The soon to be released movie “Won’t Back Down” is raising some controversy [in no small part because it is a fictional story and as such, the plot doesn’t require the characters to negotiate the realities of the actual non-fictional world]. If you haven’t heard about it, it is the made up story of a parent and teacher who work together to take over the actual operation of their school. This is based on so-called "parent trigger" laws, which purport to give parents authority to turn over the management of their school, (the assumption tends to be that it will usually be to a charter operator. I’d be happy to talk about the positives and negatives of charter policy any day, but let’s just leave that aside for the moment.)
Here is one of the (many) important questions that the movie seems to miss. Who “owns” the schools?
Is it the parents who have children enrolled that year? All the parents in the district? Only the parents of children who participate in the public school system?
Let’s think about this: can a group of people who have homes along a specific road vote to turn it over to a company to run the road? Do the people who live adjacent to a public park have the right to vote to turn it over it over to a developer who wants to build houses or an amusement park company?
So if we do this -- who gets to vote? Just the parents? The ones with kids enrolled now, or should we include the ones with kids who are slated to enter the school next year? The people who just moved here and are pregnant? Or should it actually be the entire community?
The fact is that community resources belong to the broader community – we ask all members of a community to participate in supporting its assets and shouldering the liabilities because we know that a good, strong community serves all of its citizens – and a weak one fails us all. We ask people who don’t drive to pay for roads and people who have a house that isn’t burning to pay for the fire department. Why? Because living in society isn’t, and shouldn’t be, purely transactional. Reasonable people recognize that you benefit from having a hospital available even if you never use it; that the food you buy at the grocery store that you walk to was transported on the roads you don’t drive upon. We have local elected officials, including school boards, that are elected to make decisions about our schools and that are accountable to the broader community – that is how we’ve decided to handle the issue of "who decides".
So what should parents and teachers do if they think a school needs to change, and can’t wait any longer?
It is true that parents and teachers need to work together to demand change for our schools. More parents should go to budget hearings about our schools and ask their elected officials for meetings. Make those officials walk in the door of the school you are worried about every month and give them hell if they aren’t responsive. I’d love to see teachers at individual schools stage a targeted one day walk out over the loss of an art program, or cuts to the time of the school nurse or the quality of lunches (all planned ahead of time so parents can make childcare plans). Right now we often ask teachers to work in, and tolerate, very difficult conditions and then we vilify them for accepting the status quo. So, let’s make it okay for them to refuse to stand by any longer. Chicago teachers took a stand to talk about learning conditions, and the majority of parents supported them. I would join the teachers in this kind of effort. A lot of parents would. We can also vote – locally and for state officials – so that those who represent us know that we want more support for our schools. Public education has been taken for granted for a long time, and politicians have not been accountable for what happens. When it comes right down to it, they prefer to point at parents and teachers for what isn't working. But how is a parent or a teacher responsible for a crumbling wall or a lack of text books?
There is only one solution that matters, and that is that every school in every community needs to be able to provide a comparable opportunity to learn: a decent school building with reasonable facilities; sane class sizes so there is time for individual learning and relationships that make it stronger; good materials; trained teachers who have the time to develop their craft and work together to plan to meet specific needs. That needs to happen, even in the poorest schools and right now, in 2012, it isn’t. Right now, we are providing schools to children largely based on what we expect them to do with the opportunity – so we have low expectations for some communities and we rationalize giving them crappy schools.
So - here’s another idea for a parent trigger law, if you want to give people the power to do what they need to do for their school – how about passing a law that a group of parents can sign a petition that forces the state to allocate the appropriate level of funding to fix a building, supply nurses and librarians, books, provide special education and ELL services, give teachers classroom assistants and to provide schools with teacher leaders to do high quality professional development and as well as real planning with teachers to implement best practices. I would sign that.