If It Quacks Like A Duck — Thoughts On The “Parent Trigger”

The California State Board Of Education will be considering new rules for the so-called “parent trigger” law this week.  This law allows 51% of parents whose children attend a “low-performing” school ( or parents who will have children attending that school in the future),  to sign a petition and have major changes made — closing it down completely, replacing the principal and extending the school plus other changes, replacing the principal and firing 50% of the teachers, or converting it into a charter school.

In light of these pending new rules, it’s worth considering some background.

Low-income people have many stresses in their lives — working multiple jobs or trying to find work, high-crime, health problems, etc.  Partially because of those stresses, often whatever time they might have for community improvement efforts can be geared more towards “mutual aid” groups — religious congregations, block clubs, and, for immigrant communities, groups organized around their native states, villages, or countries.  These mutual aid organizations can provide immediate help  for immediate problems — today!  These could be funeral expenses, babysitting, getting appliances fixed, as well as vehicles for the relationships and social capital that we all need.

This dynamic, known by anyone who has either lived or worked closely in low-income communities, tends to make any successful efforts to organize for social change — including the desire for healthy and effective neighborhood schools — rooted in those mutual aid institutions — those congregations, block clubs, and ethnic associations.  The social capital within them can provide the energy, leadership, and support to initiate those efforts —  with either the groups working on their own or inviting others (like the organization I worked for as an organizer for many years — the Industrial Areas Foundation) to assist them. You seldom will find major projects initiated by individuals.  Typically, with all the challenges most low-income people face, the energy is seldom there.  But, connected to others,  the energy can be found.

This is in contrast to communities that are more financially comfortable, where you often will find individuals initiating major community projects.  Partially, this is because they tend to have fewer dramatic challenges in their lives, and therefore have more energy and confidence to move on issues on their own.

One exception to this perspective is what community organizers call a “slash and burn” strategy, which is being used by Parent Revolution in support of the parent trigger.  Using this methodology, a group (generally one that has recently received a large amount of grant money to work in low-income neighborhoods) hires plenty of staff and throws “time” at a community. Often, the group  has few connections, if any, to the community that is chosen.   By going  door-to-door, talking  to and  visiting with people often enough, the staff can provide the glue to bring individuals  together for a short time to get something accomplished on a single issue (and get headlines for the organization).  After that initial success is completed, however, the group will generally dissipate and the staff will move on to another neighborhood.   The  neighborhood social capital, largely built up with outside staff, seldom sustains itself.  It is different from the kind of social capital built by people themselves in organizations that they themselves have built — congregations, block clubs, ethnic associations, etc.

Many editorial writers throughout California and in other states are waxing rhapsodically about how the parent trigger is “fundamentally democratic” and about “the rights of parents.”. I wonder how many of those writers have actually ever worked with low-income people to make change? I haven’t seen a single editorial wondering why no local institution was involved in developing the parent trigger effort going on in Compton.  What these editorial writers don’t seem to understand  is that  Parent Revolution, the group behind the parent trigger, was founded,  funded and led by leaders in the charter school movement.   They parachuted in and did “slash and burn” organizing.   Is it a surprise that parents whom they brought together chose the charter school option?

It is not about  “democracy” or “the rights of parents.”  If that was their concern, the Parent Revolution would be in dialogue with local long-standing community institutions, and only come into neighborhoods where they were invited by several of them.  The parent trigger is being used, and will continue to be used, as a stalking horse for people who want to convert existing neighborhood schools into charters — plain and simple.

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is, indeed, a duck.

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