‘We the Parents’ Offers Compelling Look at ‘Trigger’ Law

By Mark Walsh — September 12, 2013 4 min read
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This fall, the first schools reopened under under new management spurred by California’s “parent-trigger” law. Two are in Los Angeles and one is in the desert community of Adelanto.

That none of the three is in Compton, Calif., may be a slight spoiler for viewers of the new documentary “We the Parents,” about the parent-trigger idea and the group behind it. That doesn’t mean the parent-trigger campaign in Los Angeles-area community with the tough reputation was a complete failure. In fact, the effort laid the groundwork for the three other schools and for other parent-trigger campaigns in the state.

I’ll leave to others the debate over the parent-trigger idea and its chief proponent, the Los Angeles group Parent Revolution, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, among others. (Disclosure: Gates and Walton also provide funding to Education Week.) Fortunately, my task here is to discuss and review “We the Parents,” which is compelling, troubling, sad at times and encouraging at others, and basically fair to the different sides in the debate.

The film, which had a short run in Los Angeles last month, opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Quad Cinema in New York City. There is also a free screening in Washington on Sept. 17.

We The Parents - Trailer from James Takata on Vimeo.

The documentary opens with a scene from December 2010, when parents at McKinley Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District deliver their parent-trigger petitions to the interim superintendent. It then goes back about a year to tell how they got to that point.

That includes the efforts of Parent Revolution to help get the parent-trigger law passed. Under California’s law, the parental signatures representing 51 percent of a school’s enrollment are needed to allow the parent activists to turn the school into a charter school, replace the principal and staff, or close it altogether.

“The idea was to give parents real political power to be taken seriously in the conversation about the future of our children,” Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, says in the film.

Austin is a former aide to President Bill Clinton and a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles. He and his organization are either full of hubris or sly like a fox with their selection of Compton as the testing ground for the law.

He calls it a logical place because “they were running such objectively terrible schools.” And from video of a Compton Unified school board meeting, the board president contradicts the mission statements of every school district in the nation by telling a citizen, “All kids are not going to make it.”

However, Carl Cohn, a former Compton teacher, superintendent in Long Beach and San Diego, and a former state board of education member, chimes in to suggest that perhaps Parent Revolution should have selected another urban district that would be less likely to dig in its heels against a parent-trigger effort.

As an opponent to the parent-trigger effort puts it at a school board meeting, “Yes, there is a problem in Compton, but we’ll take care of it. We’re going to defend our school district and our city.”

Nevertheless, Parent Revolution and its allies among McKinley parents set about to gather signatures. Unlike the fictional Pennsylvania parent trigger in last year’s film “Won’t Back Down,” the California law does not require the signatures of the school’s teachers.

When the campaign reaches 51 percent and the petitions are delivered, the parent who handed them to the superintendent poignantly says, “I felt important. I felt like them"—the powers that be.

Then the parents wait. It seems the state law is a bit unclear on the procedures for how a school district should respond to such a parent-trigger campaign. Lawyers get involved and sue to get a response. But there are some fundamental legal problems with the petitions, which sets the effort back.

While the filmmakers are clearly sympathetic to the parents, we do hear from the other side in the form of the McKinley principal, the Compton superintendent, and the head of the California Federation of Teachers.

“We opposed [the parent-trigger effort] because we felt it would turn into just what it’s turned into—a vehicle for some very rich people to found an organization, go into communities, and disrupt them,” Marty Hittleman, the CFT president, says in the film.

Jennifer Welsh Takata, the producer and the wife of the film’s director, James Takata, said in an interview that the filmmakers were cut off from talking to McKinley Elementary teachers when the campaign was going on. The interview with the principal and superintendent came after the effort concluded.

“We had a hard time telling a balanced story initially,” she said. But Cohn introduced the filmmakers to the superintendent, who helped set up interviews with the principal and McKinley’s PTA president.

As I indicated above, there is no parent-trigger school in Compton today, and the film details how that came to be, as well as some of the silver linings for the community and for the movement. If you thought you might never get a lump in your throat from watching a state board of education meeting dealing with regulations for a state statute, you would be wrong.

The film shifts to briefly tell the story of the Adelanto and Los Angeles parent-trigger efforts, which helps complete the tale as to where the parent-trigger campaign effort stands today, at least in California. By at least one account, the momentum for parent-trigger laws across the country is petering out.

If Parent Revolution had picked a Los Angeles Unified school for its first effort, it’s unlikely the filmmakers would have had as interesting a story on their hands.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.