By Caroline Grannan
This commentary is in response to recent Los Angeles Times coverage of the education “reform” organization Parent Revolution's repackaging of itself as an adviser to parents on choosing schools in Los Angeles.
Parent Revolution (PRev) started in Los Angeles in a blaze of publicity in 2009, predicting with great fanfare and much enthusiastic press coverage that it would transform many “failing” public schools into charter schools. PRev created the “parent trigger,” whereby a 50%+1 majority of parents at a school can sign a petition forcing “transformation” of the school, or forcing the school to close. PRev lobbying led to a California law in early 2010 allowing parent triggers statewide.
Despite the fanfare, in those seven years, PRev has succeeded in turning only one school into a charter school – Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto (San Bernardino County), Calif., in 2012. That effort ripped the school community apart -- splitting up friendships, creating deeply hostile factions and even leading to schoolyard fights among the kids. Reports on the results of the charterization are wildly mixed, and the mainstream media, which descended on Adelanto eagerly to cover the battle, lost interest in following up afterward.
Parent Revolution began in 2009 under the auspices of Los Angeles’ Green Dot charter school chain, launched by the mercurial, once-admired Green Dot founder Steve Barr. The intent appeared to be to enable Green Dot to take over schools.
Barr’s name is no longer mentioned in connection with PRev, possibly because of his checkered history, including a rapidly squelched flap about misuse of funds and some much-publicized failed projects. The story of Barr and the Green Dot charters he founded has been marked by rifts, feuds and separations, as has the story of PRev itself. Since PRev began operating on a statewide and then national scope, there has never again been public discussion of Green Dot taking over a parent trigger school.
PRev has run parent triggers in a few schools around Los Angeles, claiming to have achieved some changes less drastic than charterization. In one case, its petitions got the principal fired – and all but one or two teachers left the school in protest, with many parents objecting that they hadn't meant to get rid of the principal or drive out the teachers.
There's never anything but the most vague and sketchy press follow-up of PRev efforts. Reports pop up in the press trumpeting PRev efforts that are never heard from again. I started following PRev to begin with because former PRev Executive Director Ben Austin told the press he had operations going in my school community in San Francisco. Yet there has never again been a sighting of PRev operations here.
PRev moved to the national stage, lobbying to get laws allowing parent triggers in various states. Because my ability as a volunteer to keep tabs on every PRev activity is limited, I can't give a complete count of what states PRev lobbied in and what states passed parent trigger laws, but the efforts and the story that the parent trigger was spreading nationwide were widely and enthusiastically covered in the press.
During those campaigns, PRev had paid staffers pose as school parents and testify before lawmakers – as was known to happen in Florida and Texas – and PRev claimed routinely and falsely that it had successfully transformed many schools in California, as reported in the Florida press.
I follow education news coverage closely and have Google News alerts set for “Parent Revolution,” “parent trigger,” “charter school” and other education “reform”-related terms. So I try hard to follow the story, and as best I can determine, the number of parent triggers that have occurred (or even been attempted) in any other state is: zero.
As wonderful as the “reformers” and the press have made parent triggers sound, why aren't they occurring far and wide? Here are some problems with parent triggers.
Most people in school communities actually don't want to attack and rip apart their children's schools. Any who do want to attack and rip apart the school don't generally win favor in the school community. That makes it pretty difficult to get a parent-trigger petition together. As seen in Adelanto, any effort that isn't done in secret (as occurred in an earlier failed effort in Compton, Calif., engineered entirely outside the school by paid PRev staff) will ignite destructive conflict in the school community.
In every parent trigger that's been reported, there has been a storm of protest afterward from parents who signed the parent-trigger petition and said they were misled about its purpose. Parents recall being told “Sign here to improve our school,” “Sign here to beautify our school” or “Sign here to improve parking around our school.” This poses a major PR problem for PRev, among other difficulties.
Since parent triggers end up in court, they clearly incur high legal costs. Though there's an L.A. law firm that has represented PRev pro bono (apparently believing that it's representing low-income parents, though PRev has funding from billionaires), this can't be painless or free of costs for PRev.
A major problem for PRev is that charter operators actually don't want to take over existing troubled school communities (especially those ripped apart by an explosive, divisive parent trigger). That renders the primary purpose of PRev, turning public schools over to charter operators, entirely unfeasible, since the supposed beneficiaries don't want those schools.
Anyone with experience in nonprofits can see the problem here: PRev is accountable to its funders and wants to keep its funding going, but has no track record of success, except its ability to win favorable press coverage and enthusiastic editorial endorsements, which sustain it only for so long without actual results.
With a disastrous track record so far, PRev is now shifting its focus in a new direction, to providing advice to parents on how to choose and apply for LAUSD schools. This may persuade the funders that it's doing something worth investing in after all.
The heart of the PRev story is the failure over its seven-year existence of its original mission. When the mainstream press allows PRev to simply switch its story without focusing on its history, especially given the ample, enthusiastic past coverage of its previous version of itself, that misinforms the reader by omission. Misinforming the reader is a journalistic sin.
(In this commentary, I'm not focusing on whether turning public schools into charter schools – thus turning public property over to private operators – would be beneficial; I will just say that years of evidence indicates that it would not. That's a separate commentary, however.)
About me: I'm a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle by profession and was a San Francisco public-school parent from 1996-2012. I'm writing this on my own time as an unpaid volunteer, unconnected with my job at the Chronicle. I was previously a copy editor at the San Jose Mercury News, and I took a hiatus of many years from my newsroom career while my children were in school. I became a public-school activist during that time, and followed the story of the parent trigger closely from the beginning. Since I returned to working in a newsroom in 2012, I have carefully recused myself from working with copy on any issues in which I was involved in advocacy during my years out of the newsroom. Here is a wrapup I wrote in January 2015 of the parent trigger (on a volunteer basis and anonymously, as I was then worried about my right to speak).