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Q&A with Ben Austin: On the leading edge of the parent trigger surge

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Will Ben Austin grow weary of organizing? The 43-year-old lawyer, education reformer, community organizer and father of two has taken on a huge job, mobilizing parents in Los Angeles to help them transform consistently failing schools that he believes are not serving children.

In the last three years, as the director of Parent Revolution, Austin helped the state pass the nation’s first parent trigger law, which offers parents options to improve consistently failing schools by shutting them down altogether, replacing the principal or staff, or conversion to a charter school.

Ben Austin

Parents at two California schools unsuccessfully tried to implement the law, the first at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The second came a year later at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto. The Adelanto school board rejected a petition from parents who are now suing the district.

Since 2010, parent trigger laws have also passed in one form or another in Mississippi, Texas and most recently, Louisiana. A version of the legislation narrowly failed in Florida.

“We’ve learned a lot,” says Austin, about setting up a “kids-first agenda.”

Susan Sawyers of The Hechinger Report spoke with Austin about his efforts as well as his views on accountability for teachers unions and charter schools.

(Disclaimer: Austin is funded by some of the same foundations that support The Hechinger Report.)

Q. Tell me about the parent trigger law. What is it?

A. The purpose of parent trigger is to make public schools more public. And by that I mean, you know, what parent trigger does is it forces public schools to be responsive to the interests of parents and kids. It’s about empowering people who do not currently have power; poor parents, parents of color, even undocumented parents.

But even beyond that, it is about restoring the public confidence in the public school system and only then can we build a base of support that can ultimately be used to raise taxes, to create critical investments in the public school system again. And we fundamentally believe not only that the system can be reformed in the context of a partnership with the teachers unions, ultimately we think it must be, because we can’t have great schools without great teachers.

We think of parent trigger not as a new law, but as a new paradigm, as an entirely new way of thinking about public education and education reform and a break from the debate that has dominated the conversation around education reform for a good part of the last decade.  Which is: Are you for this false choice: Are you for charter schools or district schools? Or are you for teachers unions or are you an education reformer? Or you a Democrat or are you a Republican?

These labels, they’re not meaningful at all to parents. Parents just want a good school for their children. It’s simply about giving parents power to advocate for the interest of their own kids.  If you begin from that perspective, we believe we’ll end up at a good place for kids.

Explain the organization’s name.

The organization’s name, Parent Revolution, is reflective of our theory of change. The education system, for the most part, doesn’t really serve kids because it’s designed to serve the interest of powerful adults. The only way we’re going to fundamentally change things, is to effectuate a raw, unapologetic transfer of power from the defenders of the status quo to parents, because parents have incentive and a different sense of urgency than everybody else.

That doesn’t mean parents will or should have all the power or even most of the power. Our theory is that right now, as big decisions are made that affect kids and the school site, there are usually just two seats at the table; the district bureaucracy and the teachers union. Each of those entities has different, very important perspectives and expertise. We’re saying that parents should also have a seat at table.

Do you really think adults in positions of power aren’t focused on students?

It isn’t because there’s some conspiracy to do bad things to kids. Everybody on all sides of this issue cares about kids. That’s not the issue. It’s that the system itself isn’t designed to serve kids. It’s designed to serve really powerful interests, really powerful adult interests.

Powerful interests? Who are you referring to?

You know, it really depends. I think that you’re asking a leading question and you want me to say the teachers union.

Umm. You mentioned powerful adult interests. I just wanted to be specific since I don’t know what you are talking about.

Well maybe you don’t, sorry about that. But some cases refer to the teachers unions and in some cases it’s the district bureaucracy. And in other cases, it’s other interest groups that benefit from the status quo.

What are their interests?

When it comes to issues we have with teachers unions, it’s important to recognize that we actually also have a lot in common when it comes to a “kids-first agenda.” It’s good for kids if we raise taxes to pay teachers a lot more money. It’s good for kids that teachers are respected and empowered and not micromanaged by bureaucrats that have never set foot in their classroom, (who have) never met their kids.  And it’s even good if teachers are unionized and have basic workplace protections.

But the conflict arises from the fact that it’s also good for kids if teachers, as well as all other adults–principals, administrators, I mean everybody involved, including parents–are held accountable for student performance. That is utter common sense, but that’s where the real conflict we have with the teachers union or some teachers union leadership and some district bureaucracies. But we also believe that these are not long-term components. In fact we need to figure out a way, in the very near term, to work together.

How do you hold parents accountable?

We are open to innovative ideas. The Desert Trails parents organized a parent union and led an effort to educate parents. That education process spans the spectrum, they’ve engaged in public policy conversations asking ‘what are the nuts and bolts that make up a great school?’ How can they use the parent trigger to address the issues at Desert Trails?

Every week, the parent union hosts tutoring sessions for kids and parents in terms of how to do homework, how to understand what’s being taught in the classroom, and for parents how to augment what’s going on in the classroom.

The parents we are working with are taking their responsibilities seriously. With this new power comes profound responsibility for parents.

The American Federation of Teachers once described the parent trigger as “a mechanism used by charter school advocates to organize parents and create support for new charter schools and/or slots.” What do you have to say?

This speaks to the other side not engaging in a debate, but instead they rely on a conspiracy theory. The only active parent trigger campaign in America doesn’t have to do with charter operators. These parents are trapped in the worst school in their school district, one of the worst schools in the state. What the parents at Desert Trails want, the first proposal the parents made, was a modification to the union contract modeled after NEA and AFT modifications signed onto across America, including UTLA. They want to make sure they have a good teacher in front of their kids.

We would love it they would accept that parents have the same rights that teachers have to organize and act collectively. We support teachers unions’ right to exist and organize. We stood with the teachers union in Wisconsin. In California, the teachers union is leading the charge to raise taxes, and we support them.

The parent trigger has nothing to do with outside charter operators, but you would never know that based on the fantasy world they want to construct.

Assuming the parents, the teachers, district leaders gather around the table, what else will it take to transform low-performing schools?

I am speaking for myself, not for any organization. We need a very large tax increase, to invest in public education. And a disproportionate amount of that investment needs to go to the communities that need it the most, to low-income communities where the failing schools are clustered.

No matter what you do with private donations, you’re not going to solve the problem without a written law or just tax that begins to address the fact that California is almost at the bottom when it comes to investing in our kids and it’s a travesty. It’s an embarrassment. It’s unacceptable.

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Caroline Grannan

Here are some corrections of inaccuracies in this report.

Actually, it was not parents at McKinley Elementary in Compton who tried to implement the law. Parent Revolution searched the state for a school to target and planned the takeover of the school by a pre-selected charter operator before a single parent at McKinley Elementary heard about the plan. Professional operatives from Parent Revolution collected signatures on the petitions, not McKinley parents. This was Parent Revolution’s plan, not McKinley parents’. After the petitions were submitted, there was outraged resistance from many McKinley parents.

At Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, the school community is divided over the Parent Trigger, with parents fighting each other. It’s inaccurate to imply that parents are united in battling the school district.

As Parent Revolution’s strategy in Compton demonstrates, the purpose is not to make public schools more public. It’s to turn public schools over to private charter operators. The Parent Trigger in Compton was not the parents’ idea.

It’s also a new idea for Austin to represent Parent Revolution as working with teachers. Actually, in the Compton fiasco, Parent Revolution accused teachers of various misdeeds and filed charges against teachers with the California state Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. He has also accused teachers of tormenting and humiliating children by refusing to allow them to use the bathroom as a ploy to get their parents to rescind signatures. (This doesn’t seem like a very practical or effective ploy, but that’s another story.)

These are the actions of an operation that has treated teachers as the enemy to be destroyed, not an organization that wants to work with teachers.

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