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Are Parent Trigger Laws Our New 'Superman' – Or Union Kryptonite?

Though they're being pushed by the biggest names in corporate education reform, and politicians of every stripe, there's little proof that parent trigger laws actually work.

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Just as Waiting for Superman served as a mechanism for disseminating a particular message about the failure of America’s schools to the public, efforts are now also underway to use the media to lift up parent triggers as the solution to our educational problems --not least by way of a big budget movie called Won’t Back Down, which champions the parent takeover of a struggling school. As it turns out, this soon-to-be-released film was produced by the same company, Walden Media, that funded Guggenheim’s documentary – and the concepts that drive both (charters as saviors; parent trigger laws as saviors) have been funded significantly by many of the same deeply conservative forces. As Simon reported:

Though it has not yet been shown to work, parent trigger has support from many of the big players seeking to inject more free-market competition into public education, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Major philanthropies and wealthy financiers have poured money into backing political candidates and advocacy groups, including one called Parent Revolution, that promote parent trigger, according to campaign finance records in several states.

The concept has even inspired an upcoming Hollywood film, ‘Won't Back Down,’ in which Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays a single mother who organizes parents to take control of their failing school over union opposition. The movie was financed by Walden Media, which also backed the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting for “Superman,”’ which advocated for another central goal of education reformers - expanding charter schools.

Diane Ravitch has dubbed Gates, Walton, Walden Media’s owner Philip Anschutz and his friends the Koch brothers the “billionaire boys club” -- highlighting the powerful money behind corporate-style education reform that favors free-market ideology over evidence-based education policy reform.

Gates is a typical and disturbing example of how these billionaires use money to influence the direction of education reform, without any real expertise in education; for example, Gates initially poured millions of dollars into small schools projects, only to drop that commitment when a new concern -- teacher quality – caught his eye. In fact, the recent history of free-market advocacy for education reform reveals a pattern of shifting commitments that endorse one silver-bullet reform before evidence is available, and then moves on to the next reform du jour.

Big dollars and big budget movies notwithstanding, neither the expertise nor motives of these billionaires can be trusted to lead education reform – not least because their most basic claims are discredited by research. Charter schools, which they promote heavily, have proven to be no more effective than public schools in terms of measurable student outcomes, while also revealing a pattern of segregating students by race and class. The “bad teacher myth,” also promoted by these reformers, is similarly flawed. Adam Bessie explains their illogic thus:

All alone, the Bad Teacher is single-handedly, with one lazy bound, destroying a generation.

“The corporate media has unabashedly promoted this myth as fact. … Bill Gates…notes that public schools have been ‘struggling for decades,’ and then a few paragraphs later, claims, ‘the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.’ In other words, the single most decisive factor for public schools' failures is the teachers. Gates has committed $500 million of his own money, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to more definitively identify the precise ingredients that compose a good teacher and, thus, by contrast, the Bad Teacher, who will then be fixed as though he's an annoying bug to be rooted out in the latest edition of Windows.

In short, corporate advocacy in the form of “the billionaire boys club” and their media bully pulpit have repeatedly misrepresented the efficacy of charter schools and the role of teacher quality while ignoring the overwhelming evidence that social inequity and school inequity are the primary forces driving the student data used to claim schools and teachers are failing.