The assumption behind "Parent Trigger" laws, according to Diane Ravitch in her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, is "If parents seize control of their school, they can make it better." As Ravitch points out, with a great deal of data, there is no evidence to support this assumption. What is amazing to me is how this so-called "parent empowerment" legislation came into existence in the first place. At the heart of the development of "parent trigger" laws have been key players in the for-profit charter school industry, who, with an obvious conflict of self-interest, have combined forces with organizations of free market fanatics (the American Legislative Exchange Council comes to mind here) to introduce these measures in state legislatures. But what has really happened here? How have these people like Ben Austin, who founded the pro-charter, pro-parent trigger organization Parent Revolution, been able to both successfully push through a mechanism that makes it possible for parents to commandeer a public school then turn around and hand that school to a for-profit charter school company? It would appear that they have done so through a combination of tactics and maneuvers that belittle public education as a whole, and that use popular media to push their specific agenda of privatization.
One tactic the pro-charter movement has used extremely well is to blanket attack the quality of public schools in general. It is actually akin to carpet-bombing the media with movies, think tank reports, and pseudo-studies denigrating public schools, thereby supporting their cause.They do this by misrepresenting data, focusing on public school examples of extreme failure, and by undermining general public faith in public schools. Aided by both politicians who would like nothing better than shutting down public schools altogether and educators who have bought into the audit culture of testing and accountability, this job of mis-representing the reality of public education is made much easier. Politicians have passed laws such as those in North Carolina and Florida that assign letter grades to public schools based on test scores. Educators, specifically those in state departments of testing and accountability are providing "the data" that ultimately feeds this system and the assumptions that all public schools are failing. What's amazing in all this is the simple fact that data clearly shows that charter schools do not as a whole do any better than public schools, and because there is no unified measure of private schools, there is no way to empirically support the assumption that they do any better either. By blanketing the media with "gloom and doom" reports surrounding the latest test scores, the public's confidence in public schools has eroded and will continue to do so, at least until educators begin calling out those engaged in this tactic.
Another tactic employed by the pro-charter movement is evident in the series of pro-charter school movies that have recently appeared. Waiting for Superman, Won't Back Down, and The Cartel, are all part of concerted effort to undermine confidence in public schools and promote charter schools and vouchers. Using movies to promote causes is common. What might be just a bit sleazy about these movies is how they misrepresent reality and mask who's really behind the movie. Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down are made by Walden Media, funded by billionaire libertarian Philip Anschutz who funds a variety of think tanks and organizations pushing free market philosophy and thinking. His interest in the destruction of public schools and pushing for market-based education reforms is obvious. Bob Bowdon, the maker of the film The Cartel also has strong ties to free market libertarian organizations, so it is clear also what his real agenda is. One other film, The Lottery, is also another movie that promotes charter schools and denigrates public schools. One can add this movie to the "Charter School Commercial Genre" of movies created by the those with the financial means to push this free market, public school privatization agenda in the guise of teary scenes of kids and parents not getting the education they so desperately want. Those creating these movies and documentaries have learned well how to attack public schools and promote privatization as the only way to save education.
Ultimately, at the heart of all this is that there are those who are willing to distort facts, misrepresent reality, and even implement mechanisms like parent trigger laws to undermine public education. I can't help but wonder though whether this whole attack on public schools is a symptom of a larger struggle taking place within American culture. That struggle is between those who advocate libertarian, free market systems where pursuit of selfish interest is in the interest of society and those who understand that government has and must play a role in refereeing and being a part of all our systems because pursuit of self-interests can't always be trusted, whether they be economic, political or educational. This struggle is being waged across all aspects of American culture, with education being one of those battlefields. What makes all this really frightening to me in some ways is that those pushing this free market, libertarian agenda, have a license to push their self-interest at all costs. Because what they are doing is automatically assumed to be for the good of all, no one looks critically at their actions, or if someone does, they're immediately criticized for not supporting free market interests or worse: being a socialist.