There's a problem with California's groundbreaking "parent trigger" law. But it isn't what you might think.
The law, which I wrote, passed in 2010, and it sought to give parents genuine power and control over their children's educational destiny by allowing them to force staff changes at failing schools or even to convert such schools to charters. The parent trigger law has attracted attention from legislators across the nation who are looking to put the "public" back into fractured public education systems.
But here in California, just as parents have begun trying to harness the power of the law and demand new approaches at underperforming schools, powerful political interests have rushed in to keep parents from exercising their new rights.
We saw that happen in Compton last year, and more recently we've seen it in the Antelope Valley town of Adelanto. In both cases, more than half the parents at a failing school signed petitions demanding change. But then some of them, after pressure from outside interests, got cold feet and asked to remove their names from the petitions.
The problem in both cases was that those who had long wielded power weren't about to relinquish it, even though the law was clear. Those who are used to calling the shots in school districts -- teachers unions, administrators, politicians -- have wanted to keep it that way. The goal has been to keep parents at bay, as passive consumers with few choices.
In both Adelanto and Compton, parents trying to exercise their rights felt the full onslaught of a "sweep and destroy" mission launched by the California Teachers Assn. and its affiliates. What had taken weeks to build was destroyed in a few days of heavy-handed lobbying. Parents have reported being told outright lies about charter law and about their rights. Some parents reported that they were even threatened with deportation if they didn't rescind their signatures.
The operatives brought in to derail the parents' campaign fully understood that the easiest way to do so was to smear the opponent.
In light of this kind of implementation problem, there have been calls for changes in the law. But the law itself is sound. What we need to change is the political environment on the ground so that parents don't feel intimidated when they exercise their rights.
Rather than attacking parents for daring to challenge a failing status quo, all of us need to shine a spotlight on the power structures in school districts that maneuver to shut these parents out.
A recent survey by California Common Cause revealed that the top lobbying force in the state in 2011 was the 300,000-plus membership of the California Teachers Assn. In other words, the massive teachers union is the top political force in the eighth-largest economy in the world.
The union has made it clear that it wants to take the trigger out of the hands of mothers and fathers. Parents who attempt to lobby for their children now find themselves on a collision course with this powerful organization.
The union has every right to talk to parents and to engage in a dialogue about their position. But it does not have the right to lie or distort. The union does not deny that it flew in operatives to engage in a last-ditch battle in Adelanto. What it denies is that it did anything wrong.
But parents who are concerned about their children's learning environment are vulnerable. Rather than pressuring them and feeding them biased information, we need to help them exercise their rights in whatever ways they feel would most help their kids.
Watering down the parent trigger law isn't the answer. That would simply help maintain the status quo, which is exactly what the teachers union would like.
The law has already inspired great passion on all sides. Now we need to ensure that its intention is realized and that parents aren't thwarted when they demand better schools for their children.
So what can we do to help parents actually see things clearly without biased interference?
We need to direct attention to failing schools, so that parents understand the situation and understand that they are not alone. And when they send out cries for help, we should defend their right to occupy a political arena previously dominated by vested interests.
Parent trigger needs time to flourish -- and a greater understanding among the public about what the law really means for parents and children throughout the state. If we can get the politics right, California parents will be poised to take public education to a whole new level.