“Parent trigger” as a pale shadow of community involvement

During the past two legislative sessions in Florida, I have watched debates over the so-called parent-trigger bills with a mix of disappointment and resignation. Have we fallen so low in discussing parent involvement that a petition or plebiscite is considered involvement? Maybe this is the Facebook Era’s version of maximum feasible participation, a sort of drive-by parent involvement, a ninth-generation xerox of Chicago’s local school councils from the 1988 reform–the decentralization killed by mayoral control in the mid-90s.

The fact that a number of defenders of mayoral control are also advocates of the parent trigger tells you something about the idea’s incoherence–we should let a well-funded petition campaign overturn a district’s direct supervision of schools, but parents upset at the closing of dozens of schools in Chicago? They can go fly a kite.

The practicalities of the parent-trigger and other mechanisms for parent involvement are important, and I get to them below. What strikes me about the argument over parent trigger policies is the way it has used up all the oxygen that really should go towards discussing much more important issues involving the relationship between schools and communities. This is common with faddish policy proposals: the old 65-Percent “Solution” exhausted the energy that should have gone towards discussing other school-finance issues, and proposals for school uniforms compete with discussion of real schoolwide plans and positive behavior support. Now the parent trigger policy has colonized the policy discourse space around communities.

If you thought that there is some magic in charter conversions, then a wham-petition-thank-you-folks approach might make sense. But I don’t think anyone believes in that magic. Even where the petition process involves both parents and teachers — thus inferring some wholesale buy-in — the path is extraordinarily difficult. See Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors about the conversion of Locke High School for an example of those difficulties.

So the other rationale for a parent trigger is if you think the organizing process can energize a community for long-term activism. If you think about the different ways one can involve parents and the communities surrounding schools, the parent trigger is an odd choice as a lever for more involvement later on. First and most importantly, a petition is a minimal commitment to activism, and community organizers usually seek escalating commitments rather than a target for minimal commitment. The San Bernadino Sun and other papers have largely ignored the Adelanto community except for signal events, so it’s very difficult to know if the final decision to convert Desert Trails Elementary School and pick a charter operator have been the only actions in Adelanto. Have the parents activated for the charter conversion been involved in other actions–for housing, jobs, etc., or have they been used for the charter conversion without further development of community action and further community development?

In addition, I would never, ever go into any public action of this sort with only a bare majority, even if a bare majority were the legal minimum. If the goal of the action were long-term commitments to activism, you would want at least 70% or 75% support, preferably more. And if Parent Revolution had gathered petitions from 70-75% of parents in the Adelanto community and others where they have worked, we’d have far fewer debates over whether the petition is truly supported in the community, and whatever happened would be far more likely to have community support.1 Absent other evidence, the way parent triggers have played out in California does not give me much confidence that Parent Revolution is organizing communities for long-term action on multiple fronts that will improve the lives of working people.

Are there alternatives to a parent-trigger policy that could engender more parental and community involvement? The past half-century is littered with examples of failed community-participation ideas, from the decentralization of NYC schools into 32 “community” districts to site-based-management policies of the 1980s and 1990s, but there are also plenty of examples of productive, long-term school-community interactions from Hull House in the Progressive Era to James Comer’s community-school model in the last few decades. Whatever you think of Geoffrey Canada’s education politics, his Harlem Children’s Zone fits into that pattern, and it is pretty far from the parent-trigger model:

  • Community participation requires institution-building. Hull House and the Harlem Children’s Zone are not examples of market-based competition but instead are civic institutions with a commitment to specific neighborhoods and cities.
  • Community participation requires stability. Whether you are talking about wraparound schools or community health clinics, continuity of both institutions and key personnel is required to build trust within a community.2
  • Community participation requires long-term community structures, where politics in the best sense are operating between elections, not just in symbolic votes. Of all places where we should encourage political activism, it is in the local. The item in common between mayoral control and parent-trigger policies is the cynical use of a plebiscite structure: vote for (choose one: me | a charter school) and your life will be wonderful! It is an American version of Putinism, and even supporters of mayoral control and parent trigger policies should be creeped out by it much more than they appear to be.

Many parents in poor communities are desperate for better schools for their children. In that regard, Parent Revolution is tapping a deep need. But there is little reason to believe that parent trigger is more than a faddish expression of that need. It does not look like it is based on a coherent theory of action either to improve schools or generate long-term parental and community involvement, and it does not feel like effective community-based institutions that have existed and do exist in poor communities. That is why Florida’s LULAC and NAACP chapters opposed the parent trigger bill here. My historian’s instinct is that advocates of parent-trigger structures are wasting time that would be better spent on a broader discussion of parent and community involvement.

Addendum: See Rachel Levy’s comments on the parent trigger and parent involvement from March 2012.

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  1. See my comments from February 2011 on why I think liberals should be very cautious about claiming that Parent Revolution is a set of “outsiders.” Larry Ferlazzo provided the best rebuttal in comments; I am not persuaded, but he has an important set of arguments. []
  2. This focus on stability does not mean that things cannot go terribly wrong in community organizations. Of course they can, and at times the disruption of stability is necessary. But institutionalized instability is a poor public-policy choice if you want to help poor communities. How to manage transitions when they are required is a separate topic. []