Certainly Parent Power activists and other reformers outside of Florida were shocked earlier this week when the state senate failed to pass the latest (and weakest) version of a proposed Parent Trigger law by a tie vote. What was even more shocking to them was the news that Gov. Rick Scott, who had seemingly pushed hard for systemic reform during his first two years in office, was the man behind killing the bill. As Sunshine State News reported this week, Scott’s staff had worked the halls of the statehouse calling upon any senator they could find to vote against the bill, which had won strong passage out of the house just a month earlier. Why? Because Scott was more concerned with keeping traditionalists — especially National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, as well as school districts — from strongly backing a Democratic challenger next year during his re-election campaign.
Yet Scott’s machinations were of no surprise to your editor or to anyone paying attention to all the discussions surrounding the proposed Parent Trigger law. For months, Scott, with the help of otherwise-sensible reform-minded Commissioner Tony Bennett, has worked hard to derail the legislation, arguing first that the legislation’s original proposal to make the state board of education the final appellate body for Parent Power takeovers was too burdensome on the body, then arguing that the plan may not stand constitutional scrutiny by state courts; the fact that Florida’s own constitution essentially puts the state in charge of structuring public education apparently didn’t figure into Scott’s thinking. Once the original legislation passed out of the Sunshine State’s lower house, Sen. David Simmons neutered the legislation on Scott’s behalf. This should have led Parent Power activists to abandon the bill. But they didn’t, likely to Scott’s dismay. Ultimately, Scott seems to have persuaded four senators — Jack Latvala, Greg Evers, Rene Garcia, and Miguel Diaz — to provide the votes needed to kill the bill at least for this year. And throughout this, Scott was so cowardly that he couldn’t stand up and say he opposed the bill as well as to giving families the ability to overhaul the failure mills in their own communities. Shameful.
Simply put, Scott and the four state senators who helped him defeat the proposed Parent Trigger law was far more concerned about keeping their political offices than helping families — especially those from poor and minority households — take their rightful places as lead decision-makers in education. Scott in particular behaved just as cravenly as his predecessor, Charlie Crist, whose political career went by the way side four years ago after vetoed tenure reform legislation. For that, along with a move last month to weaken Florida’s strong reform efforts, Scott and his colleagues deserve to lose their offices next year, as should every black and Latino legislator who also opposed it. Hopefully one of Scott’s predecessors in the state high office, Jeb Bush, will rally reformers and others around the state to find a more-suitable successor.
Yet Scott and his colleagues in Florida aren’t the only ones who fail to understand the need to expand opportunities for families to provide our children with high-quality teaching and comprehensive college-preparatory curricula.
Yesterday in Connecticut, the Connecticut Parents Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of families at Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury against the district, and Gov. Dan Malloy for attempting to circumvent that state’s Parent Trigger law through efforts to place the school under the oversight of the Commissioner’s Network school turnaround effort. As Dropout Nation readers remember, Walsh’s school governance council moved back in January to launch a takeover of the school from the district’s control amid concerns that the As Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel (a DN Contributing Editor) and Alisha Love, a mother of a Walsh Elementary student alleges, the district, with the help of the American Federation of Teachers’ affiliate there, is trying to scotch the takeover attempt by putting the school’s leadership (which backed the effort) on administrative leave as well as bullying members of the school governance council, which is charged under state law with launching Parent Trigger efforts. Malloy, along with his education czar, Stefan Pryor, have aided and abetted the district’s efforts to scotch the Parent Power effort through the Commissioner’s Network, his signature reform effort. Under Public Law 116, the school reform law Malloy managed to get passed last year, a district can avoid a family-led takeover of its school by placing it under Commissioner’s Network control; once the state steps in, the school governance council is neutralized (and thus, the ability for families to utilize the Parent Trigger) and is effectively replaced by a turnaround committee controlled by an NEA or AFT local.
Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in two venues this week that Parent Trigger laws weren’t exactly tops on his list of how he felt parents should have power in education. While somewhat supportive of Parent Trigger laws, Duncan thought there were better methods for families to be empowered in education such as demanding schools and districts to provide their kids with “world-class” education. Your editor wasn’t exactly expecting Duncan to offer a ringing endorsement of Parent Trigger laws. After all, it would be akin to the Obama Administration endorsing school vouchers — a bridge too far given its centrist tendencies and its desire to keep NEA and AFT affiliates at bay (even as other reforms it pursues antagonizes them). But one would expect Duncan to know quite well that such tactics never work for families — especially those from poor and minority households — who are often deemed nuisances and worse by far too many teachers and school leaders, most-notably those responsible for operating failing schools.
Certainly Scott, Malloy, and Duncan have otherwise been sensible in expanding the opportunities for families to choose high-quality education for their children, including the expansion of public charter schools. So why would they have so many misgivings — and in the case of Scott, outright oppose — providing families with the ability to overhaul schools right in their own neighborhoods? Chalk it up to their unwillingness (along with that of fellow political leaders) to stand up boldly to traditionalists (including teachers’ union affiliates and district bureaucracies), and their general belief that families lack the savvy and consensus-building skills needed to make smart decisions if given the tools.
As with so many aspects of reform, the unwillingness of politicians such as Scott and Malloy to embrace Parent Trigger laws have less to do with political ideology than with the power relationships (and often complementary views on the potential of poor and minority children) that often exist at the state and even school district levels. Especially in Florida (where districts are often county-based), school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities and the most-powerful political players in communities. In Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties alone, districts employ twice as many workers as the largest private-sector firms; the Pinellas district, for example, employs three times more workers than retail powerhouse Home Shopping Network. Districts often serve as the launching pads for the careers of legislators and executive branch politicians in both Democratic and Republican parties, (who are first backed by NEA and AFT locals), and those politicians tend to share in common with traditionalists running districts the same disregard for poor and minority families; this was clear in Simmons’ declaration, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that the failure mills targeted under the proposed Parent Trigger law got that way because those families “haven’t been involved in their own children’s lives so as to cause the school to improve”. As a result, these politicians are disinterested in any reform that may end up hurting their prospects for re-election.
This is particularly an issue for Scott, a neophyte politician who barely won his first term three years ago, now struggling in the polls. From his perspective, advancing reforms such as the overhaul of the Sunshine State’s teacher evaluation system he ushered in 2011 will do him more harm than good to his re-election chances. But Scott’s problems lie more with the perception that he hasn’t done all that well in moving Florida out of the economic doldrums — along with flip-flopping on such issues as the expansion of Medicaid — than with advancing systemic reform. As proven by predecessor Bush during his two terms in office — and by current colleagues such as Rick Snyder in Michigan and New Jersey’s Chris Christie (as well as predecessor Bush and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels), governors can win on advancing systemic reform if they use effectively use their political capital, leverage their bully pulpits effectively, willingly suffer temporary political setbacks, successfully built coalitions for reform, and embrace an approach focused on result, not accommodation, Scott can easily see this in his own state. After all, the key players who supported last year’s effort to pass a Parent Trigger law kept their seats. In fact, as seen this with this year’s effort to enact a Parent Trigger law — as well as in the case of successful efforts in seven states to enact Parent Power laws so far — there are plenty of politicians willing to stand up to traditionalists.
Duncan, on the other hand, can’t necessarily be accused of cowardice. This is also true of Malloy, who bucked his own party to push for a series of reforms last year. The problem for them (as well as with fellow-travelers among Beltway reformers and those in the school reform movement with a more institutionally-minded focus) is their view that families just are too incapable of making decisions. From where they sit, families shouldn’t bother with controlling school operations because they lack the savvy to deal with the complexities of overseeing such overhauls. They also believe that Parent Trigger takeovers will lead to discord between the majority of families leading the takeover and those in the minority who would prefer to keep the school in traditional district hands. In their view, it is simply better to expand other forms of school choice so that families can escape failing schools and choose schools fit for their kids
Yet such views fail to keep in mind that some of the most-successful school reform efforts have been — and continue to be — done by folks who didn’t know much about education until stumbled into reform. This includes mothers and fathers spurred to take action and become what former National Urban League president Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders by concerns for the futures of their children. From Virginia Walden Ford’s work in spurring reform in Washington, D.C., to Shree Medlock of Black Alliance for Educational Options, to Samuel, whose work led to the passage of the nation’s second Parent Trigger laws, families and other grassroots players have done the work of jump-starting and sustaining reform that Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, often more-concerned about policy and management than with rallying critical support from people on the ground, almost never do. Certainly school turnarounds aren’t ever easy. But it isn’t impossible for a group of dedicated parents to turn around schools, either in an operational or (in most cases) governance role. Considering that families find common ground with others every day in other aspects of life, the argument that moms and dads can’t work together after a takeover battle doesn’t hold water either. And given how poorly experienced operators within traditional districts and even some charters are doing in operating and overhauling schools, statements that only experts should be entrusted with running schools isn’t exactly so.
Duncan and others also fail to realize that school choice is about giving families the opportunity to move their kids out of failure mills and the ability to choose the very structure of education for the kids they love (as well as directly push for reforms) within in their communities. Even if choice fully flourishes, families are still going to want real choices in their neighborhoods. After all, the high cost of sending kids outside of communities, both in terms of transportation and time, remains a challenge even for the most well-off of families. The fact that these families have invested heavily in these schools (especially through their taxpayer dollars), along with their ties to the schools (which are often longstanding institutions in their communities, for better or worse) also makes their desire to overhaul them rather understandable. It just makes sense for families to take charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.
What Scott, Duncan, and Malloy should understand is that Parent Trigger laws are critical to helping families build brighter futures for their children. It is both intellectually and morally unacceptable to oppose reforms that allow them to be real decision-makers in education. Reformers need to remind them, as well as other politicians, that nothing less than full parent power will do. And this starts at the ballot box, inside statehouse corridors, and over at Duncan’s office on Maryland Avenue.