It was a bizarre scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
As about 400 convention-goers gathered to watch an advance screening of the movie Won't Back Down, a small gathering of protestors railed outside against the film's message.
The protestors were from Parents Across America, a North Carolina-based group funded by teacher unions. Union opposition to Won't Back Down has been strong, with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten denouncing the film as "divisive" and saying "it resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes."
Won't Back Down details the struggle of dedicated parents to transform a failing public school using "parent-trigger" laws that first appeared in California in 2010 and which have since been replicated, to at least some degree, in Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas.
Parent-trigger laws allow parents to force major changes at a single school if more than 50 percent of the school's parents sign a petition urging the change. Possible changes include (1) converting the school into a charter; (2) replacing staff and making budget decisions; (3) changing principals; or (4) closing the school and relocating its students to more successful schools nearby.
Teacher unions have fought against parent-trigger laws at every step. They lobby against the laws when state legislatures debate them, and — upon passage — campaign to discourage parents from signing the petitions.
After parents in Compton, Calif., signed petitions to force changes at a failing school, they reported harassment and lies by union operatives. Some parents said they were threatened with deportation if they didn't rescind their signatures.
Parents seeking to convert Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., into a charter school reported similar tactics. Like the Compton school, Desert Trails serves mainly low-income and minority students. For six consecutive years the school has been classified as failing, and only 30 percent of sixth-graders are proficient in English or math.
Even after parents stood firm in the face of this harassment, the unions applied pressure to the local school boards, where election outcomes are largely determined by the unions' own clout. In both cities, school board members purposely delayed implementation of the changes, mounted legal challenges to the parent-trigger process and — when those legal challenges were unsuccessful — openly defied court orders.
The actions of Compton Unified School District against Compton parents were characterized in the Huffington Post as "so unconstitutional that L.A. Superior Court judges had to issue both a Temporary Restraining Order and a Preliminary Injunction" against the district.
Los Angeles Times editorials similarly lamented Adelanto school board members' behavior, saying the board "flouted the obvious spirit (and possibly the letter) of the law."
After a California Superior Court judge ruled that the board must allow the parents to "immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting" proposals for the school's transformation, school board members unanimously defied the court order, imposing instead their own "reform" agenda of mild tinkering with the school's governance. One brazen board member even brought a pair of handcuffs to the meeting, saying, "If I'm found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs, take me away. I don't care anymore."
How does all this relate to the bizarre scene of union picketing in Charlotte, and why is it so significant?
Teacher unions have long been loyal foot soldiers for the Democratic Party as well as the most significant financial contributors to Democratic campaigns. And yet, it's Democrats who have been behind parent-trigger laws in California and elsewhere.
This year's Democratic National Convention was chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been vocal in his support for parent-trigger laws and who appeared before conventioneers on a panel with education reformer (and fellow Democrat) Michelle Rhee after the screening of Won't Back Down. California's parent-trigger law was written and sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero. In Texas, it was Democratic Representative Mike Villareal who sponsored similar legislation.
This emerging rift between teacher unions and the Democratic Party is the manifestation of a growing crisis on the Left. A significant contingent of left-leaning policymakers are beginning to recognize that the traditional public school system, which, through the years, has been molded and manipulated by self-interested unions, is failing to prepare students for success in life. Moreover, the students most likely to be left behind are those found in the low-income, minority-laden neighborhoods that host the worst public schools.
Happily, that means education reform can no longer be considered a partisan issue. It's simply a battle between those who believe that a public education system should benefit children and those who believe it should benefit adults.
The latter will continue to side with entrenched union interests, while the former will pursue changes that work better for children.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.