Critiquing Diane Ravitch’s Parent Trigger Critique

Bruno Behrend

By Bruno Behrend
[Sigh]…Diane Ravitch launched another attack on the Parent Trigger. One of America’s best known reformers is now an apologist for an overpriced and failing education bureaucracy.
Let’s start with this.  California’s Parent Trigger is not a perfect law. There is no such thing. That said, it is a powerful tool that empowers parents to enforce real accountability. It does this by forcing school districts to implement real reforms for failing schools (as defined by a state standard).
Opponents like Ms. Ravitch attack the law as “punitive,” and rail against its ability to expand of charter schools.  I address most of those critiques in the long post below.
Before delving into the debate, however, I hope you take a moment to reflect on just how beneficial the expansion of the Parent Trigger might be when expanded to digital, blended, and online options.
The current California law allows for conversion to school closure, conversion to a charter, and two bureaucratic options called turnaround and transformation.  The two bureaucratic options are cumbersome, and will likely lead to very slow progress in turning around a school.
In our Heartland Institute brief analyzing Parent Trigger, we advocated for adding a voucher option where the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of private schools exists.
If a state has a virtual charter or other digital options, any child attending a failing school should be able to have that option as a trigger as well, perhaps even across state lines.  Like the Florida and Utah laws, if a child can take advantage of an on-line course, the money should follow the child as they avail themselves of that option.
The fact remains that whether the option is a charter, a voucher, or digital courses, we cannot transform education until districts with failing schools are threatened with the loss of schools, students and funds. Legislators might consider adding options to any Parent Trigger legislation filed in the next legislative session.  The Parent Trigger law isn’t perfect, strengthening and expanding parental options will improve the law.
To read Diane Ravitch’s attack on the trigger, go here. My response to her main points is below.

Ravitch: “The Trigger is a ‘deceptive scheme’”

Many parents have discovered no “scheme” is more “deceptive” than your typical school district, where a class of superintendents are trained to obfuscate facts, avoid FOIA requests, and generally shield budgets and contract negotiations until after the citizens have no say.
The Parent Trigger is generally an open and accountable process. Regardless of how the petition campaign is run, the signatures must be verified. There is nothing deceptive about it, particularly when compared to the one of the most deceptive government entities of all – the school district.

Ravitch: “All options are punitive.”

To whom? If a district has been failing to properly educate children for years, then they are the people that DESERVE to lose control of the school. Ms. Ravitch calls it punitive. I call it REAL accountability, not the false accountability of a worthless vote in a rigged, off-year board election.
The Charter Option is hardly punitive for the parent or child. For them, the charter option allows them to dismantle failed “government” infrastructure.
To be sure, charter accountability is an important component, but easily addressed by mandating transparency. Districts have had the ability to shut down failing charters all along. It is time to empower parents so they can shut down failing districts schools.
Hence, charters are a GOOD option. Allowing a voucher, or access to a digital learning option, would be even better.

Ravitch: The promoter of the legislation, Parent Revolution, is “what is known as an ‘Astroturf’ group, an organization pretending to be representative of ordinary parents, but actually promoting a charter agenda.”

I am getting tired of this absurd critique. ALL the education codes in every state have been written by the “promoters” of the existing system. These “promoters,” made up of unions, the DOE, state/local bureaucrats, and backed by an army of government employees, have literally purchasedthe legislation that has made US education the morass of waste, opacity, and mandates that it has become.
Furthermore, these “promoters” have done so out of morally illegitimate financial interests (protecting and expanding their pay, payroll, and job security).
The reader of this post must keep in mind that Parent Revolution, a liberal/progressive group of reformers, is entirely within its rights to “promote” dismantling failed district infrastructure. They are engaged in a pitched political battle with a giant Government Education Complex of well-funded financial interests.
Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, along with many others on the left and right, are perfectly legitimate in their fight to transform education. Certainly everyone has a right to look at their motivation, but when the most powerful interest groups in the nation – the Complex – do so, their crocodile tears amount to a sad joke.
Lastly “Promoting a charter agenda” is a great tool for parental empowerment. Triggering a voucher or digital options would be even better. This isn’t Astroturf. It is old fashioned “community organizing,” and there is nothing wrong with it.

Ravitch: “To me, a public school is a public trust.”

The system has lost that trust.
It is time to force them to face real accountability, not the false hope of useless commissions, studies, meaningless elections, and the shifting sands of musical chair superintendents and education fads (class size, self-esteem, balanced illiteracy, and the latest fad in churning curriculum providers).
Compared to the existing system, those trying to transform education deserve a shot at the title, particularly where the system has failed.

Ravitch: “It means if those who use Central Park in Manhattan don’t like the way the city of New York takes care of it, they should be able to sign a petition and privatize it.”

This is an utterly silly analogy. A city park is not a child’s education. You can’t force people to go to a badly managed park, yet we force children to attend failing schools.
This kind of analogy, however, does expose Ms. Ravitch’s worldview. She protects the system, not the child. It is time to stop caring about districts, systems, unions, bureaucracies, commissions, and the churning of dollars that public education has devolved into.
Trigger laws challenge the failed district system with true accountability. This can only be done by draining the district of funds and students when it fails. If your district schools are good, you have nothing to fear. If they are not good, empower the parents. It’s that simple.

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Anne Schaible

Thank you for making this issue crystal clear....and keeping it in the forefront of reform.
Let's not forget that the system is broken and needs an influx of sound ideas that brings parents, the most powerful advocate for education, into the picture.

Cindy Maguire

Everyone is entitled to work towards making schools better, as you point out. Maybe charter schools and on-line learning will be the magic bullet everyone is looking for when it comes to school reform. But there are some problematic claims in your commentary.
Some examples: Reducing all "promoters" of existing education systems as only being about "protecting and expanding their pay, payroll, and job security" is essentializing a highly diverse profession. It acts to shut down dialogue. My membership in a teacher's union doesn't mean I agree or disagree with all that my union or my school/district does. I don't think there is anyone involved in this dialogue who believes that the system shouldn't be involved in bettering itself.
Secondly, your claim that all we need to do is to empower parents to make schools better ignores larger realities. Individual organizations with the means and funds can exert in inordinate amount of power over parent groups. As you note, the trigger law isn't perfect, but some laws need to be more perfect than others given their inordinate impact on society.
Finally, you don't make clear your criteria for what constitutes a "broken" school. The cry of 'the sky is falling' when it comes to public school systems marginalizes the parts of these systems that are working. It's too easy to make this claim without backing it up. In fact, the most recent effect of this claim, made over the last 15+ years, is NCLB and Race to the Top - education reduced to basic proficiency in math and reading as measured through test scores. "School reform" perpetrated against primarily low-income, high needs communities and their schools. How will a charter school differ in this regard from a regular public school? It won't. Not as long as standardized tests continue to dominate how we measure success.
Involving parents in schools is right and good. Thinking of schools as existing within systems that incorporate multiple constituents can only have a beneficial impact on schools and communities (see Bigger Bolder Approach). Striving for transparency is also to be applauded as is pointing out the problem with the usual suspects driving school reform. But arguing for draconian measures such as "draining the districts of funds and students" unless they "perform".... Wow!
The solutions you advocate for in this commentary hit individual schools, the very places that have the least control over the system that you claim is so irrevocably dysfunctional. And your argument really doesn't take into account the ways that power and the impact of poverty works across all of these systems and stakeholders.

Bruno Behrend

Thanks for the feedback. Here are some thoughts in reply.
1. I don't really think anything is a "silver" or "magic" bullet. My view is that we need more "bullets" (vouchers, charters, digital, blended, tutors, Khan Academy, Home schooling morphing to Home schools, etc.
I like the Parent Trigger because it isn't a bullet. It's the gun.
If are to be serious about every child having the right to a good education, give them that right. In law school, we learn that there is no right with out a remedy.
Parents (suburban, rural and urban) need remedies. More options, plus the trigger does that.
2. I hardly want to shut down dialogue, but one has to call things as they see them. I've witnessed the district system (rump school boards and administrators), and unions "shut down dialogue" for decades.
When any "interest group" in the system says "X is non-negotiable" (collective bargaining, pay, step and lane changes, etc.) I would argue that it is they who are shutting down the dialogue.
Let's be honest (in the interests of dialogue). This is a political fight, not a policy debate. I admit to being more aggressive on this point than many other "transformers." But dialogue should start from honesty, and not the shopworn, lame rhetoric of some school superintendent using Orwellian "doublespeak."
Your being a teacher makes me very interested in your views and experience. Furthermore, unions may or may not survive the reforms I advocate. My beef is only partly with union intransigence. I'm after dismantling the whole system. If the "system" survives this onslaught by improving itself enough to win its survival politically, I can live with that, too. (but I don't think it can)
3. I don't really have a problem with Parent Revolution (or Broad, Gates, et al "exerting influence" over parent groups. The players in the system (districts, unions, both political parties) have been exerting influence for decades. I'm 100% in favor of aggressive political competition.
I'm in favor of as much transparency for triggers, charters, etc. as anyone. Contact me regarding improvements to the trigger, and we can talk.
4. To me, a "broken school" might be one that some parent is unhappy with (yes, I take what some call an extreme view on this, but it is intellectually defensible).
As for the topic at hand (Parent Trigger), I think the state setting a standard for a failing school is an open political debate. For my part, any school failing to graduate 70-80% of its students should qualify as "broken" as well. If that school has a beef with it's feeder schools, then the "broken" high school should be able to "break" the bad feeder schools.
This goes back to my first point. If kids have a 'right' to a good education, lets enforce that right.
5. I lack the time to engage in the "high stake" test debate, and I'm willing to concede that teachers ought to have a say in how tests are used to measure their output. It is also fair to "grade on a curve" when bad / un-involved parenting or disadvantaged communities are in play.
It suffices to say that standardized tests CAN be a fair and accurate measurement of teaching success. I'm open to any other measurement you might suggest. Personally, I'd like to see essay tests, papers, and even video and audio added to the mix.
6. Looked at from the viewpoint of children receiving a substandard education (and yes, I think suburbs deserve to be thrown in this mix), not to mention taxpayers asked to pay for this expensive system, I don't thinking "draining" failed systems of funds is "draconian" at all.
I get that people inside the system disagree. This is the political battle I'm talking about.
7. Individual schools that are failing (and yes, I concede that describing failure is a valid issue for debate) should be hit. Money should flow to education options that work for the parent and child.
I'm more than happy to discuss the impact of poverty on education as well.
In closing, my goal is to replace America's "Government Education Complex" with what I call an "Open Source Learning Network." I believe the best way to do this is to have the money follow the child to a vast new array of education providers.
The constituents inside the complex should be an afterthought in that process. I'm sure they disagree, but they've been driving American education into the ditch for decades now. It's time to let the citizenry (parents, taxpayers, children, new providers, etc.) drive the bus.
Would you be interested in discussing this in a more formal setting? Town hall discussion, radio/audio or video?

Cindy Maguire

Thanks for your response. We can certainly continue the dialogue - but I'd widen the participants beyond just the two of us - paying particular attention to including practicing public K-12 teachers. I now work as a professor, training teachers and I also teach in an after-school K-5 program. As any veteran teacher will tell you, if you're out of the classroom, you're out of the loop. Public school teachers are on the front line of school reform efforts.
I guess, in the end, whatever the remedies are to these ills we both note, I don't see the public/government will to fund them. Simply altering the flow of available monies from one system to another doesn't address broader systemic issues - such an approach relies on the good will of those receiving the monies - and I've got some stories about how such monies have been used, for example in home schooling. As well we can look at charter schools and the disparity of who does or does not have access to private monies and even more to the point, how these monies are used (see Harlem Children's Zone).
A few years ago the organization I used to work with did a study on a group of small schools in the NYC system that 'beat the odds' in terms of graduation rates and college readiness with students from low-income communities. One of the key findings of this study was that the success of these schools, small schools initiated by the small schools movement (read Bill and Melinda Gates), where heavily dependent upon the heroic actions of the school staff. The system that established them in the first place, the system we both agree needs to be 'fixed', moved on to other new reform efforts. What they needed then and probably still need today is simply, more money and support to continue the good work they already do. It's not rocket science and it doesn't need another schooling alternative, such as on-line or charter schools.
Keep me posted and thanks.

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