Minda Corso

We shouldn’t back down

In School Choice, Standards and Accountability on September 28, 2012 at 6:30 am

There is some question about whether Florida lawmakers will make another attempt to pass a parent trigger law next year. The measure narrowly failed in the last legislative session because of a tie vote in the Senate.

The Florida Education Association and its allies in the Florida PTA and Fund Education Now led the charge against parent trigger, calling it an assault on public education.

Parent trigger laws basically give parents in consistently failing schools the right to demand remedies ranging from a staffing change to a takeover by a charter school, with the latter option requiring the clearance of some pretty high hurdles.

Now you might think groups that encourage parental involvement in schools would support parental involvement in schools. But such is not the case here. Instead we hear bogeyman tales about evil, for-profit charter schools lined up to take over neighborhood schools.

Like most hyperbole, that is nonsense. But it does raise an interesting question: What exactly are we supporting when we support public education. Are we supporting traditional public school bureaucracies for better or worse? Or are we supporting the best possible education outcome for children using public resources?

In the case of the Fund Education Now moms, I imagine the two perspectives converge. I assume that, like me, they can afford to live within the boundaries of top-performing public schools. So by supporting the public school bureaucracy they are supporting the education of their children.

But what about parents who can’t afford those neighborhoods, who live next to failing schools? In their case, supporting public school bureaucracies is not supporting the education of their children. It’s quite the opposite. In fact, an evil, for-profit charter school may well do a much better job.

I would wager almost all the parents you saw in Tallahassee opposing parent trigger were middle class at a minimum and send their children to A or B schools. It would have been interesting if, during the debate, a legislator would have asked for a show of hands from everyone whose children attended a consistently failing school.

I also assume that back home, these activists have no trouble contacting their school board representatives and that their voices are heard loud and clear in their kids’ schools. More power to them.

But the people the trigger law was designed to empower — low-income parents trapped within the boundaries of lousy schools — don’t have the time or resources to lobby in Tallahassee. They don’t have their school board members’ cell phone numbers on speed dial.

Parent trigger would have created a more level playing field for them. The bill required a school receive two failing grades before the trigger could be pulled. Once a school received one failing grade, the school district would have moved heaven and earth to prevent a second one. Low-income parents at failing schools finally would have gotten the kind of attention that opponents of parent trigger take for granted at their schools.

I don’t think this was their conscious intention. But the battle over parent trigger was the haves denying power to the have nots.

There also is this unsettling assumption. And it’s that low-income parents aren’t sophisticated enough to know what is good for their children, and so they would be hoodwinked by the snake oil salesmen from the charter schools.

This is becoming a wedge issue among liberals. Democrats traditionally have been strong supporters of public schools because unions are huge contributors. But the neglect of low-income children by education bureaucracies is getting hard to ignore. And so we have growing support for school choice among Democrats, most noticeably President Obama.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed parent trigger laws. Leading this effort were two African American mayors, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, and a Hispanic, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles.

They understand public education needs to prioritize what is in the best interests of children. The parent trigger bill is not a plot against public education. It is a plot to level the playing field for low-income parents, thereby improving the education of their children.

Period.

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