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Free Trigger Laws Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?

By David Bacon

Parent trigger laws, according to their proponents, give parents power. Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Broad Education Foundation, calls them “a way for parents’ voices to be heard.”

Sounds good. But is the parent trigger concept a way to put parents in charge of their kids’ education, or is it part of a political agenda that will rob parents of even more control?

The first parent trigger law was passed in California last year. It says that if the parents of 51 percent of a public school’s students sign a petition (the “trigger”), that petition will result in one of four options: firing the principal, bringing in an entirely new staff, closing the school, or handing over the school to a charter school operator. Rather than triggering a broader process, the specific option—for example, the specific charter school company—is part of the petition.

Several very conservative players in national education reform, in addition to Broad, have made parent trigger proposals a key part of their agenda. Many teachers fear the expansion of a privatized education system, and view parent trigger laws as a means for rushing the process forward.

And there is no indication that these laws increase parental voice in their children’s education. “You get one shot and that’s it, because once that charter is formed, that charter dictates how it will operate,” John Rogers, associate professor of urban schooling at UCLA, told NBC’s Education Nation. “[Parents] have fewer rights in the context of a charter than they would at a public school.”

As trigger laws are introduced in state after state, California’s experience is being watched closely. When the trigger law there was up for a vote, Democrats, among them Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a former field rep for United Teachers Los Angeles), spoke for the bill, although the votes to pass it came mostly from Republicans. Teachers’ unions lobbied against it, while a chorus of mainstream media hailed it. Patrick Range McDonald of the LA Weekly claimed it was the product of “minority parents and fierce reformers, who seemed to materialize from thin air.”

Not quite. Although some grassroots parents undoubtedly did support the bill, it was the product of powerful political figures, backed by the wealthy foundations that shape much of the country’s debate over education reform. SBX54 was written by the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU), started in 2006 by the Green Dot charter school company. The LAPU was headed by political operative Ben Austin, who then started another organization, Parent Revolution, to promote and implement the parent trigger law. At its birth, Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget supplied by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.



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