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Parent Power

Posted by Jim Stergios  August 30, 2011 11:18 AM

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parenttrigger2.jpg
(image from DropOutNation.net)

Used to be that Massachusetts was the epicenter of most of the innovations occurring in education. We had the best standards in the nation. The best student tests, best teacher tests, a standout accountability office, the most advanced charter approval process and one of the most knowledgeable charter office staffs. We had a progressive funding formula that ensures a level of equity in what gets spent on children. As of 2014, we’ll have whittled that list down to the best teacher test in the nation (if it survives) and a progressive funding formula.

Massachusetts is no longer mentioned, whispered or even thought of as a national leader for its recent laws and policies. Compare Massachusetts' agenda of "innovation schools" (which are basically a warmed-over version of pilot, co-pilot and Horace Mann charter school options) to Indiana's reforms, which include strong accountability measures, an improved charter approval process, a total lift of the charter school cap, and robust private school choice, and more.

Yup, Massachusetts is still number one in the country on national assessments. But our rate of improvement on the NAEP tests, which was truly astounding through 2007, is pretty much flatlined. Whether we hold onto number one status in all grades and subjects tested in the next round of national assessments is without exaggeration an open question. And given our historic institutions, wealth and parental educational attainment levels, and business make-up, anything other than top state in the nation is unacceptable. Truth be told, we should lead the world.

A recent Globe report and editorial covered Massachusetts’ desire to seek a federal waiver from NCLB provisions. As the editorial suggested, this is evidence that the state does not have its feet on the accelerator. I would add -- "another piece of evidence."

Has Massachusetts gotten flaccid on reform? Compared to more focused efforts in dozens of states, yes. And, in terms of intellectual leadership on education reform, the same thing is true. There simply are essential conversations that are now taboo in Massachusetts—conversations that other states are having with energy (and, yes, controversy). We’ve become a consensus-at-all-costs state. Let me give you one example: California and 14 other states’ debates over the Parent Trigger.

Here’s the background: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (dubbed by W and Teddy Kennedy “No Child Left Behind”) included a range of options for parents of students in failing schools, up to Supplemental Educational Services to be paid for by the school, school choice options and closure of the school in question. The law vests the district (and largely the school board) with the dissemination of information about these possibilities and the execution. Sad to say but unsurprisingly, the districts/boards have done little if anything to implement the federal law.

In addition to continuing to allow school boards to exercise the options included in No Child Left Behind, the Parent Trigger would allow “parents who could gather a majority at any persistently failing school to either fire the principal, fire 50% of the teachers, close the school or turn it into a charter school.”

The idea of the Parent Trigger did not originate from some crackpot hothead but rather Ben Austin, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and consultant to the unionized Green Dot charter school network. His experience in the urban school reform effort was that real progress would not occur without parent involvement.

The effort by hundreds of parents in the Compton Unified School District in South Los Angeles, to use the parent trigger on a school serving elementary students got bogged down in lawsuits… by the school board.

Ultimately, in the middle of July in California, the State Board of Education reshuffled by Governor Jerry Brown (and cleansed of Parent Revolution head Ben Austin and now improved with a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association) against all odds passed final regulations for the Parent Trigger. PR’s press release celebrated the fact the regulations, which took into consideration the mudslinging and worse in the fight over the Compton Unified District’s McKinley Elementary school action:

  • ban harassment and intimidation of parents organizing around Parent Trigger, and they ban the use of school resources to campaign for or against Parent Trigger;
  • create a model petition, so that no future Parent Trigger petition will ever be thrown out due to a technicality;
  • provide every parent at all 1300 Parent Trigger eligible schools in California with notice about the law and their rights under the law;
  • create common sense signature verification procedures and timelines, and mandate that no legitimate signature shall ever be thrown out based on a technicality;
  • empower parents to choose their charter or in-district reform partner through a transparent and public parent-led RFP process after the parents have won the organizing campaign, and;
  • reject CTA's outrageous proposal that teachers be given veto power over Parent Trigger.

and the fact that all the work that was put into changing the law and getting the regulations seemed worth it.

hundreds of parents rode on a midnight parent bus, from Compton to Sacramento. Over and over and over again. These parents convinced the governor, along with key statewide education and legislative leaders, to stand with them instead of the most powerful and wealthy interest groups in the state. When they didn't get the answer they wanted, they got right back on the bus to Sacramento. They refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and they ultimately forced the Sacramento establishment to listen. People throw around the term "parent involvement" a lot. But these brave parents define the term ‘parent empowerment.’

Again, NCLB already gives school districts the power to shut down “chronically underperforming” schools (= schools failing year in and year out). Notwithstanding that fact and the fact that the debate over whether parents should also have a similar ability to "vote out" their school operation is occurring in over a dozen states and even reported in the pages of “are-they-extinct-yet” Time and Newsweek magazines, the silence is deafening in Massachusetts.

However well the state overall is doing, there can be no doubt that districts like Lawrence, New Bedford and Fall River are not. The state could help rectify that by insisting on stronger alignment of the state's academic standards with the local curriculum, as well as by quickly expanding vocational-technical, charter and METCO-style options for parents. The local district could shutter failing schools. Without any of that happening, whether you think it is the right approach or just another form of rough justice, I believe we can all agree that were we having a discussion about parent triggers, a number of urban districts would have a greater sense of urgency to get on a path of improvement.

But, no. Massachusetts has no time for this discussion. It is too busy busying itself with an effort to opt out of the accountability measures included in No Child Left Behind.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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