Parent trigger laws: Wolves in sheep’s clothing and astroturfing

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15). The true nature of corporate-minded “reformers” (i.e. DFERs) will be revealed by their actions (by their fruits shall ye know them, verse 16). Parent trigger laws inspired by ALEC and others have been introduced from California to Georgia and in between. I have had emails coming at me from all directions asking about House Bill 300, the proposed Texas parent trigger bill. Some view parent trigger bills as a form of local control that empowers communities (an ALEC style argument even proffered by a Hollywood movie) others see it as a corporate power grab.

Which is it?

ALEC, a national organization “composed of legislators, businesses and foundations” with great influence and connections to extreme think tanks and supported by funding from corporations that are seeking to drive a public policy agenda based on privatization and profit, calls their boiler plate for parent trigger laws the “Parent Empowerment and Choice Act.” They describe parent trigger as:

The Parent Trigger Act places democratic control into the hands of parents at school level. Parents can, with a simple majority, opt to usher in one of three choice-based options of reform: (1) transforming their school into a charter school, (2) supplying students from that school with a 75 percent per pupil cost voucher, or (3) closing the school.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) described parent trigger in a press release for their parent trigger policy memo:

These policies authorize parent referenda that would turn neighborhood schools over to private charter school operators or would otherwise force drastic changes to the governance of these schools. This parent trigger approach is being touted as a way to empower parents in dealing with troubled local schools and in guiding their children’s education.

NEPC’s policy memo on parent triggers frames the reform:

The evidence to date suggests that turning public schools over to charter operators or replacing school staff is not likely to lead to better student outcomes.  But research has clearly established that students learn more when they have access to quality instructional materials and well-prepared teachers…. while the parent trigger offers a superficial appeal to democratic processes by “letting parents decide,” it ultimately thwarts continued, sustained community and parental involvement:

The parent trigger approach challenges the democratic underpinnings of public education, temporarily empowering the majority of parents currently using a school but disenfranchising the broader community, including the taxpayers funding the school and parents whose children who would subsequently attend the school. This is a startlingly unique and odd approach to improving a public institution. It would be like turning over control of a public transit system exclusively to a majority vote of the people who happened to be riding the bus on a given day; or handing control of the library to 51% of the people who have currently checked out books; or asking parents of college students (or perhaps those students themselves) to vote to assume governance control of a university.

Interestingly, Amanda Austin emailed me and posited that parent trigger advocates are astroturfing. What is astroturfing? Paraphrased from Wikipedia:

Astroturfing refers to campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source’s financial connection. The term is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

So essentially an artificial/fake grassroots movement with behind-the-scenes corporate-minded financial backing…

A report by Annenburg Institute for School reform’s policy brief on parent trigger described the first California trigger attempts by Parent Revolution as

…bitter, divisive, and protracted campaigns.

Who is Parent Revolution?

Parent Revolution was launched with a million-dollar budget supported by the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, all major philanthropic supporters of the charter school movement.

In Texas, Texas Families First has signed up a variety of legislators to support HB300. Who funds Texas Families First? hehehe. Who the heckfire knows… Because if you look up their 990 you only can find that “Citizen Leader Alliance” (which shares the same Houston P.O Box with Texas Families First) has $1.5 million per year at their disposal (Thanks to Sylvia from Austin for hunting down the financial information). Wow. My best guess is that families in Houston (or Texas) have not banded together and saved their pennies to raise those funds in a grassroots fashion because it would be easily trackable online. Which means that probably corporate-minded donors (similar to Parent Revolution) are funding “Texas Families First.” (More on TFF’s ideology later in the week)

NEPC weighed in the important of community-based policies actually being, well, community-based.

The parent trigger approach and the story told in Won’t Back Down contain an essential truth: parents should indeed be able to act to improve their children’s schools….wise, effective action must have at least three elements that are missing from parent trigger: (1) it must genuinely arise from deliberation and organization within the affected community, not through external advocacy groups using these communities to advance their own agendas;  (2) it must be evidence-based in the sense that the intervention is likely to yield benefits; and (3) it must be built on the core reality that students learn when they have opportunities to learn—governance changes might play a minor role, but they can’t sensibly be at the center.

How about the real grassroots groups? In Florida, LULAC and NAACP are standing together against parent trigger. Here is their statement:

LULAC Florida and the Florida Conference of the NAACP oppose the Parent Empowerment in Education bill as unnecessary legislation that fails to address the persistence of educational inequity in Florida’s charter schools. We affirm the importance and positive impact of parent empowerment and engagement on student achievement. However, the Florida Parent Trigger bill misleads by asserting that legislation will provide parents an “empowerment” over school policy input; the truth is they already have it. There is no substance to the claim that Parent Trigger legislation empowers parents and no evidence that the parent trigger process leads to improvements in parent engagement, student achievement, or narrowing the achievement gap. Florida civil rights organizations want solutions to civil rights problems before bills are adopted that lead to further expansion of the charter school network. These problems include segregated school environments and targeted denial of access.
by their fruits shall ye know them… The LULAC and NAACP statement in Florida highlights the inequities that are well-documented (Special Education, ELLs, discipline policies etc.) in many charters in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere. They state:
Inequities in charter school policy have existed for far too long, for almost two decades now since the first school was chartered in 1996. The Parent Trigger bill, and any others that could prematurely expand the number of charter schools in the state, should be voted down. To do otherwise would be to continue to perpetuate injustice and constitute a disservice to our students, their parents, taxpayers, and the state.

After much thought, and reviewing the scholarship, my view is that parent trigger bills are legislation pressed by corporate-minded foundations and neoliberals (allied with some current and former KIPPsters and TFAers) that have (wittingly or unwittingly) adopted boiler plate legislation from ALEC under the guise of community and parent empowerment to grift school buildings from communities. Parent tricker laws— wolves in sheep’s clothing empowered by astroturf organizations.

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