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 private management.
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 immediate change.
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 just that.
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 Foundation.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 states.