This week there have been two articles/posts published sharing critiques of the parent trigger law. Once came from Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, who wrote Why parents can’t save schools. The other piece was in Thoughts On Public Education and shared quotes from a number trigger critics and advocates. Several perspectives in that article and Jay’s piece communicated that the parent trigger law was bad because parents didn’t know enough to effectively improve schools.
Look, I’m obviously no fan of the parent trigger as you can see from The Best Resources For Learning Why The Parent Trigger Isn’t Good For Parents, Kids Or Schools. However, I think the condescending and paternalistic objection to it that parents don’t know enough about education to effectively engage in school improvement efforts is off-base.
As most readers know, I was a community organizer for nineteen years before becoming a teacher nine years ago. An often-repeated organizer adage is that often the people most directly affected by the problem have some pretty good ideas on how to get it fixed. Education is no exception.
The key, though, is using organizing techniques in the open and respectful way that has been shown to be effective time and time again. In this process, the leadership comes from a local institution with longstanding ties in the local community; an invitation for outside assistance — if it is needed — comes from those local leaders; residents organize to ask their neighbors what their concerns are without the people doing the asking having a preconceived set of problems and solutions they want to see prioritized; community members meet with all stakeholders in the problem to share concerns, learn new ideas for solving them, and develop allies; and then negotiations begin to achieve a solution. Perhaps a little money was raised to pay for an organizer to work a few hours each week on the effort, but the emphasis is on what Saul Alinsky called “The Iron Rule” — never do for others what they can do for themselves.
Contrast this with the parent trigger campaign as it has been waged in California — an outside group with zero ties to a local community parachutes several fulltime organizers into a neighborhood that they picked for its demographics; the group has a clear agenda and is generously funded by several foundations with their own clear political agenda; there are no meetings with any other stakeholders to identify common issues and explore new solutions; and a non-negotiable demand is then announced.
This warped and manipulative use of a few organizing techniques in the cause of the parent trigger is what we should all be objecting to — not to parent engagement in school improvement efforts. Parents can and must be a key ally to educators as we fight back against attacks on us, our schools and our students and we can do so by using the genuine art and the spirit of community organizing.
Parent trigger initiatives are stalling throughout the country, which is no great surprise because that’s what tends to be the result of manipulative and condescending strategies. Let’s not let the strategists behind it pull victory out of the jaws of defeat by driving a wedge between us and the parents of the children we teach.