reform – Gates, Broad, and Walton – giving opponents something more filling to criticize.

“They’re much less grassroots; they’re Astroturf,” said California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass, using the new tag for groups allegedly doing the bidding of wealthy business leaders. “We see Parent Trigger as just one little piece of the overall assault on education by the billionaire boys club,” said Glass, barely containing his irritation.

What he didn’t say is that Parent Revolution has a $1 million annual budget, or that the AFT has also been a beneficiary of Gates largesse. The union received three grants in recent years totaling nearly $4 million, and is a partner to a $335 million grant to support intensive training programs to improve teacher effectiveness. Ironically, Green Dot is also one of the partners.

The larger question, however, is whether parents know enough about teaching and school administration to decide which schools live and which schools die.  Loving your children and having attended school, doesn’t make parents – or legislators – experts.

“Schools can, like all institutions, be improved,” said UC Berkeley education historian and professor Daniel Perlstein. “But allowing parents, rather than educators, to direct inadequate resources simply will not revolutionize the education of children living in an increasingly unstable and unequal society.”

Ben Austin said he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  “At the end of the day,” said Austin, “all we’re saying is parents should have some power and that power should be real.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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