How the parent trigger’s biggest advocate harms his own cause

Let’s set aside the poor box office results for Won’t Back Down (which set a record for the worst film opening ever). There are still as many as twenty states considering legislation that would enact the parent trigger that inspired the film. Hollywood may not have the mojo to move these measures along more quickly, but there are many lawmakers who remain convinced that parents should be empowered to fire a school’s management if it’s failing their children or hire a charter provider who may do the job better.

Parent-trigger laws ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available.

For a law like this to succeed—and it remains far from clear whether it can—it ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available. That’s why it was troubling to see the trigger’s most evangelical supporter, Ben Austin, take an ideologically rigid stance against the role that for-profit educators might play in these turnaround efforts.

Austin heads up the Parent Revolution in California, which was the first state to pass a trigger law (it did so in January 2010) but he’s been busy lobbying for the trigger outside the Golden State and he’s been arguably influential in getting more states to take this policy seriously. His opponents have been busy as well, however. And it doesn’t matter whether Austin served in the Clinton White House or if he remains a committed Democrat. Teacher unions, school systems, and other establishment groups have aligned his cause with the far right (more particularly, with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC).

It would be a shame if Austin gave these spurious critiques credibility, but it appears he’s done exactly that. Last week, Austin published an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press expressing support for Michigan lawmakers who have proposed a parent trigger in that state but condemning their move to allow for-profit charter-school operators a seat at the table. “As the creators of the original law, we have always stood for a simple and fundamental proposition: Parents must have power over the education of their own children,” Austin wrote. “Profit has no place in that education.”

It matters little if Austin is making this argument because he’s trying to dissociate the Parent Revolution from ALEC or if he’s always opposed the involvement of for-profit charter operators in trigger efforts, as he told an Education Week reporter. He’s showing the same hostility and intolerance to the for-profit sector that is characteristic of more and more putative “reformers” in the interest of celebrating an education that is “public.”

But in doing so, he threatens his own cause. Critics are skeptical of the parent trigger not just because they wonder whether parents have the skills, knowledge, and wherewithal to transform a troubled neighborhood school—they also question how many charter providers are willing to step forward to take on such a challenging task. Presuming that trigger-pulling parents can get past the blockades set by unions and school boards, it only makes sense to make available to them for-profit operators that may be more effective at tapping private equity or at finding cost efficiencies. If they opt for the nonprofit alternative, that’s fine. But at least they’ll have had the full menu of options.

It’s hard to see how Austin can disarm the most recalcitrant opponents to the parent trigger by insisting that profit-making educators have no place in public education; they’ll insist the trigger privatizes education all the same. If his aim is to turn around a failing school in Compton, California, or in Detroit, he’s better off recruiting all the promising educators he can find.

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