The idea is simple but powerful: Give us, the parents, the chance to turn around failing schools. The parent trigger, as it's known, allow the parents of students at a chronically underperforming school the ability to determine, via a majority vote, when and how school reform can come about. In other words, the parent trigger takes educational decision-making away from politicians and bureaucrats and empowers those who have the most at stake.
Often, the parent trigger means converting a traditional public school into a charter school. But it can also mean less drastic measures like ousting the principal and other leadership, hiring new teachers or taking any one of the number of other steps that can improve a school - but too often aren't undertaken in our hidebound, change-resistant school bureaucracy.
There is already a parent trigger on the books in California, where an elementary school in Compton became the first in the entire country to be taken over by the parent trigger last year. "We need to create change [at McKinley], not only because my kids go there, but for everybody. We, as parents, need to do what's best for our kids," one parent said during the petition drive. There is also a similar (and somewhat weaker) version of the same legislation in Connecticut. And it could be headed here to New York; a bill has already been introduced in the state Assembly.
Parents like me -- my kids attend the chronically failing Martin Luther King Multicultural School 39 in Buffalo -- have been behind the push. But for the parent trigger to become a reality, we need concerned New York City moms and dads to get on board the movement; after all, with 1.1 million children and with all too many failing schools dotting the five boroughs, New York is the state's, if not the nation's, most prominent battleground over school reform.
Here in Buffalo, the situation is not good. For years, the public school system has been failing our children. At my children's school, 2 out of 3 students don't reach grade level in math or English. And that's far too close to the norm across the entire city. We have a 25% graduation rate for black and Hispanic males and immigrant students and an overall graduation rate of 47%. What's more, of those who do make it all the way to graduation, less than 15% are actually ready for college.
No doubt, that state of affairs would be familiar to many in New York City, where 33 schools have been designated as Persistently Low Achieving by the state Education Department. That's what the bill would set as the threshold for allowing parents to vote.
That is, the parent trigger couldn't be achieved at the whim of a disgruntled group of parents; rather, drastic change could only come about if the school had been failing for a long time and nothing else had worked.
If a parent trigger were to become law of the land, would parents be voting en masse to turn failing schools into charters? Not necessarily. The real power would come from the ability to use the trigger as a bargaining chip. If parents organize around smaller changes they want to see happen -- such as a longer school day, or a new focus on literacy -- then they could use their petition to influence education policy makers and teachers unions to work to meet those demands.
Some also say that giving parents the power to fire teachers is turning hardworking educators into scapegoats. But the blame is hardly misplaced in the kinds of schools in question. After all, if students are consistently not learning, aren't teachers and administrators responsible? Common sense says that they are - and plenty of research confirms that.
Thus we will no longer listen to excuses as to why our children continue to fail while we reward educators with collective bargaining agreements and contracts that provide job security and lavish pay increases independent of the outcomes they produce.
Of course, the teachers unions hate the parent trigger bill, as evidenced by a PowerPoint presentation from the American Federation of Teachers, accidentally posted online and unearthed by an education blogger, that displays the powerful union's zeal to stymie the parent trigger law at every turn.
I have little confidence that my own local union will behave with any more civility. This year, Buffalo lost the opportunity for $14 million in state funding to turn around failing schools simply because the Buffalo Teachers Federation would not agree to any plan that moved a single teacher out of his or her present job.
New York City has faced similar union resistance -- a lawsuit by the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP attempting to block city plans to reform failing schools by creating more charters and consistent intransigence to other reform efforts.
The blunt reality is this: The timeline for policy makers and parents is radically different. When your child is in a dangerous or dysfunctional educational environment, you can't afford another year of committees or debates.
Another year of attending a failing school means another year of missed opportunities. You want action as quickly as possible.
That's why, five years ago, I joined the District Parent Coordinating Council, a body of elected parent representatives from each of Buffalo's public schools. When our group began, we were physically stopped at the doors of our children's schools. But in the ensuing years, we learned how to organize and have become powerful advocates on the behalf of Buffalo's children.
The parent trigger is the next logical step in shifting the balance of power from bureaucrats and unions to parents themselves. To date, our suggestions for reform in our worst schools have largely fallen on deaf ears. We need real power if we are to see real changes.
In Buffalo, no school board member, politician, administrator or union leader has his or her children attending a failing school. They have already pulled the trigger on failing schools by using their power and influence to protect their children, while they make decisions for ours. That's not fair.
The people making the decisions are not affected when their plans don't work. Parents like myself are.
That paradigm must change if we want to see real reforms.
New York, it's time: Pull the trigger.