A historic policy shift in education is poised to put power in parents’ hands. Experts, academics, and policy wonks have been talking about “education reform” since the first teacher wrote an A on the blackboard, but the current uprising didn’t catch fire until 2006, when the Los Angeles Parents Union founded Parent Revolution. Parent Revolution has produced wave after wave of grassroots campaigns that pushed through legislation first in Los Angeles and then in California, inspiring initiatives in other states and recently spreading to other countries, in only two years.

However, some contend that the organization is neither parent-run nor a revolution. Green Dot Public Schools — which runs 15 charter high schools in some of L.A.’s poorest areas — formed the Los Angeles Parents Union and funds about 80% of Parent Revolution campaigns, sparking accusations that this grassroots movement is AstroTurf planted in a bid to turn every traditional public school into a charter.

Not only is this not so, say supporters, it’s not possible. While good charter schools give parents bargaining power, because they can threaten to leave neighborhood schools for charters if things don’t improve, they only constitute a fraction of public schools in the nation. The point is not a takeover, says Parent Revolution, but to inject competition into what’s long been a monopoly on public education.

“Finally, districts have to actually deal with parents instead of putting them on meaningless PTA/ELAC/CLAC committees, which have tons of acronyms but no actual power,” says Gabe Rose, a spokesperson for Parent Revolution. “Which is their preferred method for dealing with noisy parents.”

A trigger for school reform

Inspired that a grassroots community organizer could end up president of the United States, Green Dot launched Parent Revolution on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. By its first anniversary, the group had passed massive statewide legislation it named “parent trigger,” which placed more power in parents’ hands than has ever existed. Now, for the first time ever, if 51% of parents sign a parent trigger petition, the local education authority is required to perform one of the four “school renewal strategies” outlined under Obama’s Race to the Top initiative:

  1. Bring in high-quality charter school organizations to manage low-performing schools.
  2. Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50% of the staff.
  3. Clean house completely and bring in a whole new staff.
  4. Close the school and send kids to higher-performing schools nearby.

Parents pick which of the four processes they want. Any California school that has been on Program Improvement for three or more years and has an API score below 800 is eligible for transformation under parent trigger. Bottom line: Once 51% of parents have signed the petition, the parents are in charge of the school by law.

Leveling the learning field

“Parents whose kids are stuck in failing schools actually have the ability to transform their schools just through community organizing,” says Rose. “It’s a real transfer of power from the people who’ve always had it to parents.”

If giving nonprofessionals the power to transforms schools when even the professionals have failed sounds like a dangerous plan, you’re not the first to doubt the Parent Revolution game plan. Advocates argue that by teaming up with highly successful charter organizations (like Green Dot), public schools can borrow what works in the most expensive private schools and apply it to schools for low-income kids.

Indeed, whether it’s KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), Aspire Public Schools, or Green Dot, successful charter management associations (CMAs) have proven that kids from at-risk, low-income backgrounds can not only learn but also thrive academically and outperform their affluent peers. When Green Dot took over Locke Senior High School, it was considered by many to be the worst high school in Los Angeles — possibly in all of California — ranking at the bottom in academics and at the top in violence. After Green Dot swooped into this neighborhood school and applied its stringent charter model, the number of proficient students at Locke nearly doubled in English and nearly quadrupled in math.

Think local, act global

Though the movement is still embryonic, success stories are blossoming in far-flung regions where parents are hustling to implement Parent Revolution ideas. Black and Hispanic parents in Connecticut took a cue from California and passed their own statewide parent trigger initiative. Op-ed columns appeared in the Atlanta Journal (“It’s Time to Bring Parent Revolution Here“), and in Canada’s National Post (“A Trigger for Improving Public Education“).

The movement became truly transcontinental when the BBC reported “Parents to Trigger School Changes” in May 2009 and Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “Today I want to set off a chain reaction in our schools with these recognized brands merging with or taking over our weaker and coasting schools.”

I’ve seen parent activism inspire drastic changes in my local neighborhood of West Oakland, Calif. Our interim superintendent planned to close 10 to 17 schools with virtually no input from the community. Go Public Schools, a coalition of families, students, and educators, stopped that plan dead in its tracks. Parents had never wielded such power before. This year the Oakland Unified School District was declared the most improved large urban school district in California over the past six years, and the change has mainly been initiated by community organizers and parents.