If school reformers want an example of successful persistence in challenging traditional districts and the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates that work together to thwart systemic reform (when the unions aren’t rendering district bureaucracies servile), they just need to look to the families of children attending Desert Trails Elementary School in dusty Adelanto, Calif. Since February, the families (now galvanized as the Desert Trails Parent Union) has battled to seize control of the school from the Adelanto district, which has long ran the school academically into the ground. In the process, the families have had to withstand moves by the district to invalidate signatures on their Parent Trigger petition, and a last-minute campaign by the National Education Association affiliate there to scare families who originally supported the takeover into stepping away from the effort. By April, with Adelanto refusing to certify the petition in spite of evidence of fraud by the NEA-organized counter-takeover group, the parents union took the district to court.
The move has now yielded results. Last week, California Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the Desert Trails takeover could proceed in the next 30 days, tossing out Adelanto’s decision to invalidate the petition. Essentially declaring in his 13-page opinion that many of the reasons cited by Adelanto for rejecting the petition didn’t stand up to legal scrutiny, Malone ruled that the district’s decision to toss out 97 signatures “exceeds the scope of authority” under the Golden State’s regulations governing the Parent Trigger process and “amounts to an abuse of discretion”. While Adelanto was allowed to toss out a few signatures on the petition because the Desert Trails Parent Union didn’t provide any comparable versions of them, the judge ruled that the final reason why Adelanto invalidated the petition — that it didn’t have the name of the parents union on it — didn’t stand up because the families were wearing T-shirts that expressly showed on whose behalf they were advocating.
Certainly Adelanto may end up appealing Malone’s decision. But the decision is a victory for the Desert Trails parents, who, until the passage of the nation’s first Parent Trigger law two years ago, had few options than either escaping the failure mill — either by sending their kids to one of the few private schools in the city outside of their community (if they can afford to do so), or hope for a charter school operator to launch a school within it — or simply condemn the futures of their children to educational neglect and malpractice. Even if there were plenty of school choice flourishing in Adelanto, the Desert Trails families, like parents in other parts of the nation — want real choices right in their own neighborhoods. Considering that Desert Trails is a part of their neighborhood, it makes sense for these families to take charge of neighborhood schools from Adelanto’s central bureaucracy and NEA affiliate, which have both proven less than concerned with the children these parents love.
The fact that the families are actually looking to transform Desert Trails into a charter school they will operate on their own — instead of simply looking to hand off the school to a chain — is also a strong stand for families taking playing powerful roles in shaping teaching, curricula, and school cultures on behalf of their kids. Running a school won’t be easy, but it won’t be insurmountable either. Thanks to digital and blended learning tools, the Desert Trails families can provide their kids with high-quality instruction and curricula. There are also plenty of tools and lessons in school turnarounds from which the Desert Trails families can glean. They can travel 86 miles to Los Angeles and learn from charter school operator Green Dot in its overhaul of Alain Locke High School, and pick up a copy of Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement to find out what Chicago has learned from school turnarounds. Even if they decide to hand it off to an operator, the families would still have to be actively engaged in governance (including deciding whether to remove the operator if it doesn’t meet expectations) in order to make the turnaround successful. (Update: Desert Trails families may end up taking the latter route.)
But the Desert Trails ruling is more than just a victory for Adelanto parents (including those who may now be mulling their own Parent Trigger efforts). It is also an important stance for expanding the role of families in education decision-making.
The traditional structure of district-run schools and centralized bureaucracies that has been at the heart of American public education since the 1840s has always been driven by an inherent distrust of (and condescension toward) families. As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III illustrated in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, teachers unions, school boards, superintendents and administrators considered parents and the groups that represented them to be little more than tools for their co-opting. From far too many teachers and school leaders in urban districts who look at poor and minority families with utter disdain, to suburban parents who must deal with inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences and the lack of information on Advanced Placement courses their kids need to stay on the track to gaining high paying blue- and white-collar jobs, to American Indian parents whose children were seized from their homes and placed into boarding schools to be educationally and physically abused, families have long had to put up with traditionalist practices that have actively worked to disengage them from education (even as they are blamed by those very practitioners for their failures in teaching and curricula).
But many families are no longer willing to accept this bargain. Poor and middle-class urban families long ago recognized that education is critical to revitalizing communities and helping their kids be prepared for successful futures in an increasingly knowledge-based economic future — and have long-concluded that traditional public education practices such as zoned schooling and ability tracking no longer work (if they ever did in the first place). Thanks to data on student, school, and teacher achievement unleashed as a result of developments such as Value-Added Assessment and the passage of No Child, a larger number of middle-class suburbanites realize this too. The very technological changes wrought in the rest of society that have helped people become their own news media outlets, curate their own music choices, even create their own encyclopedias (and have crippled the traditional gatekeepers in those realms) is also reshaping the way families want to engage in shaping education. And thanks to the expansion of school choice (including charters, vouchers, and voucher-like tax credit plans), more families have the power to help their kids escape failing schools.
Yet simply being able to escape failure isn’t enough. Regardless of their economic or social backgrounds, families will always want to have high-quality school options right in their own neighborhoods. The high financial and time costs of transporting children to and from school will always be a real concern, no matter how wealthy parents may be. As Dianne Piche of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights noted last year in a Center for American Progress forum, single mothers, in particular, have to also think about childcare, especially since they must pick up their kids from school and daycare. The fact that black, Latino, and Native families want their kids to be around peers of their own race and ethnicity — especially those who are also doing well in school — in order to build self-pride also means that neighborhood schools will always be part of the equation; this desire is one reason why charter schools have also flourished in big cities even amid complaints from ivory-tower civil rights types who wrongly idealize integration as some sort of solution to the nation’s education crisis. And considering that families pay hefty taxes in order to subsidize failing schools in their own communities, why wouldn’t they want to either take control of these schools or gain some leverage in forcing the districts that run them into embracing systemic reforms?
Parent Trigger laws allow for families to play stronger roles in education by actually being engaged and empowered in operating the schools in the neighborhoods at the center of their children’s lives. When families can actually make decisions in schools, they are going to do all they can to help their kids succeed because they must be responsible for using the power they gain. Because families must also be thoughtful in what is done, they will go further and gain consensus with other families the same way they do so in other aspects in their lives. And in the process, families become the impromptu grassroots leaders — the Gwen Samuels and Virginia Walden Fords — the school reform movement needs to transform American public education.
The Desert Trails victory is also another step for advancing the role that families should play in education for their children. It is time for reformers to take this win to heart and embrace Parent Power for all families.