Although the entertainment industry doesn't generally support conservative causes, Hollywood seems to be caught up in the human drama of the school reform movement. The 2010 movie "Waiting for Superman" explored the heart-wrenching experience of inner-city parents whose children's future hung in the balance as they sweated out the lottery for admission into a high-performing charter school. "Won't Back Down" (which I haven't seen yet), released last month, depicts a concerned parent and principal who team together to take control of a failing school using the new parent-trigger law.
Parent-trigger laws are the latest tool in the struggle, now over two decades old, to wrest control of education from the special interest groups and unions. In seven states now, parents of students in chronically underperforming schools who are unable to get their school boards to act can trigger reform by collecting the signatures of a majority of the parents. Remedies vary from forcing personnel changes to closing the school and converting it to a charter school.
Parent-trigger laws aren't ideal. They demand a tremendous amount of effort and coordination from parents, and in practice the needed reforms are hard to achieve. But at least the law gives parents some negotiating status in dealing with recalcitrant education officials.
Parents at Desert Trails School in Adelanto, Calif. experienced first-hand both the promise and frustration of parent-trigger. Desert Trails serves mostly low-income students and does a poor job. Three-fourths of the sixth-graders can't read at grade level while the school board seems to use the school as a dumping ground for teachers not wanted elsewhere. Parents pled with the school board for upgrades in curriculum and personnel but were persistently rebuffed.
Finally, the parents – yes, these same low-income parents whose reputed apathy is often blamed for lagging academic achievement – gathered the required 51 percent of parents’ signatures to activate the trigger and convert Desert Trails to a charter school. But the school board still refused to budge. Instead, they threatened and harassed parents, some of whom are noncitizens.
Finally, a Superior Court judge ordered the board to comply with the law. After more foot-dragging, the board, with dumbfounding chutzpah, determined in August that it was too late to organize a charter school.
It wasn't all bad. The parents got several badly needed reforms for their trouble, but in the end their legal right to determine school governance was ignored.
Whether or not parent trigger eventually becomes an important reform, the power structure in public schools is slowly shifting in favor of parents and students. The unions and bureaucracies still call the shots for the most part in public education, as was amply demonstrated in the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike. But what was a crackpot idea 20 years ago – the notion that choice and competition could revitalize our moribund public schools – is now becoming more mainstream and bipartisan.
Arizonans may not see this since most education reform votes in our legislature are still along partisan lines. But we are a leading state in reform circles, most recently by pioneering Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, state-funded education savings accounts made available to parents for education expenses of their choosing.
Elsewhere, the Florida Legislature recently approved, with overwhelming bipartisan support, an expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship program that was passed a decade ago with only a single Democrat vote. Even President Obama supports school choice. Oh, wait, that's only for his daughters for whom he chose a posh private school in DC. For the rest of the kids, DC’s failing public schools are apparently good enough, since the president has opposed DC’s Opportunity Scholarship program for the unfortunate others.
Parting ways with your political allies in the teachers’ unions is understandably difficult, but many Democrats now agree with Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker that school choice is a moral issue, in fact the civil rights issue of our time. Problems of growing income inequality and the permanent underclass can never be solved until we deal with the millions of underprivileged children mired in failing schools that will handicap them for life. President Obama and his fellow defenders of the status-quo risk being on the wrong side of history.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.