By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - 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.
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 funds.
"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)