* Teachers' unions fiercely oppose "parent trigger" laws
* Many Democratic mayors split with unions on issue
* Opponents say makes schools less accountable
By Stephanie Simon
June 17 Hundreds of mayors from across the
United States this weekend called for new laws letting parents
seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the
teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to
The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Orlando, Florida,
on Saturday unanimously endorsed "parent trigger" laws aimed at
bypassing elected school boards and giving parents at the worst
public schools the opportunity to band together and force
Such laws are fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, which
stand to lose members in school takeovers. Union leaders say
there is no proof such upheaval will improve learning. And they
argue that public investment in struggling communities, rather
than private management of struggling schools, is the key to
boosting student achievement.
But in a sign of the unions' diminishing clout, their
traditional political allies, the Democrats, abandoned them in
droves during the Orlando vote.
Democratic Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Antonio
Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento led
the charge for parent trigger - and were backed by scores of
other Democrats as well as Republicans from coast to coast.
"Mayors understand at a local level that most parents lack
the tools they need to turn their schools around," Villaraigosa
said. Parent trigger laws, he added, can empower parents to do
Representatives from the two largest teachers' unions, the
National Education Association and the American Federation of
Teachers, were not available for comment Sunday.
Parent trigger laws are in place in several states including
California, Texas and Louisiana and are under consideration in
states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. So far,
though, the concept has never successfully been used to turn
around a school.
Parents in two impoverished, heavily minority California
cities, Compton and Adelanto, gathered enough signatures to
seize control of their neighborhood schools but the process
stalled in the face of ferocious opposition from teachers'
unions. Both cases are now tied up in court.
Though it has not yet been shown to work, parent trigger has
support from many of the big players seeking to inject more
free-market competition into public education, including the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family
Major philanthropies and wealthy financiers have poured
money into backing political candidates and advocacy groups,
including one called Parent Revolution, that promote parent
trigger, according to campaign finance records in several
The concept has even inspired an upcoming Hollywood film,
"Won't Back Down," in which Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays a single
mother who organizes parents to take control of their failing
school over union opposition. The movie was financed by Walden
Media, which also backed the 2010 documentary "Waiting for
'Superman,'" which advocated for another central goal of
education reformers - expanding charter schools.
For their part, mayors may have jumped on the bandwagon
because parent trigger fits neatly with two of their key goals,
said Kenneth Wong, a political scientist focused on education
policy at Brown University.
"Mayors are moving in a new direction on education, one
that's more consumer oriented... and focused on serving parents
and giving them choices," Wong said. Facing tight budgets and
huge pension liabilities, many mayors are also looking to rein
in the power of teachers unions and force them to accept more
austere contracts, Wong said.
Teachers unions have long been among the biggest donors to
Democratic politicians, but that alliance has frayed in many
cities in the past 18 months.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa blasted union leaders as
an "unwavering roadblock to reform." In Philadelphia, Mayor
Nutter has backed a plan to close dozens of neighborhood schools
and convert many others to charters, which are publicly funded
but privately run - and typically non-union.
And in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel successfully pushed to
cancel a scheduled 4 percent raise for teachers and extend the
school day by more than an hour. Teachers are so angry, nearly
90 percent of union members just voted to authorize a strike if
ongoing contract negotiations falter.
"We are on the path to change," said Gloria Romero, a former
California state senator who now runs that state's branch of
Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that funnels
donations to politicians willing to buck the teachers unions.
She called the mayoral vote a "landmark" that would inspire poor
and minority parents to demand change in their schools. "This is
a civil rights fight," she said.
Opponents of parent trigger, however, pointed out that the
mayors' endorsement was largely symbolic, since such policies
typically require legislative approval.
They said they would continue to fight - in part by
reminding voters that parent trigger can be a mechanism for
turning public schools over to private control. Some of the
private management companies that run charter schools are
for-profits that do not divulge much about how they spend public
"Parents don't have control once they pull the trigger,"
said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of Fund Education Now, an
advocacy group that successfully fought to derail a parent
trigger bill in Florida earlier this year. "Who profits? Not
parents and children."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)