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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 08/29/2011

What’s really wrong with ‘parent trigger’ laws

This was written by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He writes a popular blog for teachers and is the author of three books, including his latest, “Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges .” He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Larry Ferlazzo

“Parent trigger” laws, first passed in California and then elsewhere in the country, typically state that over 50 percent of the parents in a school or schools “feeding into” that school can sign a petition demanding that the district either convert the school into a charter, close it, hire a new principal, or bring in new staff. The first attempt at implementing the law — in the predominantly low-income city of Compton in southern California — was unsuccessful.

There were two recent articles/posts published sharing critiques of this law. One came from Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, who wrote on his Post blog Class Struggle a post entitled “ Why parents can’t save schools.” The other piece was in “Thoughts On Public Education.” and shared quotes from a number of trigger critics and advocates. Though it may not have been the main message of either piece, both included commentary suggesting that the parent trigger law was bad because parents didn’t know enough to effectively improve schools.

I’m no fan of the “parent trigger,” as you can see from “The Best Resources For Learning: Why The Parent Trigger Isn’t Good For Parents, Kids Or Schools.” However, I think the attitude that parents don’t know enough about education to effectively engage in school improvement efforts is off-base and condescending.

I was a community organizer for 19 years before becoming a teacher nine years ago. An often-repeated organizer adage is that often the people most directly affected by the problem have some pretty good ideas on how to get it fixed. Education is no exception.

The key, though, is using organizing techniques in the open and respectful way that has been shown to be effective time and time again.

In such a process, the leadership comes from a local institution with longstanding ties in the local community; an invitation for outside assistance — if it is needed — comes from those local leaders; residents organize to ask their neighbors what their concerns are without the people doing the asking having a preconceived set of problems and solutions they want to see prioritized; community members meet with all stakeholders in the problem to share concerns, learn new ideas for solving them, and develop allies; and then negotiations begin to achieve a solution. Money may be raised to pay for an organizer to work a few hours each week on the effort, but the emphasis is on what Saul Alinsky called “The Iron Rule” — never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Contrast this with the parent trigger campaign as it was waged in California. Parent Revolution, an outside group with no ties to a local community, parachuted five fulltime organizers into a neighborhood that they picked for its demographics (a local newspaper article given “inside access” to the campaign characterized the group as having “swooped into Compton;” the group, initially begun by charter school operators has a clear agenda and is generously funded by several foundations with their own clear school reform agenda, including the Walton, Broad and Gates foundations; there were no serious discussions with other stakeholders to identify common issues and explore new solutions; then a non-negotiable demand to convert into a charter school was issued.

This manipulative use of a few organizing techniques in the cause of the parent trigger is what we should all be objecting to — not to parent engagement in school improvement efforts. Parents can and must be a key ally to educators as we fight back against attacks on us, our schools and our students, and we can do so by using the genuine art and the spirit of community organizing.

Parent trigger initiatives are stalling throughout the country, which is no great surprise because that’s what tends to be the result of condescending strategies. Educators should not let the strategists behind it pull victory out of the jaws of defeat by driving a wedge between us and the parents of the children we teach.

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