Beware Pro-Charter School "Parent" Groups

Parents are among the strongest supporters of public education. So attacks by groups claiming to represent parents are particularly painful for public educators. After all, nobody becomes a parent or an educator in order to get rich. But sometimes a group that claims to represent parents actually has anti-public school activists in charge, funded by wealthy foundations. They’re “Astroturf” rather than grassroots because the grass is artificial.

Take Parent Revolution, the group behind California’s “parent trigger” law and the effort to give a public school to a pre-selected charter operator in Compton, California.

Parent Revolution receives major funding from foundations like the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, groups that qualify for what Diane Ravitch calls “the Billionaire Boys Club.” Parent Revolution’s paid staff members spearheaded a stealth signature-gathering campaign last fall, aimed at getting a majority of parents at McKinley Elementary School to sign a petition that would hand over the school to Celerity Educational Group, which already operates four charter schools in Los Angeles.

When the signatures were examined, it turned out some signers did not have children at the school, some said they didn’t understand what they were signing, and some didn’t match signatures on file at the school. In the end, the Compton school board turned down the petition because the number of valid signatures was below the law’s required 50 percent.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The parents involved never chose Celerity. That was Parent Revolution’s decision. California’s “parent trigger” law—passed by the legislature in the mistaken hope that it would help the state win a Race To The Top grant—requires that the signers use a “rigorous review process” for choosing a charter.

And there was never a meeting where parents could hear about all their options and then decide for themselves. They were just told that this was the only way forward.

Ironically, the school that Parent Revolution chose to attack was already making important progress under a California law called the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). That law, passed with a strong push from the California Teachers Association, provides additional resources for smaller class sizes, quality in service, additional counseling, and more staff collaboration.

Even the Los Angeles Times, often critical of teachers and their union, published an editorial criticizing the move. The editorial concluded, “Parent trigger must not become a means for private charter groups to get free school buildings through secret proceedings.”

Parent Revolution is far from being the only group that tries to promote itself as seeking to give parents a voice while depending on lavish funding from conservative foundations. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been prominent in promoting private school vouchers with television ads. The ads feature parents speaking about how much their children benefit from vouchers.

BAEO has spent millions of dollars on these ads. They didn’t collect that money in the black neighborhoods of Washington, DC. It came from wealthy foundations.

Perhaps the next wave of pro-voucher ads will come with a truth-in-advertising tag line: “Brought to you by the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Don’t hold your breath.

But real parent groups and educators do roll up their sleeves and work together to improve education. In Reading, Pennsylvania, for example, the union, district, and PTA are working together to build strong parent organizations in every school. Across the country in Sacramento, California, teachers and parents jointly developed the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project, now in use in 11 states.

Parent-educator collaboration happens at every level—national, state, school district, school, classroom, and individual—because that’s what kids need.