John Fensterwald’s post last week on the “parent trigger” and its implementing regulations missed the mark in one or two spots. First and foremost, we completely agree with John and others who argue that more open dialogue and debate as part of the parent trigger organizing process is a desirable goal. It is crucial, however, to understand why parents would want to organize under the radar; to do so, one need look no further than the response from Compton Unified employees since the parents of McKinley submitted their signatures last month and became completely “public.”
The district responded with a torrent of lies, harassment, and intimidation of parents as part of a concerted “rescission” campaign. They used school resources for this purpose, sending robo-calls out to all parents, and calling them in to school ostensibly for reasons relating to their children, only to browbeat them into “rescinding” their parent trigger signatures. Parents have even been lied to by school staff that their children will be kicked out of the school if it is transformed with the parent trigger (and you don’t have to believe us. One of the teachers even wrote that online!).
And just this week, two days after McKinley parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Compton Unified announced that even after all the lies, the intimidation and the harassment, the district has made up a signature verification process out of thin air that both explicitly violates the emergency regulations promulgated and passed by the State Board of Education, and disenfranchises hundreds of parents who have stood up for change at one of the worst schools in California. Compton Unified will require all parents to come to the McKinley campus – the epicenter of the district’s illegal rescission campaign – to verify their signatures. If the parents can’t come during this narrow window – regardless of whether they are sick, working, or being foreclosed on (a problem multiple parents are grappling with) – their signature will be thrown out.
So while we are strong supporters of open, public debates, and would even be supportive of requiring them as part of the parent trigger implementing regulations, it is critical that such provisions are coupled with a much stronger prohibition of and accountability for public employees lying to and intimidating parents who are fighting for their kids. Also needed are basic protections from the use of school resources to campaign for or against a parent trigger action. It is unfair and wrong to force parents into organizing in public without giving them basic protections from taxpayer-funded harassment and intimidation.
Additionally, it is important to remember that, as John noted, the parents who are organizing in Compton have no access to the list of parents at the school or their contact info, which makes organizing incredibly difficult. This is particularly true in low-income communities where social networks and ties amongst parents are much weaker than in middle class communities, and many parents are busy working two jobs or more just to make ends meet. As a result of these challenges, over 25 percent of parents at McKinley have still never even been contacted about the parent trigger or been given an opportunity to participate in the discussion (which makes it that all the more remarkable that 63 percent of the school has stood up in support). Any attempt to make the organizing process more fair and transparent must allow parents fighting for change to be able to communicate with their fellow parents, particularly in communities with large pre-existing barriers to this occurring. Any attempts to erect additional requirements for parents trying to organize without simultaneously empowering them with the necessary contact information are clearly not serious attempts at the “transparency” or “openness” that all sides claim to want.
Potential leverage and bargaining power
It is primarily on the overall potential of the parent trigger law as a paradigm-shifting new right for all parents where we think John’s post misses the mark. We certainly acknowledge that the parent trigger law is somewhat limited in the school transformation options it explicitly allows for. But exploring the law through such a narrow lens misses the forest for the trees, and leaves totally unsaid what we believe to be the law’s greatest potential: giving parents real bargaining power. In many instances, to be sure, parents will simply want to break with their school district and transform their school through charter conversion, or keep it in the district but force the school to make radical changes, such as bring in a new staff. But ultimately, the most transformative use of this law lies in its simple, original purpose: It gives parents power.
For too long, districts and others have merely ignored parents and pushed them towards bake sales or meaningless committees while their children were stuck in failing schools that no parent should be forced to accept. Districts could do this with confidence, knowing that parents didn’t actually have much power to effectuate change. With the parent trigger, those days are over. Giving parents the power to organize and force radical changes at their school completely changes the conversation between districts and parents. We believe that negotiated in–district reforms and transformations, forged with the looming and very real threat of organized parents submitting parent trigger petitions, will ultimately be both the most common usage and most transformative legacy of this law.
Despite the shake-up of the State Board of Education last week, we remain hopeful that the new Board will act with a sense of urgency and promulgate reasonable and fair implementing regulations for the parent trigger. These regulations have already gone through more than four months of debate, three separate votes, and two full public comment periods. Parents are organizing at schools throughout California, and are in desperate need of fair and reasonable rules and regulations to guide their efforts and protect their interests.
New Board members like President Michael Kirst have spent decades tirelessly advocating for the interests of students and the need to improve public education. We still believe Gov. Brown and his new Board members will ultimately choose to stand on the right side of history and public policy and work to empower parents who are desperate for change, rather than use regulations to erect more roadblocks to change.
Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the non-profit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.