Parent triggers, the Fairfax School Board and parents’ say in schools

Fairfax County is very trendy when it comes to parenting ideas. The contentious school board race, where voters will choose a new slate of members Nov. 8, is part of a hot national debate about parental involvement. Or, more specifically, about how much parents should be involved in school decisions.

In Fairfax, a sort-of popular uprising against the current school board and school administration was prompted, in part, by a draconian disciplinary policy that left students and parents feeling helpless.

“The community gets no input. We sit and listen,” a frustrated activist told The Post’s Robert McCartney for a column he wrote this past weekend about the schools race.

Such sentiments are also part of a much broader debate that has been simmering for months across the country and has flared in recent days with some cross-publication sniping.

The background: As part of the schools reform movement, national groups such as Parent Revolution have begun fighting for new and far more expansive parental control in schools. One of the favored, and most controversial, tools is called the Parent Trigger.

If you haven’t heard of it, the so-called trigger is legislation that allows parents in poor-performing districts to basically takeover a school. In California, the first state to adopt the policy, parents could have the right to fire teachers, turn management over to a charter board or even close a school. Other versions have been adopted in Connecticut and Texas and are being considered elsewhere.

Earlier this month, education historian and Brookings Institution senior fellow Diane Ravitch condemned triggers and suggested they are surreptitiously promoted by the charter school industry: In her Education Week blog she urged parents to understand that “collaboration is not the same as ownership. The school belongs to the public, to the commonwealth. It belongs to everyone who ever attended it (and their parents) and to future generations. It is part of the public patrimony, not an asset that can be closed or privatized by its current constituents.”

Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, later countered in a HuffPost Education piece that there is no conspiracy and that a trigger “is a simple, yet potentially transformational law that gives parents real power over the educational destiny of their own children.”

Here at The Post, Mark Phillips, a San Francisco State University professor and education columnist wrote for Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog that parental voice is important in school reform, but: “Rather than creating a learning community and a feeling of mutuality, the trigger approach will create further divisiveness and a split between teachers and parents. It will create conflict, not mutuality.”

In Fairfax, no one is talking trigger. Still, the specific issues of that sprawling school system fit into the larger framework of the battle.

Are the schools intended to benefit currently enrolled students (hence small class sizes should be a priority) or the broader community (so programs such as ESL can be expanded)? How are limited resources divvied up?

And who makes these decisions? Professional school officials or specific parents or some combination of the two?

What do you think? Should parents’ opinions be more strongly weighted by public school districts? Are trigger laws a good idea or a dangerous precedent?

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