Well-funded advocates of privatizing the nation's education system are employing a new strategy this fall to enlist support for the cause. The emotionally engaging Hollywood film Won't Back Down -- set for release September 28 -- portrays so-called "parent trigger" laws as an effective mechanism for transforming underperforming public schools. But the film's distortion of the facts prompts a closer examination of its funders and backers and a closer look at those promoting parent trigger as a cure for what ails the American education system.
While parent trigger was first promoted by a small charter school operator in California, it was taken up and launched into hyperdrive by two controversial right-wing organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.
Similarly, the Heartland Institute recently suffered an exodus of corporate sponsors after it launched a billboard comparing those who believe in the science behind global warming to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
As the movie's stars take to the airwaves this week to promote the film, it is unlikely they will discuss the agenda of the film's billionaire backers or the right-wing politicians and for-profit firms who are promoting the parent trigger idea, the purpose of which is to promote the transformation of the American public school system into a for-profit enterprise. We provide a primer below.
Hollywood Fiction vs. the Facts on Parent Trigger
What is a parent trigger law? The proposals have varied from state to state, but they generally allow parents at any failing school, defined by standardized testing, to sign a petition to radically transform the school using any of four "triggers." Parents can petition to: 1) fire the principal, 2) fire half of the teachers, 3) close the school and let parents find another option, or 4) convert the school into a charter school. While the details of how the school can be "restructured" varies from state to state, the charter school option is always present. Charter schools are privately managed, taxpayer-funded public schools which are granted greater autonomy from regulations applicable to other public schools, ostensibly in exchange for greater accountability for results, but they have been criticized for a very uneven track record.
The film, starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, reportedly portrays the struggle of a teacher and a parent who work to transform a low-performing Pennsylvania school, despite resistance from the local union -- cast as the enemy of reform. Together, the African American teacher and the white, single mom unite to overcome hurdles and go door-to-door convincing parents to sign a petition to trigger a transformation.
While in reality most teachers do not sign the petitions and teachers are likely to get fired under parent trigger laws, Won't Back Down has teachers uniting with parents to sign the petition and transform the school. Eventually, 50 percent of teachers sign as well as parents and the intrepid duo finally turns the school into a charter school run by the Viola Davis character.
The film portrays parent trigger laws as a successful way of inspiring and uniting teachers and parents and the community. The real life history of parent trigger is quite different. Only two school districts, both in California, have used the petition mechanism: Compton Unified School District and Adelanto School District. In Compton, a new group called "Parent Revolution" founded by a charter school operator paid individuals to collect signatures to hand the school over to a charter school operator, but the courts threw out the petitions.
In Adelanto, parents first signed petitions, then had second thoughts. The school board rejected the petition after parents withdrew their support, resulting in a lawsuit. The courts ruled that parents could not rescind their signatures. The parents had advocated for a turning the school into a charter school, a plan which was rejected by the school board. Instead, an advisory panel was created and headed by the superintendent. The legal battles are continuing.
Instead of prompting reform-minded unity, both petition drives have been criticized for creating "chaos and division" in the community. Charges of fraud and intimidation abound. "This is destroying friendships and all relationships," one Adelanto parent, Chrissy Guzman-Alvarado, told the New York Times. "With our school divided, parents are scared to speak out or sign anything, and our community is falling apart. All for what?" she asks.
ALEC Spreads Parent Trigger Nationwide
The first parent trigger law was enacted in 2010 in California and, with an assist from Heartland and ALEC, the idea is rapidly spreading.
The California law was based on a proposal from Ben Austin, a policy consultant for a small non-profit education organization called Green Dot Public Schools, which manages charter schools for the city of Los Angeles. Austin subsequently formed Parent Revolution, which promotes these laws across the country. But this is not your local PTA. Parent Revolution is backed by big money, including receiving funding from the conservative Walton Family Foundation (think Wal-Mart), which has spent over a billion to promote school privatization.
The rabid pro-privatization Heartland Institute quickly took up the parent trigger idea in 2010. The Heartland version of the bill (PDF) went a step further and gave parents the authority to trigger a school's restructuring regardless of whether it is "failing" or not. Heartland's version of the bill also calls for a "school voucher" option, which allows students to receive a monetary voucher to attend another private or public school. Voucher or "choice" schools have been criticized for diverting funds from public schools to unaccountable private schools, including for-profit religious and virtual schools.
When a new wave of school choice supporters were swept into power at the state level in November 2010, Heartland saw an opportunity to put the parent trigger idea on steroids by bringing it to ALEC, the controversial corporate "bill mill."
While ALEC has a governing board of state legislators it also has a governing board of corporations, packed with tobacco firms, giant pharmaceutical firms, and energy companies like Exxon Mobil. The ultra-conservative, billionaire Koch Brothers, have had a representative on the board for years and Koch-controlled money has funded ALEC to the tune of at least $1 million, according to estimates calculated by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
The ALEC Education Task Force voted to approve the "Parent Trigger Act" (PDF) at their critical December 2010 strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., and the idea quickly spread. According to CMD's analysis, ALEC members introduced or cosponsored various versions of the bill in 17 states.
At the time, ALEC's education task force was chaired by the for-profit education firm Connections Academy, which specializes in K-12 online education. Others on the task force include tech companies, testing companies and higher-education diploma mills like Bridgepoint Education and Corinthian Education, both of which are under investigation by state Attorneys General for aggressive recruiting policies that leave too many students in debt with no degree.
We have seen this pattern before. When the NRA finally succeeded in getting its first "Stand Your Ground" gun law passed into law in Florida, a law implicated in the tragic Trayvon Martin shooting, its next step was to bring the bill to ALEC which helped it spread to two dozen other states in short order.
Parent trigger and ALEC were a match made in heaven. ALEC's education bills encompass more than 30 years of effort to privatize public education through an ever-expanding network of school vouchers, an idea first advocated by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s. ALEC bills also allow schools to loosen standards for teachers and administrators, exclude students with physical disabilities and special educational needs, eschew collective bargaining, and experiment with other pet causes like merit pay, single-sex education, school uniforms, and political and religious indoctrination of students.
Parent Trigger "A Clever Way to Trick Parents"?
But does it work? The support for parent trigger, according to University of Illinois Professor Christopher Lubienski, is based more on ideology than empirical data. Lubienski is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Organization.
"There is not good evidence that the options given [after the trigger is pulled] improve student achievement. The goal has more to do with changing school governance and giving opportunities for some of these organizations to get control of the public dollar," Lubienski said. "Policymakers need to look at the factors that actually influence student achievement.
"Unfortunately, that points to a lot more difficult issues than simply changing the structure of a school. It's relatively simple to fire the staff and bring in a charter operator. It's more important that kids are getting proper medical attention before they are born, that their mothers are getting the right nutrition at that time, that kids are read to at home, and that they are raised in an environment that values education. This is much more difficult to influence through policy."
The data shows that the conversion to charter schools, which Lubienski said is the constant theme running throughout the "parent trigger" legislation passed in states, has not shown to be effective in improving student outcomes. A study conducted at Stanford University's Hoover Institution presents evidence that students in only 17 percent of charter school show greater improvement in math and reading than students in similar traditional public schools, whereas 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized had they remained in public schools. However, the conversion to charter schools has proven profitable to many U.S. firms such as ALEC member National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school management organization operating in eight states, and K-12, Inc., which promotes "virtual" charter schools as well as "virtual" voucher schools. K-12, Inc. is reportedly under investigation in Florida for improperly certifying teachers and asking them to cover it up.
In short, parent trigger laws are a "clever way to trick parents into seizing control of their schools and handing it over to private corporations," according to Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration.
Philip Anschutz, Right-Wing Billionaire, Owns Production Company
Won't Back Down, is a production of Walden Media, owned by billionaire investor and right-wing extremist Philip Anschutz. Anschutz participates in the Koch brothers' secretive political strategy summits and funds David Koch's Americans for Prosperity group, which backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union busting proposal and is working to defeat Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates across the country.
Anschutz bankrolls ALEC and ALEC member groups. In 2010, The Anschutz Foundation, gave ALEC $10,000 and his Union Pacific firm was an ALEC sponsor the following year. The Foundation funded three ALEC members who sat on the ALEC Education Task Force which approved the Parent Trigger Proposal: The Independence Institute, Center for Education Reform, and Pacific Research Institute.
Anschutz has also supported the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which backs legislation designed to cripple unions; the Discovery Institute, which seeks to get creation "science" accepted in public schools; and the Mission America Foundation, whose president considers homosexuality to be a "deviance." He also owns the conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard.
Walden Media was one of the producers of the pro-charter documentary film "Waiting for 'Superman'." This film was criticized by Diane Ravitch as propaganda and as "a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the 'free market' and privatization."
Rupert Murdoch, Media Mogul and Owner of Education Testing Company, Distributes Film
The film is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, owned by News Corp. and media mogul Rupert Murdock. News Corp. owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Murdoch formerly owned the British newspaper News of the World, which imploded once it was revealed that reporters hacked into the cell phones of the family of a murdered child, as well as the cell phones of the royal family, politicians and celebrities. The paper's top editors and reporters were arrested although Murdoch himself has not been charged.
As CMD previously reported, News Corp. has been a member of both ALEC's Education Task Force and Communications and Technology Task Force. Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore, is an ALEC "scholar" and both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News have gone to bat for ALEC as member corporations began to flee earlier this year. What is less well known is that News Corp. owns Wireless Generation, a for-profit online education, software, and testing corporation, acquiring it in 2010 for $360 million. Wireless Generation is also an ALEC member. Apparently, Murdoch was anxious to get a piece of the nation's education system, which he describes as a "500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed." News Corp's senior vice president in charge of its education division is none other than former chancellor of New York City Schools, Joel Klein, who promoted a corporatist model of education reform.
Lubienski, for one, is skeptical of "self-proclaimed experts on the topic of education" like Murdoch who "aren't accountable to the public" and who have a profit motive coupled with a political agenda of widespread privatization.
Michelle Rhee, Former D.C. Chancellor of Schools, Pushes Parent Trigger
The film is being promoted by former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Rhee spoke at both the RNC and DNC screenings of Won't Back Down, and her involvement underscores what is often the bipartisan nature of the modern "school reform" movement.
Her tenure as the head of the D.C. school system was so controversial, she is widely credited with losing D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's reelection campaign. She was credited with greatly improving test scores in Washington, D.C. schools, but this accomplishment was cast into doubt by a USA Today investigation that suggested that test score gains during her term may have been the result of cheating on the part of school officials. The report found extremely high erasure rates that were statistically anomalous.
After resigning from her position in 2010, Rhee went on to start StudentsFirst, a 501(c)4 non-profit organization planning to engage in "direct and grassroots lobbying" on education issues including parent trigger. Derrell Bradford, a state director for StudentsFirst, spoke on "Enacting a Comprehensive K-12 Education Reform Agenda" at the 2011 ALEC annual meeting.
Rhee's group receives funding from Murdoch, who "has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists." New Corp's Joel Klein serves on her organization's board. Other supporters include New Jersey hedge funder manager David Tepper, and Alan Fournier (reportedly big backers of Romney).
Rhee was also featured in Anschutz's film Waiting for Superman.
Reform or Russian Roulette?
The movie ends when the hard work of turning around a struggling school begins. The Hoover Institution study discussed above shows that only 17 percent of charter schools do a better job educating students.
With no data backing the benefits of the parent trigger proposal, many doubt that throwing a school system into chaos is the best way to improve troubled schools. Chaos does however give the privatizers and the profiteers starring roles in the ongoing debate over the future of the American educational system.
This article was authored by Mary Bottari and Sara Jerving. The Center for Media and Democracy is a non-profit investigative reporting group whose work aids public awareness about the people, companies, and groups attempting to shape the media and our democracy. CMD launched its award winning ALEC Exposed project in July 2011. Our websites are ALECExposed.org, PR Watch.org, SourceWatch.org, BanksterUSA.org, and FoodRightsNetwork.org.