Will America’s parents tire of waiting for Superman, and take matters into their own hands? One of the most exciting and joyous events in recent weeks was the uprising of determined parents in Adelanto, California, who bucked local teacher unions and took over their kids’ school. Fed up with broken promises and poor performance, the town’s mothers and fathers became the first in the country to take advantage of a so-called “parent trigger,” wresting control of Desert Trails Elementary School from the local school board. Why? Because the kids aren’t learning anything. Only about one in four youngsters emerge at age 12 able to read and do simple math at grade level. The better question is, why not?
Opposition to the Adelanto takeover was, naturally, intense. The teachers union pulled no punches in trying to fend off the challenge. Last year, when parents in Compton, California attempted a similar coup, union activists allegedly told some of the mostly Hispanic families that they might be deported for supporting the takeover. Teachers unions traditionally abhor any outside tinkering with their control – and especially from parents. They also abhor the “trigger” movement, which threatens their very survival. First adopted in California in 2010, there are now four states that have put the trigger in place, and another dozen or so that are considering granting desperate parents this last refuge.
A California-based group called Parent Revolution gave birth to the “trigger” in 2009, on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Their website claims a simple mission: “To transform public education based on what is good for children, not adults, by empowering parents to transform their under-performing schools through community organizing.” Their board is made up of community activists and philanthropists; their funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. In recognition of the group’s singular achievements, Executive Director Ben Austin was appointed to the California State Board of Education in 2010; he was bounced when union-buddy Gerry Brown became governor.
Notwithstanding the group’s liberal-leaning board, it has been smeared by friends of the teachers unions. On one blog, the author claims that Parent Revolution has been guided by “far-right extremists” like the American Enterprise Institute, and derides Austin as a “foppish millionaire.” (Mr. Austin describes himself in an op-ed as “a lifelong Democrat, a pro-union progressive, and a veteran of the Clinton White House.”) Worse – the author digs out several instances in which Austin talks about schools having to “compete” – the ultimate dirty word.
These attacks expose one of the great hypocrisies of our age -- the left’s tolerance of our broken public schools. Democrats portray themselves as eager to close the gap between rich and poor, to ensure that everyone, as President Obama so often says, “gets a fair shot.” But nothing is more certain to widen that divide – to crush opportunity -- than allowing underperforming schools to continue failing our children.
The children at Desert Trails are poor. Their parents know that unless their kids graduate from high school with acceptable reading and math skills, they have no shot at the American dream. Instead, they are likely to wind up in jail or on public support. As matters stand, most will drop out. How is that fair?
Politicians on the left and the right make all the right noises about fixing our broken schools, but change is agonizingly slow—too slow for children who revolve through those doors each day. In his 2009 State of the Union Address, President Obama argued “we know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform.”
That was then – before President Obama came to understand just how critical the support of those teachers unions would be to his future. Facing a tough reelection battle, the White House has watered down the requirements of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. He has bowed to the unions and softened calls for reform. In addition, the president made sure that billions of stimulus dollars kept 400,000 teachers on the payroll.
In return, the country’s largest teacher union – the National Education Association -- endorsed Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign – a full year ahead of schedule. Already, their three million members are “organizing and mobilizing as never before,” as they say on their website – helping to get out the vote and reelect Mr. Obama.
It is not only the children that suffer. The public pays a high price for our schools’ failures. Among the world’s developed countries, the United States ranks 21st in high school graduation rates. Across our country, 25 percent of high school students don’t graduate; one million students per year drop out. Among Hispanics, 42 percent will not graduate on time while among African Americans, the figure is 43 percent. Is that fair?
It isn’t fair to the kids, or to the country. In 2009, those who had graduated from high school earned $27,380. Those who had not made $19,540. Over their adult lives, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the loss in income to the country from the dropouts in just one class- the class of 2011 -- would total $154 billion. If the number of male dropouts were cut by 5 percent, the nation would save an estimated $4.9 billion per year in crime-related costs. The United States cannot afford these preventable losses in income; we should not tolerate a system where so many of our youngsters drop out and lose hope; where our political leaders fail to turn around this grave injustice. Let us hope that parents will succeed.