Parents pull the trigger on failing schools
Doreen Diaz says the worst thing about the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, a desert city 150-kilometres or so from Los Angeles, was not that it failed to teach her children, but that its teachers did not even believe her children could learn.
Desert Trails, says Diaz, in her quiet, nuanced second-language English, was not just a failed school but one without even the will to succeed. Teachers taught only subjects that were to be covered in upcoming public tests and abandoned them immediately after the exams. The school churned out children who were given no classes in physical education, art or music, children who could not read and who were destined to replicate the poverty of many of their parents.
So in 2011, Diaz and a group of parents took radical action and suddenly found themselves at the centre of one of America's new culture-war battlegrounds: the conflict over the rise of charter schools - schools that are largely publicly funded but are operated by private companies.
Diaz and her friends began to use a controversial new Californian law, known as the parent trigger, that allows groups of parents to sack their school district, take over the administration of their school and select a private operator to run their school as a charter.
The law has appealed so directly to conservatives - and to some liberals - across the country that it has spread fast, especially in the South, where distrust of government institutions is ingrained. It is estimated that since California passed the law it has become so widespread that 25 per cent of American parents live in areas covered by parent trigger laws.
Driving the spread and use of the laws is a non-profit organisation called Parent Revolution. Parent Revolution helped Diaz and her friends pull the trigger at Desert Trails and is now in contact with parents from another two dozen schools, according to its founder, Ben Austin.
Pulling the trigger changed Diaz's life. When the new school year starts in August, Desert Trails will be under new private management.
Diaz's 12-year-old daughter, Vanessa, has already moved on to a local high school, Columbus (where teachers would be well advised to work hard), and Diaz has become something of a star, being cited as the inspiration for the film Won't Back Down, which tells the story of parents taking over a failing school. (It is not that different from any other inspirational movie, except that it was funded in part by the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, is known for its fierce union bashing, and is now backing the trigger laws.)
Diaz also has a new job with Ben Austin at Parent Revolution. If unions and critics of charter schools reserve their criticism for Diaz, a woman protecting her daughter, they unleash it upon Austin.
Depending on who you listen to, Austin is either a hero empowering parents to take control of their children's education for the first time and helping to either close down or improve schools that have failed for years, or he is a corporate stooge, bent on putting public assets into private hands, white-anting public education and attacking unions.
In his loft office in gentrifying downtown LA, Ben Austin doesn't look that mean. He is wearing cargo pants and a grey T-shirt and swinging in a chair hanging from ropes tethered to the ceiling while he takes a call.
When he guides me into his little glass-walled office and tucks up his feet yoga-style beneath him, he looks like Sean Penn - wavy greying hair flopping over a tanned face.
He even sounds like Sean Penn as he speaks of the privilege of empowering some of California's most marginalised - Hispanic migrant mothers furious at their children's abandonment by a failed public school system.
He takes a slug of Diet Dr Pepper and tells his story.
Austin's CV lends him both liberal and conservative credibility. He grew up "as a sort of hippie" in Venice Beach and went to Berkeley before he took a job in the Clinton White House's political affairs office.
After Clinton left office, Austin went on to law school and worked for the then LA mayor, Dick Riordan, a Republican. He then took a job with Rob Reiner, the actor and director best known for the films The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Reiner, a Democrat, had become an activist and was campaigning to increase taxes on the wealthy to fund universal preschool.
But it is his work for Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator, that his critics use as evidence that Austin is simply seeking to increase revenues for private enterprise. While at Green Dot, Austin not only lobbied for the parent trigger law, he helped draft it, before Green Dot in turn helped establish Parent Revolution.
Over his can of Dr Pepper, Austin amiably dismisses claims he is an agent of private enterprise. "I'm not only a liberal, I'm a big government liberal," he says.
But, he adds, liberals "have to demonstrate that the purpose of big government is not an employment program for public employees".
Austin's philosophy is that while everyone involved in public education cares about kids, "parents are the only ones who just care about kids". He says parents are unfairly excluded from decision making in education.
"With the context of the parent trigger, if you have an organised, educated body of parents, they can say, 'Look, we need you because we don't have the expertise to run our own school, but you need us because we now have the legal authority to fire you. So let's all listen to each other."'
This is what Austin calls a "kids-first agenda".
With the parent trigger law written and introduced in 2010, the only problem was that no one really understood how to use it, and that's where Parent Revolution came in.
Rather than waiting for parents in bad schools to research the law, form a committee, drum up the necessary support to take over a school and then work out how to vet and select a charter operator, Parent Revolution decided to get the ball rolling themselves.
Austin selected as his first target McKinley Elementary, a primary school in Compton, an area in the south of LA infamous for its gangs. The campaign was a disaster. Eventually Parent Revolution managed to gather the 50 per cent of parent signatures needed to pull the trigger but the result fell apart in a bitter court challenge. Both sides accuse the other of lying to parents and falsifying documents.
"What we did wrong was we were the ones who chose the school, we were the ones who chose the transformation option, we were the ones who chose the charter and, most important, we were the ones who did all the work, or most of the work.
"We basically ended up throwing out our whole organising model we used in Compton and starting over."
The Desert Trails campaign is that new model. Parents from the school contacted the Parent Revolution for help, and rather than run their campaign, Austin says his group taught them how to run their own. Once they won and sacked the school district, Parent Revolution taught them how to form a committee to select a charter operator. The same model was used again at a third school, 24th Street Elementary, where Fairfax visited earlier this year with Parent Revolution activists. Parents gathered in the sun in a nearby park and pored over notes and white boards as they discussed in Spanish what they wanted from a new operator.
From a distance the parents, almost all of them women, could have been organising a fundraiser rather than wielding such dramatic power.
Austin speaks of how moving it is to see illegal immigrants who have never been allowed to drive let alone vote being empowered for the first time in their lives.
Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and former US assistant education secretary, dismisses this sort of talk with a snort and a rapid-fire attack on the charter school movement in general and of the parent trigger law and Parent Revolution in particular.
Charter schools, Ravitch says, outwardly maintain high grades and attendance records by simply refusing to teach difficult children. The end result is that the better students are sucked out of the public system where the more difficult students languish.
She says there is no evidence they provide better education and on her blog she links to strings of cases where charter school operators have been caught either outright embezzling education funds or directing them to family members and friends.
Ravitch argues charter schools are not just a siphon to draw public funds into private coffers, but a direct attack on a key democratic institution. She says one need only look at Austin's backers to gain insight into his politics.
Aside from Green Dot, Parent Revolution has attracted funding from the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. Ravitch is unimpressed at the suggestion that these groups have liberal as well as conservative links.
"They are people who have made their fortunes in private enterprise, they believe that all innovation comes from private enterprise," she says.
She notes that parent trigger laws are being spread by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit organisation associated with big business and conservative politics which seeks to replicate laws from one state to the next.
Ravitch also dismisses Austin's argument that Parent Revolution only supports not-for-profit charter operators, saying the organisation still serves the interests of companies trying to take over America's education system the same way they have taken over its healthcare system.
As evidence she sends me a press release from a man she describes as "your countryman, Rupert Murdoch".
Dated 2010, the News Corporation release announces the purchase of a tech company that focuses on evaluating teacher and student performance. It quotes Murdoch as saying, "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching."
THE FACTS OF THE MATTER
What is a parent trigger law?
These are laws that allow parents of children in underperforming public schools to takeover the school, normally after winning more than 50 per cent support in a petition. With the school's administration and staff sacked, the parents then choose a private charter school operator to run the school. Many school districts and or cities have introduced trigger laws, as have seven states. Another 25 American states have or are considering adopting trigger laws.
And what is a charter school?
Charter schools are largely publicly funded private schools run by either non-profit or for-profit companies under a charter that details what sort of education they will offer and what standards they will meet.
And who is Parent Revolution?
Parent Revolution is a non-profit group that was founded by Ben Austin, who formerly worked with a charter school operator, to help parents use California's new parent trigger law. Its organisers help parents form "parent unions" to gather signatures needed to take over schools with the trigger law, and coach them in selected charter school operators.