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.”

Even with all of its faults, I’m sticking with the union

Given the national wave of public sector union bashing, it’s not surprising that people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is out making speeches about the virtues of collective bargaining in public education.

The case against teachers unions has been simmering for decades, with horror stories about the rubber room in New York (now gone); countless instances of union resistance to modification of rigid seniority rules in promotion and layoffs, and, often, general insensitivity to the needs of children and the concerns of parents.

It had to blow – and what more likely time than during a recession and the accompanying tight state and local budgets. Nor does it come only from the Republicans of Wisconsin and Ohio (and Washington, D.C.), but from national foundations and from fully certified liberals like Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman portrays Weingarten as a villain in the struggle of parents to get their children into decent schools. Even Barack Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan don’t seem so sure.

But Weingarten’s effort – I heard her in the East Bay suburb of Lafayette last week – was but a frail dike against that wave. She told stories to illustrate how bottom-up input in collective bargaining from the people in the classroom helps make schools both more effective and fiscally more efficient.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president
Randi Weingarten, AFT president

She argued that her union has worked hard to make teacher evaluations – including dismissals of bad teachers – fairer and faster; that there should be more focus on improving teaching and less on testing; and, perhaps most tellingly, that debates about federal policy – most immediately revisions in the fraying No Child Left Behind law – are almost irrelevant when states and local districts are being ravaged by fiscal crises and laying off thousands of teachers.

She left out much on both sides of this complicated story. She said little about the long history of union intransigence, especially by the National Education Association, far and away the bigger of the two national unions, which brought us to this point. (Asked whether her stories about the leadership of her own organization in school reform applied to the rival NEA as well, she diplomatically allowed that there was a lot of diversity in the movement; slowly, she also seemed to suggest, the NEA was letting itself be dragged into the 21st Century.)

Defenders of public schools against privatization

But she didn’t say anything about – or maybe forgot  to mention – things that may have been all too obvious: It’s been the teachers unions, for all their intransigence, that have been the most effective defenders of the common schools through three decades of increasingly virulent attacks from the voices of privatization. It’s the common schools that promise, even if too often they fail to deliver, the acculturation and social integration on which citizenship rests.

Even as she was speaking, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature was passing HB 1003, the most sweeping voucher law in the country. It will provide a private school voucher to any child from a family with an annual income of under $60,000 who’s currently enrolled in a public school.

Proponents of the plan argue that since the voucher, which would come out of the budget of the transferring student’s school and vary according to the student’s family income, is never worth more than 90 percent of a school’s public funding (and often much less), the schools would in fact gain from the program.

But since schools can choose applicants according to their usual standards, it in effect makes the public schools, which have to take all comers, the default system for those rejected by the private schools – assuming any were accessible.

And since parents can supplement the voucher with their own funds, the program not only becomes a public subsidy for families who can afford private schools, but a subsidy for those schools. Eventually, if the statements of the law’s proponents are credible, the means test will be liberalized and children already in private schools will also become eligible. They’re playing with similar ideas next door in Ohio.

Unions modeled on industrial labor organizations were never a comfortable fit for teaching, which is not supposed to be assembly line work but a profession unrestrained by fixed working patterns and rules.

Moreover, they sit on top of a civil service system already providing tenure and promotion rules (themselves sometimes debatable) and exercise great political power in state legislatures, on school boards, and in the Democratic Party. That’s clout on top of security on top of yet more security.

But after all that’s said, public employee unions are not even remotely the cause of our present budgetary difficulties, they’re the fall guys in a fiscal system that – no secret to anyone – tilts heavily toward the rich and powerful and a public ethos that’s nearly forgotten the critical importance of community, equality, and public services in the maintenance of a good society.

For the 30 or 40 years after the mid-1930s, recalling what things had been like before, Americans celebrated and broadened public services provided by social democracy. In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted. At this moment, for all their flaws, it’s the unions that are  the biggest defenders of adequate public services.  That history, too, is something that people like Weingarten – and a lot of others – should be talking about.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report ( and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Seven years later, teacher ordered to be fired

In a notable break from the past, the president of the nation’s second largest teachers union has committed to changing laws that drag out procedures for firing teachers charged with incompetence or misconduct.

On Tuesday, the same day that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made that promise in a Washington, D.C., speech, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ordered the immediate firing of an LA Unified teacher whose case offers the most egregious example of  what needs fixing. 

Continue reading “Seven years later, teacher ordered to be fired”