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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Money & Finance Opinion

Where Parent Revolution Lost Me

By Rick Hess — October 22, 2012 3 min read

Hidy all, I’m back. Want to thank Heather, Bill, and Sarah for some terrific posts. We’re about to head into heavy pre-election mode, but there was one particular development while I was gone that I feel compelled to address.

I’ve been skeptical but sympathetic on the parent trigger. But the parent trigger crowd pretty much lost me when Parent Revolution’s National Communications Director David Phelps sent out a craven e-mail blast that needlessly attacked for-profit charter providers in a cheap effort to score political points. Phelps wrote, “Those who oppose Parent Trigger laws [argue] that passing and implementing a Parent Trigger law does nothing more than open the door to allow for-profit operators to privatize failing public schools. Nothing is further from the truth. Parent Revolution opposes any attempt by for-profit charter school operators to “takeover” public schools [emphasis in original].”

Phelps pointed to a Detroit Free Press op-ed by my friend Ben Austin, executive director of California-based Parent Revolution, in which Austin charged, “We have always stood for a simple and fundamental proposition: Parents must have power over the education of their own children. Profit has no place in that education... Many of Michigan’s charter operators are for-profit providers; therefore, it is critical for Michigan’s legislation to explicitly ban these providers.”

I can just imagine the conversation that would ensue following a successful “trigger":

Local Parents: We don’t believe our school system is serving our kids well. We want to be able to bring in new leadership and restructure the school.
Parent Revolution: We’re with you. We trust you. We’re fighting for your ability to make your own decisions.
Local Parents: Terrific. We’re looking over the partners that we might bring in to help manage and restructure the school.
Parent Revolution: Great. We’re with you. We trust you. We believe in parents making these decisions.
Local Parents: Okay. We think the most promising partner happens to be a for-profit.
Parent Revolution: Oh, hell no! Absolutely not. That’s out of the question. We don’t trust you that much.

What’s going on here is pretty straightforward.

One, this is yet another reminder that even the “reform” ranks in K-12 are filled by ideological progressives with an aversion to private enterprise that would be considered radical in almost any other sector. (Though I’m curious why I haven’t heard Austin, Phelps, or Parent Revolution express the same concerns about parent trigger schools purchasing pencils, transportation, information technology, instructional materials, coaching, tutoring, p.d., or pedagogical interventions from for-profit ventures.)

Two, when it comes to K-12, however, reformers routinely engage in gratuitous shots at for-profit ventures as a plaintive effort to placate the establishment and fend off attacks from the left. Meanwhile, these progressive reformers are used to taking conservatives for granted, confident that they’ll uncomplainingly stomach any compromise.

Three, none of this is actually good for kids or schooling. As I’ve often noted, for-profit ventures have distinctive frailties. They have incentives to cut corners and to be overly aggressive in pursuing clients. At the same time, those frailties are the flip side of their unique strengths. For-profits are agile, able to scale, and inclined to squeeze costs. Non-profits tend to grow much more deliberately than for-profits, have a harder time tapping the resources to fuel growth, and have trouble mustering the mean-spiritedness needed to aggressively cut costs. Add this stuff up, and it sure looks to me like any plausible strategy for dramatically remaking thousands of low-performing schools a year requires that for-profit ventures be part of that discussion.

Parent Revolution’s stance is more about trying to placate the education establishment and Democratic interests than ensuring that parents in low-performing schools can make the decisions they think best for their kids. I’d been unaware of this reflexive bias until Phelps and Austin took pains to point it out. Others will have their own views, but count me as a “no” on any parent trigger proposal that goes out of its way to discriminate on the basis of tax status.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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