The Parent Revolution and the Ancien Régime

The ongoing battle between parents and the union-dominated education blob heats up in California.

California state senator Gloria Romero’s Parent Trigger law has been around for over three years now, and its progress has been slow but steady. The law stipulates that if 50 percent +1 of the parents of children in a failing school sign a petition, it can “trigger” a change in the governance of that school either by getting rid of some teachers, firing the principal, shutting the school down or turning it into a charter school. The law was designed to bypass both teachers unions and school boards, and to provide parents with an opportunity to force desperately needed reform. 

There have been five Parent Trigger campaigns in California since 2010:

  • Compton (2010) the parent petition was ultimately dismissed by a judge on a legal technicality. 
  • Adelanto/Desert Trails (2011/2012) two CA Superior Court judges upheld the petition, allowing the parents to move forward with the selection of a high-quality, non-profit charter school which will take over Desert Trails Elementary in July.
  • 24th Street Elementary School (Los Angeles/2013) parents overwhelmingly selected an historic collaborative partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and a high-performing, non-profit charter operator Crown Prep Academy. It will also begin the transformation process in July. LAUSD will be responsible for Pre-K – 4 and Crown Prep for 5-8.
  • Haddon Avenue Elementary School (Los Angeles/ 2012-2013) parents voted to “pause” their ‘Parent Trigger’ petition efforts to work on a collaborative in-district reform plan for their school with teachers and the district.
  • Weigand Avenue Elementary School (Los Angeles/2013) parents petitioned for a “transformation” model, allowing them to work collaboratively with teachers and LAUSD on much-needed changes, including replacing the principal.

While the 24th Street conversion went relatively smoothly, activist parents typically encounter serious pushback from unyielding teachers unions and their fellow travelers. A few examples:

2010 – Then California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittleman a human gaffe machinedescribed the new Parent Trigger law as a “lynch mob provision,” managing to offend parents, especially African-Americans, all over the state.

2011 – Jerry Brown removed Parent Revolution (the Parent Trigger parent group) executive director Ben Austin from the state school board and added California Teachers Association über-lobbyist Pat Rucker.

2011 – Word of the Parent Trigger spread across the country and parents tried to establish it in Connecticut, but in a story first reported by RiShawn Biddle, the American Federation of Teachers used slimy tactics to effectively neuter the law. Most writers and bloggers who have written about the incident have focused on a pdf (originally a PowerPoint, posted on the AFT website), which very honestly and cynically describes the process by which the union did its dirty work. The AFT quickly realized that this display of raw union power was not in keeping with its persona as a reform-minded partner that is always willing to collaborate with parents, communities and other stakeholders, and pulled the pdf from its website shortly after the Biddle piece was posted. They then started to play defense … sort of.

2012 – After a successful campaign to pull the trigger at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, a Mojave Desert town in eastern CA, the CTA went to work. The Wall Street Journal reported that the union sent out “representatives” to Adelanto to disseminate “information” to the parents there. (Union speak alert: the terms “representatives” and “information” mean sending unidentified operatives to petition-signers’ homes to feed them lies about the petition that they just signed.)

2012 Won’t Back Down, a film loosely based on the Parent Trigger, was subjected to a thorough trashing by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. As part of her diatribe, she angrily stated I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie….” This is understandable because, as I explained at the time,

No record indicates she ever served as a full-time teacher or was evaluated by a principal or other school official.

When Weingarten ran for president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers in 1998, her opponent, Michael Shulman, suggested that she was not a “real teacher.”

“She worked five months full-time that I’ve been aware of, in 1992, at Clara Barton High School,” Shulman was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “Since then she taught maybe one class for 40 minutes a day.”

As one who spent almost 30 years as a classroom teacher, I will tell you that the teachers in the movie were quite accurately portrayed and indeed, I “recognized” many of them.

2013 – In an unusual event, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, happy not to be excluded from the process, was a willing party to the conversion at 24th Street School. But UTLA chief Warren Fletcher stepped in it by saying in April that the union was “watching what happens at 24th Street and other schools – watching to see if it destabilizes the schools.” (Note to Fletcher: Poorly performing schools are already “destabilized.” The Parent Trigger is a mechanism to “restabilize.”)

Just where are we now?

The current Weigand conversion saw the parents vote to keep all the teachers but get rid of the principal who had let the school deteriorate during her three years on the job. But a recent one-sided Los Angeles Times piece claimed that….

  •   teachers and students alike loved the principal Irma Cobian.
  •   21 of 22 teachers have asked for transfers to other schools.
  •   a student said Cobian is a special principal who gives her hugs and understands her struggles, such as losing her father to cancer last year.

However, a Parent Trigger press release lays out many facts that the Times either didn’t know or chose not to print:

In June 2011, parents and teachers at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles signed a petition as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in their principal. … It identifies on one side the teachers who signed, with parents on the other side and following pages. Date stamps indicate its receipt at that time by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). 

This first petition from Weigand parents and teachers clearly establishes their deep concerns about the principal and her management style many months before a parent union chapter — Weigand Parents United — was formed to pull together their successful 2013 Parent Trigger campaign.

In looking at this original 2011 parent and teacher petition, it’s worth noting:

  • None of the teachers who signed this petition remain at the school. Of 22 teachers who were at the school prior to 2009-2010 when this principal began, only 14 remained in 2010-2011, 11 in 2011-2012 and 8 in this current school year. There has been significant — and detrimental to the students — teacher turnover in the school during the administration of this principal.
  • Correspondingly, with the exit of these teachers over the past three years, the school’s API scores have declined significantly. Prior to the arrival of this current principal, the 2008-2009 API score for Weigand Avenue Elementary School was 717 (23 points ABOVE the average for LAUSD schools. In the first year of her tenure (2009-2010) the API score was 716 (just 7 points above the LAUSD average). In 2010-2011 — when the parents and teachers signed the attached petition — the API score had SLUMPED to 689 and was 39 points BELOW the LAUSD average for that school year. In 2011-2012, the school’s API score remained STAGNANT at 689 putting it a WHOPPING 56 points below the LAUSD average.
  • The data shows that, with the exit of 14 teachers over the past three years (including those who signed the attached petition), academic achievement at the school has dropped dramatically.
  • Weigand Avenue Elementary School is ranked 15th from the BOTTOM of LAUSD elementary schools. It is clear this is a school in academic achievement crisis.
  • Weigand Avenue Elementary School parents cannot wait another three years for this principal to try and turn their school around. She has been singularly unsuccessful to date; 14 of the 22 teachers who were at the school before she arrived have left, apparently unable to work with her. 

The facts are inescapable. This is a school in academic and student achievement decline throughout the tenure of this principal. The parents, unwilling to allow this to continue, have successfully chosen the option that holds this principal directly accountable — and now removes her. 

As a result of the recent Parent Trigger activity, UTLA is starting to feel the heat and plans to push back. The union held a press conference and demonstration at Weigand last Thursday, and called a special meeting this past Sunday. The following is from the UTLA website:

School Threat

Chapter chairs at elementary schools that are facing a possible takeover by “Parent Trigger” are invited to attend an important meeting to discuss strategies for dealing with this threat. Other interested chapter chairs are also welcome to attend.

Important materials will be distributed. This meeting is crucial for chapter chairs at targeted schools.

There have been no reports yet as to what transpired at the meeting.

And finally, you can always tell when the status quo crowd is getting nervous – they invariably ramp up the hysteria. In Diane Ravitch’s case, that’s hard to do, however, because the former reformer turned union-BFF has been on the loopy side now for years. Most recently, in response to the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, she said,

Every one of the teachers was a career educator. Everyone was doing exactly what she wanted to do. They’ve worked in a school that was not obsessed with testing but with the needs of children. This we know: the staff at Sandy Hook loved their students. They put their students first, even before their own lives.

Oh, and one other thing, all these dedicated teachers belonged to a union. The senior teachers had tenure, despite the fact that “reformers” (led by ConnCAN, StudentsFirst, and hedge fund managers) did their best last spring to diminish their tenure and to tie their evaluations to test scores….

So she is saying that the teachers at the school were exceptional because they were unionized, had tenure and were not “obsessed with testing.”

Huh?

But Ravitch really outdid herself on May 25th when she went after Ben Austin in a vicious ad hominem attack. Responding to the latest trigger event at Weigand, she wrote on her blog,

Ben Austin is loathsome. He ruined the life and career of a dedicated educator. She was devoted to the children, he is devoted to the equally culpable foundations that fund his Frankenstein organization–Walton, Gates, and Broad. His biggest funder is the reactionary Walton Family Foundation, which spends $160 million every year to advance privatization.

Ben Austin is Walton’s useful idiot. He prattles on about his liberal credentials, but actions speak louder than words.

Here is my lifelong wish for him.

Ben, every day when you wake up, you should think of Irma Cobian. When you look in the mirror, think Irma Cobian. Your last thought every night should be Irma Cobian.

Ben, you ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre. Never forget her. She should be on your conscience–if you have one–forever.

Whatever you may think of the Parent Trigger, Ben Austin is a good and decent man who works tirelessly to give kids and their parents an opportunity to escape failure. He has done nothing to deserve the revolting attack leveled on him by a malevolent crank. Many education writers and bloggers immediately excoriated Ravitch for her tirade. Just a few examples:

·         Alexander Russohttp://laschoolreport.com/sad-teachers-vs-poor-parents/

·         Joanne Jacobs – http://www.joannejacobs.com/2013/05/trigger-parents-fire-principal-unfair-satanic/

·         RiShawn Biddle http://dropoutnation.net/2013/05/28/perhaps-conservative-reformers-have-finally-stopped-protecting-diane-ravitch/

·         Rick Hesshttp://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2013/05/dante_ravitchs_abhorrent_assault_on_ben_austin.html

Perhaps Whitney Tilson said it best in an email:

Even in the world of politics, this type of language and name-calling goes far beyond the bounds of acceptability and reasonable discourse. If Ravitch is reduced to publishing these rabid kind of statements to further her reputation, then it is abundantly clear she has nothing left to work with. Any shred of credibility with which she may have been cloaking herself is now gone. It is time to hold Ravitch fully accountable for the highly inappropriate language she is deliberately injecting into what should be genuine dialogue around public education and its future.

The bottom line here is that when you have union bosses and their acolytes tripping over themselves to discredit, insult and destroy you and your work, it is a sign that you are doing something right. Keep it up, Ben! Eventually, the ancien régime will fall and the parent revolution will be victorious.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

1 reply
  1. Thomas Payne says:

    If parents really cared about their children’s education they would have them in private schools and not waste their time dealing with these stupid teachers’ unions. The primary reason that things are as bad as they are is that the majority of parents are stupid and, at the same time, complacent, wanting the government to serve as their primary care giver. The US is the wealthiest nation in the world, but the average American has the I.Q. of an artichoke. Proof: Look who the American electorate voted into the White House. Twice. I rest my case.

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