At the beginning of October, Dr. Diane Ravitch launched a broadside against Parent Trigger and the parent empowerment movement, calling it a "stealth assault" and a "deceptive scheme" to undermine public education. She employed a series of personal attacks, half-truths and conspiracy theories that have come to characterize the other side's desperate attempt to defend an indefensible status quo.
The Parent Trigger is a simple, yet potentially transformational law that gives parents real power over the educational destiny of their own children. This law empowers the majority of parents at any failing school to either bring in new leadership and new staff or transform their school into a high-performing charter school. The California law was first passed in January 2010, and has since spread to two additional states -- Texas and Mississippi -- meaning that over 22 percent of public school parents in America are now empowered to transform their child's failing school through community organizing.
Unfortunately, it has become clear over the past two years that those who currently hold power view parent empowerment as a threat and, therefore, will do whatever they can to stop it. Before the ink was dry on California's historic first Parent Trigger law, the California Federation of Teachers had already dubbed it the "lynch mob" law. And as recently as last August, the American Federation of Teachers accidentally released their secret plan to "kill" Parent Trigger, a PowerPoint presentation of lessons learned after defeating a grassroots parent empowerment movement in Connecticut. In this step-by-step plan -- which AFT subsequently apologized for -- they articulated with troubling clarity their strategy to deploy a stable of high-priced lobbyists to "kill" Parent Trigger. When that failed, they created committees with fancy names but no substantive parent power to trick parents into thinking they have power when they actually do not.
And this, of course, pales in comparison to the tactics seen when parents try to actually USE the Parent Trigger law to help their children and transform their failing schools. During the historic first campaign in Compton, the school district employed such drastic measures in their campaign to stymie parent organizing that two L.A. Superior Court Judges literally issued a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the entire Compton Unified school district for violating the constitutional rights of their own parents.
Unfortunately, Ravitch has apparently decided to join this chorus of cynics and detractors, opposing the basic idea of parent power while also spreading a series of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
She begins with the distorted premise that Parent Trigger remedies are somehow "punitive." But punitive for whom? The Parent Trigger only applies to systemically failing schools -- schools that have been failing to meet academic benchmarks for four or more years. The children at McKinley Elementary -- the first school to employ the Parent Trigger --have a 1.5 percent chance of going to college. That's not good enough for my kids, Ravitch's grandkids or anyone else's kids. Ravitch may view the Parent Trigger as "punitive" for the adults working at failing schools, but the status quo is punitive for the children trapped in them.
Ravitch doesn't ultimately believe that parents and kids trapped in these schools should have much of a voice at all in turning them around. She argues that parents should have no more a stake in the governance of their school than should a random person strolling through Central Park have a stake in the governance of that park. The absurdly obvious difference, of course, is that parents are not casual users of their school. They entrust the future of their children to that school every single day. And they cannot afford to let it fail.
As for Ravitch's conspiracy theories, most center around two issues: charter schools and funding.
As it relates to charter schools, she accuses Parent Revolution of "pretending to be representative of ordinary parents, but actually promoting a charter agenda." What she conveniently fails to mention is that as a member of the California State Board of Education, I drafted the first regulations in the history of the State Board to shut down bad charter schools, because failing charter schools are just as bad for kids as failing district schools. Ravitch also conveniently fails to mention that last month, Parent Revolution endorsed legislation that further tightens charter accountability, transparency and disclosure requirements. And if Ravitch had even bothered to read last month's New York Times or http://lat.ms/rpczO6 stories on Parent Trigger, she would know that many of the parents currently organizing around Parent Trigger are organizing around in-district reform options, not charter.
Ravitch then attacks Parent Revolution by falsely claiming that we currently receive funding from multiple "charter school operators," and by accurately noting that we receive funding from foundations that frequently support education reforms. She insinuates that since some of our funders support high quality charter schools, then we must have a secret agenda to brainwash parents into supporting charter schools. We are proud of our funders and disclose all of them on our website, www.parentrevolution.org. One of our largest funders is the Gates Foundation, which has, incidentally, granted more funding to teachers unions than to us. Ravitch herself has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from those very same teachers unions for whom she advocates.
With the future of millions of children on the line, both sides could pass the time manufacturing conspiracy theories about charter schools and teachers unions; or obsessing about the fact that we are funded by the Gates Foundation (as are the teachers unions) or that teachers unions in California outspend Parent Revolution by a factor of hundreds to one. Or we can all choose to grow up, interact like adults, and focus on forging common ground and finding common solutions that work for kids.
It is critical to remember that parents and teachers have a lot in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda. We agree that it's good for kids if teachers are paid a lot more money, and we agree that we ultimately need to raise taxes to do it. We agree that it's good for kids if teachers are respected, empowered and not micromanaged by a bureaucrat who's never met their kids or set foot in their classroom. We agree that it's good for kids if teachers are unionized and have basic workplace protections. In fact, AFT President Randi Weingarten has negotiated progressive contracts and supported progressive policies in districts across the country that I'd love to have for my own daughters right here in Los Angeles.
Let's also stipulate that everyone on all sides of this issue are good people who care about kids. Diane Ravitch is a talented academic who has devoted her life to this issue. She clearly cares about kids and the future of public education in America.
What we will not back down from is our fundamental belief that the status quo in public education is broken in large part because the interests of adults too often trump the interest of children, and that empowered parents are the key to systemically ending that dynamic.
This movement is growing. Ravitch's brand of rhetoric doesn't hurt us, it helps us. Every time opponents resort to personal attacks, half-truths and conspiracy theories to defend the status quo, they expose themselves as being devoid of any new ideas to save parents and children trapped in failing schools. Every time they fabricate facts because the reality on the ground does not support their position, they make our argument for us better than we ever could for why parents need power over the education of their own children. Parents know that the losers in this war of sound bites are not the reformers or the teachers unions. The losers are their own children.
The late Senator Pat Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
So let's debate. But let's stick to the facts. Let's cut the name calling and conspiracy theories. Let's agree that it's time for the adults to start acting like grown-ups. And most important, let's hold ourselves accountable to making every single decision about school policy and union contracts as if that decision would directly impact our own children.
Follow Ben Austin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@parentrev