Put power over California's schools in hands of parents

Let me tell you about my recent trip to Sacramento. It is a story about why we need a revolution.

Earlier this month, Senate leaders introduced a "parent trigger" into California's "Race to the Top" education reform legislation.

Under the policy, parents at a systemically failing school could circulate a petition calling for change. If 51% of the parents signed it, the school would be converted to a charter school or reconstituted by the school district, with a new staff and new ways of operating. The concept recognized a truth that school officials often discount: Parents are in the best position to make decisions about what's right for their kids.

Last week, the parent trigger legislation moved to the Assembly Education Committee, chaired by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). Thousands of parents sent letters, made calls, staged protests and showed up to testify before her committee about the importance of parents taking back power over our schools.

We told the committee about how 50% of kids in L.A. public schools aren't graduating and 90% aren't going to college. We talked about innovative models -- at both charter and traditional public schools -- that apply the same amount of money to the same kind of kids and send them to college instead of prison. We explained that we can't wait any longer for half-measures and pilot programs because our kids need great schools now.

Brownley seemed to agree with parents that they needed real power over the education of their own children, and it felt as if we finally had the momentum to enact meaningful change.

But then, on Thursday, Brownley announced her own version of the parent trigger. The bill she sent to the Assembly floor had been weakened almost beyond recognition from the bill passed by the Senate. Under her bill, more than half the parents at a failing school signing a petition would trigger nothing more than a meaningless and patronizing hearing. She announced the concept with great fanfare, saying she had heard the call of the parents.

But she didn't hear the same parents I heard. If she had, she couldn't advocate a weak reform that contains no specific requirement to fix failing schools. Parents demanded transformation. All they got was the promise of more talk.

I can't imagine how such toothless legislation is supposed to attract competitive federal Race to the Top dollars to California. I've been advocating school reform for years, and I can tell you it doesn't come just by giving parents a hearing.

Brownley got it half right: She wrote a provision that required parental involvement. But she forgot the part where you actually give parents real power. Parents will not be fooled by patronizing measures and token gestures like this any longer. Her provision serves the interests of bureaucrats and special interests, and it is an insult to parents and children in California. It defends the status quo at the expense of children.

Brownley's actions make the case better than we ever could for why we need a parent trigger, and why we need a parent revolution. Too often those in power stand for the interests of grown-ups, not kids.

It's not completely us against them. There are brave reformers on the inside such as Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, L.A. school board member Yolie Flores and maybe even Assembly Speaker-elect John Perez (D-Los Angeles), who gave a strong speech this week in favor of a real parent trigger.

There are emerging community leaders such as the Rev. K.W. Tulloss, Fernando Espuelas and Teach for America-Los Angeles Executive Director Paul Miller. There are progressive labor unions and teachers unions in California and across the nation standing up for change. There is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and, of course, there is President Obama, whose presidency is demonstrating that substantive change can come to public education.

And there are parents, the most committed reformers of all, sticking their necks out to ensure better futures for their children.

Brownley's bill, which was passed by the Assembly, now goes to the Senate, where it probably will be heard by the Education Committee in the next day or two. Parents are again pushing for a trigger that would actually trigger reform, and we are hopeful we can get one back into the bill. We need to bring public education back to what it's supposed to be about: our children. And the only way that's going to happen is if parents take power.

Ben Austin is executive director of Parent Revolution, an organization that works with parents who want to take back and transform failing neighborhood schools.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°