Jeb Bush’s ed reform show

You could say that the only folks missing from the National Summit on Education Reform at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel were teachers, but that would be wrong, on a technicality; they were outside protesting. Teachers might have had a vested interest, or even an interesting viewpoint, in the issues raised during the two-day conference. Stuff like tenure, seniority, testing, Common Core standards, and using technology in education.

Governor Jeb Bush, Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Photo from Foundation website)
Governor Jeb Bush, Chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Photo from Foundation website)

But, no, they weren’t invited into the inner sanctum of power brokers, policy makers, and politicians brought together for two days of learning and lobbying by former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. It might have been awkward for them be in the room when Idaho’s schools chief praised his state legislature for eliminating teacher tenure, or when Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction described the “herd mentality of the union,” and remarked that “it takes an act of God to get rid of a tenured teacher.”

Still, anyone expecting a strict conservative ideology would have been confused. Don’t get me wrong; the only bona fide liberal in sight was Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit behind the parent empowerment movement. And even Austin is having a hard time maintaining his pedigree these days, at least with the teachers unions. Still, he was on the inside with other players who also can’t be pinned down other than to say they’re all “reformers.”

For example, Checker Finn, voice of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, moderated a panel with Anne Bryant, director of the National Association of School Boards – who playfully quipped that she and Checker disagree about 100 percent of the time – at one end of the dais, and Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor and current Vice President and COO of News Corp’s Education Division, on the other end.

News Corp’s main man, Rupert Murdoch, delivers a keynote address today; after all, he recently plopped down $360 million to buy Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology and consulting company. You’ll recall that News Corp already knew a bit about wireless technology used in cell phones.

But last night, the keynoter was Melinda Gates, and earlier Thursday attendees heard from Sal Khan, the unassuming Silicon Valley genius behind Khan Academy, the nonprofit developer of thousands of high-quality online lessons available free of charge, who joked that he used to think YouTube was for cats playing pianos, not for serious mathematics.

Despite their seemingly diverse perspectives, the speakers all do fit together, each bringing a puzzle piece that gives shape to Jeb Bush’s vision of an American education system that’s once again an equal competitor among industrialized nations.

“My personal belief is there is no one single thing that needs to get done,” said Bush during his opening remarks. [Read the entire speech here]. What it will require, he said, is a combination of school choice (vouchers), Common Core standards, rigorous assessments, consequences for anything less than excellence, and using technology to transform education.

Bush reached out to odd bedfellows to make his case, though. At one point he borrowed from Stanford Professor and teacher advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, describing academic standards in the United States as a “mile wide and an inch deep,” while the rest of the world concentrates on fewer core concepts and teaches them in depth.

A few minutes later, when deriding the self-esteem movement, he quoted former Harvard President Larry Summers, whom Bush described as a “kind of politically incorrect guy,” as saying “we need to stop telling kids they need to have self-esteem to achieve and start telling them they need to achieve to get self-esteem.” It was the only line that drew loud applause.

It’s also interesting to note that Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core standards is consistent with his view of federalism: Washington can and should play a strong role by setting expectations, but then it had better step aside and let the states decide how to get there.

“We have 50 states, trying 50 wacky things through trial and error, which I think is the best way to try to solve problems rather than the kind of D.C. solution these days, which is top down,” said Bush. “I like the more dynamic solutions, and our federal system is designed exactly for this. We do have laboratories of democracy that are prepared to make the changes.”

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.”

New parent trigger regs approved

The State Board of Education (SBE) received a standing ovation yesterday morning.  Members of the Los Angeles advocacy group Parent Revolution, wearing their matching navy tee-shirts, applauded wildly and shouted “si se puede”.

Even board member Patricia Rucker smiled.  The lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, against whom Parent Revolution has filed a conflict of interest complaint, had voted with them, giving the latest – and possibly last – revised set of parent trigger regulations a unanimous send-off by the State Board.

At the start of the meeting Rucker seemed to set a different tone when she would not recuse herself from voting on the issue saying that because “there’s no fiscal connection for her personally, the legal questions didn’t exist.”

Her yea vote, said Rucker, wasn’t an expression of support or opposition for the proposed regulations, just a nod to release them for public comment.

They’ll be put out for a 15-day public comment period, and if there are no substantively new issues raised, the regs will be sent to the Office of Administrative Law for final approval.  They won’t even need another vote by the SBE.  You can almost hear the board intoning its huzzahs.

Despite the SBE’s united front, the public comments period of the board meeting indicated that parents are still deeply divided.  Opponents raised concerns about giving charter schools too much influence and they urged the state board to make sure that all instances of parent trigger petitions are transparent.  They also continued their appeal to give teachers a significant say in whether a persistently under performing school should be closed and converted into a charter school.

To that, former State Senator Gloria Romero, author of the Parent Empowerment law, said dryly, “This is the parent trigger law, this is not the ‘parent go get a permission slip from the teacher’ law.”

‘Parent trigger’ organizers need protection from harassment, intimidation

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.

Compton parents pull parent trigger

Today, parents at a Compton Unified elementary school will become the first in the state to use  a new “parent trigger” law. They will  demand that an outside  charter school operator be brought in to take over their low-performing school. Organizers predict that parent groups in other districts, fed up with poor achievement and unsuccessful district reforms, will follow the lead of McKinley Elementary parents.

Confident that they have more than the majority of families’ signatures needed to exercise their right, the parents plan to drop off  their petitions  at the Compton Unified’s central office. The petition asks the board specifically to bring in Celerity Educational Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that runs four charter schools, starting next fall.

The Legislature passed the “parent trigger” law in January as part of legislation to strengthen the state’s unsuccessful Race to the Top application. The provision was pushed  by Los Angeles Sen. Gloria Romero and opposed strongly by the California Teachers Assn. A half-dozen other states are considering adopting California’s law.

Under parent trigger, a majority of parents within a school can request one of four reform options similar to models that the Obama administration is requiring for failing schools: closing it down, transforming it through a longer day and other changes, restarting it with mostly new teachers and a new principal, and converting to a charter school. Most parents are expected to pursue the latter option, and the burden will be on district trustees to justify why they shouldn’t agree to that choice.

Schools that have failed to make targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law four consecutive years qualify for the parent trigger – about 1,300 of  the state’s 10,000 schools. The law capped the number of parent trigger schools at 75. Getting enough signatures, amid expected opposition of teachers and districts, could prove daunting in many cases.

Last month, the Little Hoover Commission endorsed the parent trigger in a  report on charter schools, saying: “This latest development expanding opportunities for parents to petition to convert existing schools into charter schools is another step in the right direction, …  The Commission believes that parents should have the opportunity to petition to convert poor-performing schools into charter schools.”

Parents at the 500-student McKinley Elementary have been organizing since the summer, according to Ben Austin, a member of the State Board of Education and a leader of Parent Revolution, a non-profit organization  that that lobbied for the law and has sought out parents to take advantage of it. Austin said he’s confident McKinley leaders have gathered signatures of 62 percent of parents. Under temporary regulations adopted by the State Board of Education, parents are entitled to one signature per student.

“It’s been an uphill fight,” Austin said. “The district holds all the cards. Only it knows the enrollment numbers and controls contact information for parents.” Organizers had to counter lies by opponents, Austin said, that a charter school would charge tuition and exclude special education students.

McKinley Elementary, with low-income minority children, scored in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide, with an API score of 684, an increase of 26 points from 2009.  African-American children’s scores dropped seven points to 635.

The district itself has struggled for years. Only 47 percent of students graduate, and only 3 percent of  seniors – one tenth of the statewide average – have passed enough courses with high enough grades to qualify for a four-year public university.

In a scathing evaluation of the district this fall,  a state District Assistance and Intervention Team concluded, “We remain deeply concerned about the commitment to student achievement across the district, and have grave reservations at this time, about the capacity of the District to make significant gains for students.” The report cited a focus on “adult issues as a priority before student needs;” a lack of civility and respect for people in meetings and during school visits; and a failure to hold adults accountable for their work and for unethical behavior.