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Austin: Art Imitates Life on School Reform

A new movie called “Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a mom and teacher who unite to take over their children’s failing school, has some teachers union leaders up in arms.

The movie is “inspired by real events” – passage of the first Parent Trigger law in 2010. Under the law, if more than half of the parents at a systemically failing school sign a petition, they can force a local district to enact one of several reforms that might include replacing the school staff, extending the school day and revising the curriculum, closing the school or converting the school into a non-profit charter school.

The parents of a failing elementary school in the middle of the Mojave Desert – Desert Trails Elementary School – were the first to successfully win a Parent Trigger campaign. About 18 months ago, these parents reached out to Parent Revolution and we helped them organize and form a parents union.

The Desert Trails Parent Union went door-to-door and eventually got signatures from 70 percent of the school’s parents. They proposed a number of reforms that were designed to work with the existing teachers and school board, but were rejected at every turn.

Then the teachers union struck back. Teachers and union activists descended upon the city of Adelanto to mount a calculated campaign aimed at pressuring parents to withdraw their signatures.

According to an editorial last March in the Wall Street Journal: “In the Desert Trails parking lot and at front doors across Adelanto, strangers confronted parents and spread untruths about the trigger drive: that it would force the immediate closure of Desert Trails, for example, or result in the firing of all teachers, or cause certain children to be expelled. Some parents heard the trigger drive was an embezzlement scheme. Others had their immigration status questioned. … At least three Adelanto parents have also signed affidavits swearing that the rescission documents bearing their signatures were doctored before being delivered (in photocopied form) to the district.”

With the help of pro bono attorneys, the parents of Desert Trails took the school district to court and, in an historic victory, the judge ruled on behalf of the parents, empowering them for the first time in American history to select a new non-profit charter operator to run their school.

Instead of working with the parents to improve their failing schools, teachers unions have responded to the Parent Trigger movement with conspiracy theories about a right-wing assault on the public education system. As the inventor of the Parent Trigger and a veteran of the Clinton White House and five Democratic presidential campaigns, I can testify to the fact that their conspiracy theories are not moored to planet Earth.

We launched Parent Revolution around the inauguration of President Barack Obama because we believed his inauguration represented an historic proof-point for community organizing leading to transformative change. Within a year of his assuming office, we passed Parent Trigger into law for every parent in California as a direct result of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

The Parent Trigger has been endorsed by a unanimous and bipartisan resolution of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, championed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. And one of its earliest supporters was the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. George Miller of California.

National Republican leaders also support Parent Trigger, including Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, which illustrates the bipartisan appeal of Parent Trigger laws, not a right-wing conspiracy to take over America’s public schools.

In this era of polarized politics, Parent Trigger laws have won bipartisan support because they are not only popular, but also appeal to common sense. A recent 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of American attitudes on education found that 70 percent of likely voters across the nation surveyed said they favor Parent Trigger laws, including 76 percent of all public school parents.

To date, Parent Trigger has passed in four states and another dozen states are contemplating a version of the law. Parent Trigger isn’t just a new law, it represents a new paradigm – an entirely new way of thinking about public education and education reform. It’s not about charter schools versus district schools, or education reformers versus teachers unions. The Parent Trigger movement is simply about giving parents power over the educational destiny of their own children.

Parents across America have had it with excuses, finger pointing and conspiracy theories. Parents recognize that the only way we are going to turn around and transform the thousands of drop-out factories masquerading as schools across our nation is to take back power over the educational destiny of their own children.

Parents know we can’t have great schools without great teachers and great principals. Parents want to work with teachers and teachers unions to ensure that teachers are highly paid and valued; that schools are adequately funded and operated; and most importantly, that the interests of kids lie at the heart of every single public policy decision affecting our public schools.

Ben Austin is executive director of Parent Revolution and a former member of the California State Board of Education.