The Teat: Where does parent trigger movement get their $?

Today on the Cloaking Inequity series, The Teat, I examine where parent trigger proponents get their $. I had pondered parent trigger— because from the outside looking in it appeared to be a community-based approach led by parents and civil rights activists to address the inequalities that have plagued our schools for generations. Recently we even watched excerpts from the parent trigger flimflam, I mean film, Won’t Back Down in my Critical Policy Analysis course. However, parent trigger is not what it seems in this emotional and slick Hollywood film…I first looked into Texas Families First, the proponents of Texas HB300, the proposed parent trigger bill. I came away with Parent trigger laws: Wolves in sheep’s clothing and astroturfing. The CEO of Texas Families First then replied Parent trigger post blowback from Texas Families First. I also had some spirited discussions on Twitter with civil rights minded parent trigger proponents (i.e. Former California State Sen. Gloria Romero). I crafted a public letter to them Letter to Civil Rights and school “choice” advocate. Recently, Gary Cohn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Wall Street Journal published an expose on parent trigger. From whose teat do parent trigger advocates partake? He writes:

At first glance, it is one of the nation’s hottest new education-reform movements, a seemingly populist crusade to empower poor parents and fix failing public schools. But a closer examination reveals that the “parent-trigger” movement is being heavily financed by the conservative Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s largest and most strident anti-union organizations, a Frying Pan News investigation has shown.

Who is paying the bills for the parent trigger movement? Cohn found that since 2009, several corporate minded foundations have poured millions into Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles advocacy group that is in the forefront of the parent-trigger campaign in California and the nation.

Multimillion dollar contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.6 million); the Laura and John Arnold Foundation ($1.5 million); the Wasserman Foundation($1.5 million); the Broad Foundation ($1.45 million) and the Emerson Collective Education Fund ($1.2 million), founded by Laurence Powell Jobs, the widow of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

But the Walton Family Foundation is by far Parent Revolution’s largest benefactor, contributing 43 percent of the $14.9 million total.

See interactive infographic detailing foundation funding.

Do the foundations funding parent trigger have ulterior motives besides parental empowerment?

The Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton, is one of the nation’s largest private donors to charter schools. The foundation has also used its money and clout to fund conservative research groups (including the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation) whose analysts have then defended Walmart and its anti-union policies on newspaper opinion pages and in testimony to government committees. In education, it is a strong proponent of the expansion of charter schools, school voucher programs and other efforts to privatize public education. It also gives money to the influential trade publication Education Week to write about parent empowerment issues.

Another large donor to Parent Revolution, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation of Houston, Texas, supports charter schools and also has funded conservative efforts to overhaul and limit pensions in California, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch. John Arnold is a billionaire former Enron trader who also founded a successful hedge fund.

The Broad Foundation, founded by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, and the Gates Foundation, also are big backers of charter schools and other market-driven education reforms, though their overall policies are far less conservative than the Walton Family Foundation.

Everything the Walton foundation has done over the years is to support privatization and anti-union policies,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, tells Frying Pan News. “They want privatization and Parent Revolution promotes their goals.”

Does the parent trigger movement have any connection to ALEC?

The Walton foundation, for example, wholeheartedly embraces all state parent-trigger laws, whose language stems from model legislation crafted by the American Leadership Exchange Council (ALEC) – a corporate-controlled generator of far-right legislation, including Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground gun law and the recent statute that made Michigan a right-to-work state.

A 2012 Education Week article described how, in 2010, the Heartland Institute, an ultra-conservative Chicago think tank, borrowed Parent Revolution’s new idea and took it to ALEC.

“Heartland put together a parent-trigger policy proposal and presented it to ALEC, whichcreated model legislation, [that,] . . . sometimes with variations, ended up appearing in about 10 to 15 states,” reported Education Week.

What does someone get paid to sellout schools?

The man whose concept of parent triggers so impressed the Heartland Institute is Parent Revolution’s Austin, a former state school board member and Los Angeles deputy mayor under Richard Riordan. Just as Parent Revolution has become the leading player of the parent-trigger movement, so has Austin become Parent Revolution’s national face. As his group’s executive director, Austin received a total compensation of $239,451 in 2011, according to the organization’s latest available tax filing.

What about Michelle Rhee? You knew she had to appear here somewhere.

Michelle Rhee, whose group StudentsFirst is one of the nation’s leading proponents of parent-trigger laws and other efforts to privatize public education, sponsored a series of screenings and hosted panel discussions to promote the film and its message. Panelists included former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Parent Revolution’s Austin.

California became the first state to pass a parent-trigger law in 2010. So what has actually happened with a parent trigger when it was implemented?

So far, however, parent trigger has only been successfully used in one instance – and in that case, a public school is being converted to a charter. It occurred in Adelanto, a blue-collar town tucked onto San Bernardino County’s High Desert. After a bitter, bruising fight that split the community and ended up in court, the Adelanto school board voted in January to convert its struggling Desert Trails Elementary School to a charter, beginning next fall.

Lori Yuan: “This wasn’t a grassroots movement.” 

Opponents, including Desert Trails parent Lori Yuan, say that this parent-trigger effort was controlled by organizers brought in by Parent Revolution, and that they tricked the community into believing this was simply an effort to improve conditions at the school, not to give it over to a private charter operator. Parent Revolution officials, in turn, say that their opposition used unethical tactics in contesting the petitions. 

“Our community was misled,” recalls Yuan, who has two children at the school. “Parents didn’t know they were signing for a charter takeover.”

Shelly Whitfield, who has five children at Desert Trails Elementary, says she was repeatedly approached at home and school to sign a petition. “They came to my door several times and said they were going to get computers and help get the kids better lunches,” she remembers. She says she is strongly opposed to the end result – the conversion of the school to a charter operation.

Parent Revolution provided help in many ways. It rented a house for the Desert Trails’ activist parents to use as a headquarters, provided a full-time organizer to work with them, and also sent in experts to train and advise parents on everything from strategy on dealing with the school board to writing letters to help in researching potential charter schools, Ramirez and others say. It even provided T-shirts.

Yuan and other parents had contested the signatures gathered by parent-trigger advocates, but their challenge was rejected by a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge. In the end, only 53 of the 466 original signers would vote in an election to determine the school’s future. The bad feelings in the community over the battle for charter conversion have continued to this day.

“This was a true test of the mettle of empowered parents,” trumpeted FreedomWorks, a prime force in the Tea Party movement.

Yuan disagrees: “We’ve known all along this wasn’t a grassroots movement.”

How about real choices for parents in their neighborhood schools?

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  • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

    In my small part of the education world, in CA, my district closed two elementary schools. Both were “CA small necessary schools” (very rural and isolated) with “leaders” thinking at the time during the 2008 financial crises, that consolidation was needed. One of the schools that closed was in an area where UC Faculty were moving to and commuting from. This new 21st Century research University, UC Merced, provided the area with expertise to fight the closure by moving quickly to create a new charter school. The other school closed was located in a very isolated mountainous area and the student population is the poorest in the County (a county that is among the poorest, per capita, in CA).

    Within two years both areas (rural and conservative politically) started up new charter schools, thus costing the district more money than they originally thought they’d save by closing and “consolidating” the schools. The fight over ADA: $ for per student attendance, is very evident. Thus, the charter school movement in addition to the “parent trigger” now sees a situation where districts are competing with one another for children’s ADA. Children in these areas are quickly becoming seen as “commodities” or dollars to be competed for. This new “free market” effect, for public education dollars is probably occurring across the nation?

    This new “commodification effect” needs to be researched! In my opinion, this “effect” is undermining the potential for cooperation and collaboration between schools and school districts. Collaboration that is desperately needed in these times of austerity!

    Both schools that were closed had been designated CA Distinguished Schools and if it were not for this crazy quilt of new “conditions” i.e., ideologies, false promises, etc. A question was asked in this Blog: California became the first state to pass a parent-trigger law in 2010. So what has actually happened with a parent trigger when it was implemented? This is one case in CA!

    In one case, at the school that’s nearest to UC Merced, the district was forced to lease the old site to the new charter school under a CA Charter school law. A law that disallows districts from refusing to lease their properties to new charters for a nominal sum. This law effects Board decisions even when financial need to preserve the solvency of a district is the reason for a Board’s decision. The law was challenged in the CA legislature (at the committee level) but was defeated.

    Do we really want to spend our tax dollars to fight these “privatization” v. “public” school battles? In the end, all of these schools are essentially “public” in that tax dollars pay for all of them. This includes the expense for “high stakes tests”, tests that start the “parent option” and this new crazy quilt of “public/charter/district” competitions where, again; children are being turned into commodities in the minds of too many people in the field of education.


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