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Parent Empowerment or Parent Manipulation?

December 19, 2010

Parent Leaders of Parent Trigger at McKinley Elementary School, Marlene Romero, Ismania Guzman, Shamika Murphy / photo from Long Beach Press Telegram

As an educator who keeps up to date with happenings in the education world, it was with great interest that I followed the developments in Compton, CA where the Parent Revolution (run by paid-organizers and funded by billionaires) decided to launch their first Parent Trigger initiative at McKinley Elementary.

California is the first state to enact the so-called parent trigger law that allows the majority of a school’s parents to sign a petition that triggers massive changes to a school’s structure and governance.  Ostensibly, this trigger would be pulled if parents had repeatedly tried to affect positive change at a school and were unable to do so for whatever reason.  The philosophy behind this law seems to be parent empowerment, parent power.  But recent reports in the media have left me to question if parents can truly be empowered when they are not fully informed about the choices they are being offered.  For balance, it should be noted that both sides are alleging threats and intimidation in regards to this process.

The passage of the parent trigger law is one development in the long series of reforms that the corporate world is pushing forth.  Working at a school similar to McKinley, I could not help but think of what the parents at my school would do should such an offer be made to them.  My school, Los Angeles Academy Middle School has been put on its own unique reform path:  the Public School Choice process, and parents will soon have a similar choice put to them (although in this process, their votes are non-binding.)

The difficulty of  helping working parents to make informed choices is something I am very familiar with.   Just this week, the application for the L.A. Unified Choices program was due, and as Gifted and Talented Education coordinator, I facilitated several parent meetings to help understand the myriad of schooling options offered in the nation’s second largest school system.  These are the parents of the brightest, most accomplished students in the neighborhood, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  But when it came time to understand the all the different options offered in the Choices program, responses ranged from complete and thorough understanding, to information overload.  After a two hour meeting where the process was thoroughly explained in two languages, handouts given with a step-by-step explanation of application procedures, and a question and answer period at the end of the meeting, I still saw a lot of blank faces staring back at me.  Even after the parents were dismissed to visit the booths set up by the local magnet programs who were recruiting students, some parents were still confused.

This was not the first night parents were made aware of the L.A. Unified Choices options.  Each year, parents in this program are required to attend a meeting about this to prepare them for the moment in 8th grade where they will use this knowledge to apply to high schools.  And yet still, it was not enough to help them feel confident about the process.  Thus the entire last two weeks were fully booked in one-on-one meetings with these very parents in an attempt to further explain the procedure.  Sample questions:

“So does my child have to apply to a magnet?” (No.)

“Are you kicking my child out of the gifted program?” (No.  This is for next year when your child goes to high school)

“How many magnets can they apply to?” (One.)

“If they don’t get in, can we apply for more later?” (No.)

“I already sent in 5 applications  for the magnet” (You can only apply to one. The first one you mailed in counts, the other 4 will be discarded.)

“Do I peel off the sticker from the handout and put it on the application?” (No, ma’am, this was just a sticker to correct a typo on the handout.)

“Look, Ms. Infante, just pick a school for my child because I don’t know anything about the schools you are talking about.”

Every year the presentation gets better to help parents understand the options.  But as a perfectionist, it bothers me that there are still parents out there who don’t feel 100% confident about their choices and are unable to make a follow up appointment because of their work schedules.

Which leads me back to the Parent Trigger, the poorly-named process that has landed in Compton (as if that city needs any more references to violence.)

It has been widely reported in the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly, that the process used to obtain parent signatures for the petition was one conducted in stealth, under the cover of darkness.  Former Senator Gloria Romero, who lost the election for State Superintendent of Education and who sponsored the Parent Trigger legislation admitted this much in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

But former state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), author of the parent-trigger legislation, said staying under the radar was necessary to prevent opposition from mobilizing.  “The parents choose,” she said. “If they didn’t like this option, they could have said, ‘I don’t want to sign the petition.’ “

It seems that easy, on the surface, doesn’t it?  But parent education and parent choice looks different in every community and many times, it is the luxury of only the lucky few.   Proponents of school choice fail to ever acknowledge the challenges parents face to hold their households together, with some working up to two and three jobs (if they are lucky to even be employed.)  The process in Compton was not instigated by parents, but by the paid organizers of the Parent Revolution, who are a spin-off of the Green Dot Charter Schools, and the successful completion of this process has been celebrated widely by critics of public schools, some who even advocate the complete dismantling of public schools, permanently.

Immediately, there were red flags that made me wonder if the parents of the McKinley community were given a full, accurate, and balanced portrayal of what signing this petition would mean for their school.  Were they told that only 17% of charters outperform public schools?  Were they told that charter schools are under no obligation to involve parents democratically in school decisions?  Were they told that financial transparency is not required when operating as a charter?

Were parents told that charters enroll less special needs and English learner students than their public school counterparts?  Were they told that some charters can choose to hold back students year after year if they don’t meet academic benchmarks and that many families choose to withdraw students for this reason, thereby leading to a remaining pool of students that is academically stronger than its initial class of students?  Were they told that attrition is high at many academically successful charters?  Were they promised a commitment to stick by their students no matter what their needs or challenges might be?

Were they told that wholesale conversions of public schools  to charters are not the norm, and that the most famous example of this, Locke High School, has not resulted in a dramatic increase in test scores that had been promised by the Green Dot company?

Who presented the other side to McKinley parents?

I have no doubt that parents in that community have experienced all the frustration of sending their children to an inner-city school that only makes headlines when something negative happens.  Schools in urban areas have often been neglected and forgotten, and no systems are in place to ensure retention of quality teachers and administrators.  Having worked in South Central Los Angeles for 20 years, I know the feelings of despair that can exist for parents, students, and teachers who ask, and ask, and ask for help and no one seems to listen.  The 21 billion dollars in education cuts over the past two years eroded schools like McKinley even further to the point of desperation.  But parents need to make informed decisions, and leaders of this petition drive have the moral responsibility to double, triple and quadruple-check that these tired, working parents understand the consequences of the decisions they are making for not just their children, but all children who feed into McKinley Elementary.

Otherwise, giving a superficial, emotionally-charged presentation a la Waiting for Superman is just utter manipulation and exploitation of these Compton parents who, of course, want a better future for their children.  They deserve as much.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jane permalink
    December 19, 2010 6:05 pm


    Thank you for writing yet another articulate and informative piece. As I read in the Times about this “takeover,” I too wondered how many of the parents who signed the petition actually knew what it meant. Even in the Times article, a parent was quoted saying they liked the school, but just signed because they were asked to. We need to do a better job of informing parents, but parents also need make an effort to find out what is happening as well.


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