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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:15 PM ET, 08/10/2011

Why parents can’t save schools

One of the summer scandals keeping us education wonks amused until school starts is a American Federation of Teachers gaffe in Connecticut. Union officials posted online an analysis of their lobbying against a parent trigger law in that state that revealed too much about their distaste for letting moms and dads decide who should run their schools.

Bloggers RiShawn Biddle and Alexander Russo exposed the union celebrating its gutting of a Connecticut version of California’s parent trigger law. School reform organizations and editorialists were aghast. AFT president Randi Weingarten disowned the Web post. Activists pushing for parent triggers in Texas and New York welcomed the attention.

This idea has already reached the Washington area and may someday inspire legislation here. That would be bad. Despite its worthy proponents and democratic veneer, the parent trigger is a waste of time. Let’s toss it into the trash with other once fashionable reform ideas like worksheets for slow students and brief constructed responses on state tests.

When I dismissed the parent trigger a year ago I received unfriendly e-mails calling me a tool of the state and local educational establishments. I don’t like much of what those power centers do, but firing on them with the parent trigger is like attacking Fort Bragg with a pea-shooter. The trigger will do nothing but sap parent energies, provide work for lawyers and lobbyists and give us pundits and activists another divisive issue to fill our blogs with.

Consider the California law, the astonishing result of a brief period of bipartisanship in Sacramento. If a school’s average test scores are low, and at least 51 percent of the school’s families or 51 percent of families whose children are on track to attend the school sign a petition, they can order one of a number of options, like firing or reorganizing the staff, or turning the school into a charter or closing it.

It sounds attractive, unless you are a parent and think for a few seconds about whether you have the time and energy to get involved in what you realize is likely to be a tortuous process.

Local officials who don’t want us good-hearted naïfs stealing their power have many ways of stopping us. They can get us fighting over which option to choose or buy some of us off with promises they don’t keep. If the petition succeeds anyway, under the California law they can persuade the state to reject our chosen change as unworkable or bad policy. If even against those odds our change is made, they can make sure it doesn’t work.

The result will be parents more disenchanted than ever. Just ask the mothers and fathers who signed a successful parent trigger for McKinley Elementary School in Compton. The case is in court, stymied by school district stunts like requiring that all parents who signed the petition be at the school a certain times with photo ID to verify their signatures.

Many parents, particularly loudmouths like me, think we know exactly how to fix our schools. In most cases we don’t. Even if we did, we would have trouble agreeing on an option. The very idea of fixing a school may be wrong. Some research suggests that turning around an existing school is too difficult. It may be better to look for new schools created by imaginative teachers like Deborah Meier, famous for the Central Park East Secondary School, and enroll our children there.

The job must start not with us parents, but with imaginative educators like Meier who are willing to stick with their ideas and their school for the long haul. Even if by some miracle we trigger a change in our local school, when our kids grow too old for that place we are gone. The parent trigger people will then have to explain their admirable but unworkable idea to a whole new group of us, just as confused and even less certain we have time for this.

By  |  03:15 PM ET, 08/10/2011

 
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