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This commentary was written by a veteran education advocate who must remain anonymous because of a career situation. All sources are cited.
The billionaire-funded education “reform” operation Parent Revolution recently announced that its longtime director, Ben Austin, is leaving. I’ve followed Parent Revolution (PRev) since the beginning, so to mark the occasion and the new year, I’m presenting some informal history and observations – including predicting the likely fizzle of yet another once-hailed fad.
PRev has fallen drastically short of its own projected impact. PRev created the “parent trigger,” whereby a 50%+1 majority of parents at a school can sign a petition forcing “transformation” of the school, or forcing it to close. The parent trigger was originally projected to turn many “failing” public schools into charter schools. In reality, since its founding in 2009, it has turned just one public school into a charter, inflicting ugly divisiveness on the community in the process and resulting in wildly conflicting reports about the charter’s effectiveness.
PRev continues to tout itself as a success. It has won ample favorable press coverage from the beginning, and has persuaded legislatures in several states to pass laws allowing the parent trigger, though there are no reports since of parent triggers actually taking place in those states. PRev lists a string of high-ticket funders, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (of Enron), the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), the Gates Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. Its funders seem unlikely to maintain their enthusiasm as the lack of actual results becomes increasingly evident.
PRev began in 2009 under the auspices of Los Angeles’ Green Dot charter school chain, launched by the mercurial, once-high-profile Green Dot founder Steve Barr. The intent appeared to be to enable Green Dot to take over schools. PRev said it was targeting “failing schools,” but in early 2010 I researched the test scores, based on California’s Academic Performance Index, of the existing Green Dot schools. It turned out that 14 of the 15 Green Dot schools had lower test scores than the public schools PRev was targeting and defining as failing. In other words, by Green Dot’s own definition, almost all of its own schools were failing, which would seem to raise questions about Green Dot’s efforts to save other schools.
Barr’s name is no longer mentioned in connection with PRev, possibly because of his checkered history, including a rapidly squelched flap about misuse of funds and some much-publicized failed projects. The story of Barr and the Green Dot charters he founded has been marked by rifts, feuds and separations. Since PRev began operating on a statewide and then national scope, there has never again been public discussion of Green Dot taking over a parent trigger school.
PRev at first operated only in Los Angeles. At the time, it was easy to follow online discussion forums connected with the schools PRev was targeting, and there were many comments from parents along the lines of “Parent Revolution, leave our school alone.” A budding parent trigger at Mount Gleason Middle School in the community of Sunland-Tujunga won press coverage in early 2010. But based on online discussion at the time, that parent trigger effort appeared to have only one supporter – a former parent at the school who wanted to have the principal fired. The effort evaporated. There were apparently no completed parent triggers in LAUSD during that time.
In 2010, the California Legislature passed a law allowing the parent trigger statewide. The parent trigger was to offer four options for parents to choose: turning the school over to a charter operator; replacing the principal and/or much of the staff; closing the school; or a restructuring process to be determined.The parent trigger was entrenched deeply in right-wing philosophy and ideas, including advocacy of privatizing public services and hostility to teachers, their unions, and their due process and job security. But PRev disguised its right-wing foundations by decking itself out conspicuously in Democratic Party trappings. Ben Austin had Democratic Party credentials, as have a number of paid PRev operatives, as well as then-state Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored California’s parent trigger legislation.
The first parent trigger: McKinley Elementary, Compton, Calif. 2010-11
After the state legislation passed, PRev embarked on its first parent trigger late in 2010, at McKinley in the impoverished Los Angeles County city of Compton. Reporter Patrick Range McDonald of the politically maverick/libertarian advocacy newspaper L.A. Weekly followed the process but didn’t write about it until late in the game, after the parent trigger petitions had been submitted.
The coverage made it clear that actual McKinley parents had been absent from the process. McDonald, writing from an openly pro-Parent Revolution viewpoint, reported that PRev had looked around the state for a school to target: “Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California,” he wrote. The article recounted how PRev had already determined that the school would become a charter and had pre-selected a charter operator before approaching any McKinley parents: “Already waiting in the wings [was] Celerity Educational Group. … Around the same time that Parent Revolution was researching Compton Unified, Celerity was looking to open a school in the stubbornly anti-charter district. The two organizations found each other.”
The Weekly article described the signature-gathering operation run by PRev – polished and professional but carried out “quietly,” without open community discussion: “[PRev Organizing Director Pat] DeTemple set up a computer program to track trends in the progress of his staff’s work,” McDonald wrote. “Once a parent signature was obtained, DeTemple input that parent’s address in the program, and a green dot appeared on a digital map of Compton. If a particular block in McKinley Elementary’s feeder area showed no green dots, he’d ask one of the five salaried organizers to make a follow-up visit to the block. … Field organizers… canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton, knocking on hundreds of doors, walking its sidewalks and driving its streets, asking people if their children attend McKinley.”
Emphasizing the furtiveness of the effort, the article described DeTemple’s decision to deliver the signatures on Dec. 7, 2010, as he semi-facetiously compared the “surprise attack” to Pearl Harbor: “Remembering that Dec. 7, 1941, was the ‘day of infamy,’ when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, DeTemple can’t help but eye Dec. 7. ‘It’ll be a surprise attack,’ he quips.” On that day, after its stealthy signature-gathering operation, PRev presented the petitions to the school district in a blaze of publicity, including chartering buses to take the press to the event.
The Weekly’s McDonald helped shield the signature-gathering from public view by not writing about it until it was complete. Apparently unversed in education issues, McDonald and fellow Weekly reporter Simone Wilson illuminated damning details of the operation despite their open intent to promote PRev’s viewpoint. However, the money and influence PRev wielded insulated it from much harm to its public image, and the oddity of the press’ actively helping to shroud in secrecy a process aimed at turning a public resource over to a private operator attracted no notice.
After the petitions had been presented, the Weekly’s Wilson covered a Compton school board meeting at which, her report related, “hundreds of angry parents” from McKinley showed up to protest the charter takeover they had supposedly demanded – “many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without understanding its gravity.” Reports have quoted parents as saying they had signed petitions they thought were to improve or “beautify” the school. One said she thought it was to improve parking around the school.
These flies in the ointment didn’t register with the mainstream news coverage, and the process continued. There was legal back-and-forth about handing the school over to Celerity. Eventually, that plan fell through and McKinley was left as it was. Celerity opened a charter nearby. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Newton gloated in September 2011 about what he predicted would be McKinley Elementary’s destruction: “The charter operator that would have taken over McKinley opened a school down the street, and it quickly filled up. A second one is opening in the neighborhood. By this time next year, parents will have voted with their feet, and McKinley will be a ruin.”
But actually, California Department of Education statistics do not show parents rushing to vote with their feet. McKinley’s enrollment dropped only 12.9% when the new Celerity charter opened in fall 2011 – there’s no way to know whether all those students transferred to the charter or left for other reasons – and has made modest bumps up and down year by year since. Four years later, McKinley continues to exist as a high-poverty public school and is apparently not a “ruin.” (There’s also no indication that Celerity has opened a second charter “in the neighborhood.”)
The only “successful” parent trigger: Desert Trails Elementary, Adelanto, Calif., 2012
In spring 2012, PRev found a foothold at this high-poverty school in a prison town in the high desert east of L.A. Despite the hugely favorable press coverage of the McKinley parent trigger, PRev had gotten dinged for the total absence of parent involvement, and it made a much bigger show of including parents in its next high-profile effort.
It was becoming apparent that charter operators actually don’t consider it desirable to take over existing struggling schools, with existing problems and already-enrolled students whom the charter operators may find undesirable. It’s evident that most or all prefer to start new schools. That became a problem for a process intended to turn public schools over to private operators. During the Desert Trails battle, there was no mention of a pre-selected charter operator “waiting in the wings,” and in the end, PRev had to scrounge to find one.
As predicted by parent trigger critics (and, realistically, by anyone with common sense), the effort in Adelanto ripped the school apart, creating a tense, angry atmosphere and destroying friendships. PRev engaged in an odd tactic, circulating two petitions for parents to sign – one calling for a list of improvements in the school such as more resources and smaller classes, the other for turning the school over to a charter operator – and then submitted only the petition calling for the charter. It’s not clear whether all signers signed both or understood that there were two petitions; those details are murky. After the petition was presented to the school district, the battle continued, with some parents asking to remove their names once the odd two-petition process came to light. Eventually a judge ruled that once a parent had signed a parent trigger petition, it was a done deal and the signer had forfeited the right to change his or her mind.
After more angry controversy and lots of publicity — this time the effort had not been stealthy, and parents opposing the petition were vocal — PRev dredged up two or three charter operators who said they were willing to take over the school, and held a vote for parents who had signed the petition to choose (only the petition signers could vote). An operator was elected, the school community scattered, and the charter operator took over as of the 2013-14 school year. Reports so far are wildly mixed. Some mainstream news reports have been glowing; other accounts portray a “dysfunctional” and “law-breakingly unprofessional” school. As with all charter takeovers of existing schools, it’s not clear how many of the students from the previous school enrolled at the charter or remained there.
Once again, despite the largely admiring press coverage of PRev’s effort, it was apparent that the Desert Trails operation had been problematic, with the divisiveness it wrought on the school and greater community, the strange dual-petition strategy, and the brouhaha over the refusal to allow parents to rescind their signatures.
As all this was going on, PRev was lobbying in other states for the passage of parent trigger laws. The lobbying efforts were marked by deceit – from claims that California had seen numerous schools transformed by parent triggers to paid PRev operatives masquerading before state legislatures as grassroots parent activists. At least six other states now have parent trigger laws on the books, but there are no reports to be found of any actual parent triggers.
In California, reports have surfaced occasionally about PRev activity at schools that later simply fades out, including in San Diego, Orange County and Pasadena. PRev has been a presence in a few Los Angeles schools and touts itself as a huge success, but the acclaim otherwise has been muted. Since the Adelanto fracas, no other charter takeovers have made headway.
The Los Angeles Times has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the “reform” camp that created and sustains Parent Revolution, but its enthusiasm for the parent trigger has been rapidly diminishing. A June 2013 Times “voice of the newspaper” editorial headlined “The ‘parent trigger’ trap” raised concerns about the dubious results of a parent trigger at Weigand Elementary School in Watts:
“A petition requiring the removal of the principal, Irma Cobian, was signed by 53% of the parents. According to organizers, the parents didn’t want a charter school and wanted to keep all the teachers. But they apparently weren’t aware that many of those teachers thought highly of Cobian. After the petition was accepted by the district, 21 of the school’s 22 teachers indicated in writing that they would seek to transfer from Weigand [most or all of those teachers did wind up leaving], and some parents expressed regret over signing the petition.
“Weigand’s test scores are low,” the editorial continued, “but it’s unclear how much of the problem rests with Cobian, who has won praise for some of her work … Many (parents) were stunned to learn that the teachers didn’t share their views.”
The Times editorial called for open, public discussions in the parent trigger process. “This misunderstanding would undoubtedly have been avoided if there had been a more public airing of opposing views. … This process does a disservice to parents, some of whom miss out on opportunities to become more informed about their options — or in some cases even to know that a petition drive is underway — before nearly irreversible decisions have been made. … Reformers might fear that a more open process would lead to more misinformation and even intimidation of parents by teachers or others with a vested interest in the status quo, but a closed petition means that parents are shut off from debate and discussion that lead to truly empowered decision-making.”
What of parent triggers elsewhere? There’s still some activity in Southern California, including a current effort at Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim, near Disneyland – a school already suffering turbulence over principal turnover.
A highly touted effort in Pasadena has faded. An involved Pasadena parent gave me an update as of December 2014: “The Parent Revolution effort here comes and goes. I haven’t heard of anything lately. Our former board member and Parent Revolution supporter Ramon Miramontes is submitting two charter school applications himself. He was responsible for Celerity Charter opening up a school, and now they have closed it and left town.”
The September 2011 Los Angeles Times column by Jim Newton that had applauded the impending “ruin” of McKinley Elementary also touted budding parent triggers at Los Angeles Academy Middle School and Woodcrest Elementary School, both of which have apparently quietly fizzled. A teacher at L.A. Academy Middle School told me, “They chose not to target our school after all.”
At this point it seems fairly safe to declare the parent trigger a failure. If its creators had sincerely intended to improve the education and well-being of low-income, high-need students, that would be a sad thing. As someone who has observed the machinations of education “reform” operatives for years – and who is aware of how much philanthropic funding is available for credible-looking, skillfully promoted fads – I don’t believe they had any such intentions. The level of deception and skulduggery PRev has engaged in throughout its history demonstrates the lack of sincerity.
The outcome is indeed a sad thing for those who were trusting enough to genuinely hope that the parent trigger would empower parents and improve the lot of disadvantaged children.
Even if the parent trigger had ever been effective and its process transparent and honest – even if it had ever been sincerely intended to improve schools – critics have pointed out the fundamental flaw in the notion that the parents who are currently using a public resource should be the lone voice in the design and operation of that resource. It’s as if the passengers on the municipal bus decided on their own to hand the bus over to a private operator, or the people in the park at a given moment elected to put it under private management.
Another Los Angeles Times “voice of the newspaper” editorial, in September 2013, further summed up the problems. The editorial was headlined “Fix the ‘parent trigger,’ ” – though most rational observers would see that such a badly flawed process is beyond fixing: “The lack of a public forum is fundamentally wrong. These are public schools, and the petitions have the force of law. The fate of taxpayer-funded schools should not be decided in secrecy.”