by Matthew K. Tabor
At Weigand Elementary in Los Angeles, parents were so dissatisfied with the leadership of the school’s principal that they used the state’s parent trigger law to send that principal packing. It’s the third parent trigger victory in California, with two districts aided by Parent Revolution winning the right to be turned around by a non-profit charter network — but this is the first time a school’s administration has been singled out for change.
Weigand parents claimed that the school’s principal fostered a culture of intimidation with teachers and was anything but friendly to parents. 61% of Weigand parents signed on to force reform that will see a new principal — and hopefully a more effective leader – step in.
This is a significant development because it testifies to how historically difficult it has been for parents and the community to change their schools.
Anyone well-versed in the dark arts of parent and community involvement in schools understands the ‘Parent Involvement Paradox’: Schools constantly ask you to be involved, but they make it very difficult to help in a meaningful way.
Schools tend to want parent and community help — as long as it’s on the school’s terms. They’re most welcome to offer their charity, whether it’s money or time, as long as their contribution matches up exactly with what the school will let you do.
Volunteers can generally serve refreshments at a dance or campaign for the passage of a school budget with the full support of your local school board, but try to involve yourself in the operations of a school or district — say, a finance expert wanting to weigh in on a fiscal plan, a tech entrepreneur offering to lend his expertise about digital media, or a CEO helping out on management or leadership — and in an instant a gauntlet of obstacles appear that would make an Olympic 3,000m steeplechase runner nervous. Personnel is a virtually untouchable issue, especially when it comes to specific school leaders.
When community members choose involvement that doesn’t fit a school’s modus operandi, a school becomes a bridezilla who screams at a guest for giving a wedding gift that isn’t from her registry. That guest tends not to be welcome at her future functions until they step in line and perform as commanded.
It’s not uncommon for a community to try to reform a school, though. Parents and community members unhappy with a school’s leadership frequently try to make a change, but they have little power and the deck is stacked against them. Parents worry about retribution against their kids for making an issue (and that happens); they clash with well-organized, well-funded unions; they can be labeled divisive members of their community, which can bring terrible fallout personally and professionally.
And that’s all for a years-long battle with an abysmal success rate. In the end they usually hear, “If you don’t like it, run for the school board” (which most folks aren’t able to do for a host of reasons). Sometimes these movements field a candidate or two who are successful — and who then clash with a board majority frequently backed by school loyalists keen to put down their rebellion.
As this happens, years go by as schools can be run into the ground. Performance declines, new and often expensive problems pop up, and thousands of students are ill-served.
Non-parents speak out here and there, but parents tend to grit their teeth and bear a bad situation, which can include high private tutoring costs and a tremendous investment of time (as they continue to pay taxes for an ineffective school), until their child is out of the system. Then they breathe a sigh of relief and wash their hands of school politics and a new generation of parents further down the road are left to kick the can.
Many years, tremendous personal costs, little hope of meaningful success. One can understand why community members don’t think of themselves as David and why they think it takes more than a sling and a stone to fell a school Goliath.
But the parent trigger, whether it’s used for addressing leadership problems or for forcing an overhaul of an entire school, is a game-changer. It allows parents and communities to organize and become involved in a way that a school has to take seriously — and on a reasonable timeline.
The parent trigger is a solution to part of that ‘Parent Involvement Paradox.’ It’s a shame that we need a law to force schools to take community input seriously, but generations of frustrated parents and taxpayers are reading about Weigand and Parent Revolution and saying, “Can you imagine if we had this so many years ago?”
Now more parents will be able to look across the dinner table and say, “Look what we did.”
Matthew K. Tabor is the editor of EducationNews.org. He can be reached at [email protected].