California Parents Pull ‘Trigger’ for School Takeover

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Parents in Compton, Calif., south of Los Angeles, have organized the first challenge to one of the state’s poorly performing public schools, under a new law that allows them to take direct action to try to make improvements.

California’s Parent Trigger Law, signed a year ago by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, requires that if a majority of a school’s parents petitions the local school board, it must either transform their children’s school into a charter school, fire the principal and half the staff, or close the school, according to what the parents demand.

“I just want a better education for my daughter,” said Ismenia Guzman, one of the parents’ leaders, shortly before delivering stacks of signed petitions to the school board early last month. “I just don’t want our kids to be struggling because of poor education.”

Guzman’s daughter is a first-grade student at McKinley Elementary – the target of the petitions. She noted that the state “has rated Compton’s schools as among the lowest performing in the state.”

The California law is the first in the nation to allow direct parental intervention to force school makeovers, although Connecticut recently enacted a somewhat similar law and a New Jersey lawmaker is introducing his own parent trigger law. Organizers hope that eventually parents across the country will have the same opportunity to change low-performing schools.

But in recent weeks, the parents’ triumphal delivery of the petitions has been tempered by allegations that dozens of parents who signed the petitions were duped or intimidated into signing them.

Karla Garcia, who has two children at McKinley, said, “They told me the petition was to beautify the school.”

Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, the nonprofit group that lobbied for the law and helped organize the parents, insisted that they had been fully informed of the petition’s intent. And Schwarzenegger condemned alleged “intimidation tactics” by the petitioners’ opponents at McKinley.

At the same time, The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial that it was “no surprise that Compton Unified became the first school district targeted,” but noted that in recent years testing scores at McKinley have improved. The editorial also pointed out that the trigger law could be used on schools “that are by no means those most in need of turnaround.”

The petition drive at McKinley was organized after a state-mandated assessment found that teachers seemed to be focused on “adult” matters, rather than putting the children first.

The parents’ petition asks that McKinley be converted to a charter school. McKinley has almost 500 students and is one of eight elementary schools (out of 24) in Compton eligible for possible change under the new law; all eight have failed to meet state standards for three straight years. The majority of McKinley’s students are Latino and the rest are African-American.

The parents’ plan calls for the Celerity Schools Group, which runs four charter schools with 1,500 students in Los Angeles, to operate McKinley. Celerity now serves the same kind of student population as that at McKinley with, as one organizer said, “exponentially better results.”

Another of the parents’ leaders, Marlene Romero, whose son is in third grade at McKinley, said that as soon as she heard about the petition she got involved.

“I feel like the Compton school district gave up on our kids,” she said.

The road to takeover

When Parent Revolution was launched on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2009, “we made a simple promise – if you organize half the parents in your school, we guarantee you a great school,” said Ben Austin, its executive director.

On that day nearly two years ago, backers of Parent Revolution weren’t sure how they were going to accomplish that. Within months, however, parents across the Los Angeles area were organizing, Austin said. At first, their main leverage came from the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows children in a failing school to transfer to another, better school.

If enough students choose to transfer, the failing school could lose a large portion of the state funding that accompanies each student, and it might have to close.

In the spring of 2009, some of the concerned Los Angeles parents met with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board, which led to the creation of the Public School Choice plan. The program set up a system under which charter schools or collaborations of parents, teachers and district administrators could petition to take over failing schools.

But, Austin said, that plan “left the car keys in the hands of the same people who had driven the car off the cliff,” that is, the school board and the school bureaucracy. The group began considering legislation..”

Help from the ‘Top’

In June 2009, the Obama administration announced one of the central programs of its planned education reform program: the Race to the Top. It set a January 2010 deadline for states to meet four criteria in order to share in $4.35 billion in federal money:

  • Adopt common standards based on rigorous state assessments.
  • Establish systems to measure student growth and success and inform teachers and principals on ways to improve instruction.
  • Recruit, retain and reward effective teachers and principals, especially in schools where they are most needed.
  • Turn around the lowest performing schools.

The Parent Trigger Law was part of California’s Race to the Top package. and many legislators did not think it would pass; the powerful California Federation of Teachers opposed it. But parents mobilized. “They went to the state capital at Sacramento by car and by bus and flooded the capitol building with parents,” said Austin. The legislation passed by one vote in early January 2010 and was signed by the governor on Jan. 7.

Parent Revolution chose to work first with parents in the Compton school system, Austin said, because Achievement Equity, the firm that evaluated Compton because it failed repeatedly to meet state and NCLB standards, found the school system focused “on the adult issues as a priority before the student needs.”

The firm said after its two-year assessment that it found “evidence [among teachers] of a consistent mental model of low expectations of student achievement connected to student ethnicity and socioeconomic status.” In presenting the report to the Compton school board in July, the firm’s Dr. Gloria Johnston said the assessment team had “grave concern about the future of learning opportunities for students in the district.”

The Compton school district, located south of downtown Los Angeles, has changed markedly in recent years. Sixty-two percent African-American in the 1990 census, it was 56 percent Latino by 2000 and is now 61.9 percent Hispanic. Student enrollment is at least three-fourths Latino. The district has had four superintendents since 2000; the most recent was fired in October for using district credit cards for personal purchases.

Cool response

The day the McKinley Elementary parents presented their petitions, they held a press conference in the backyard of one of the parents who lives near the school. Then they boarded two buses for a brief trip to Compton school headquarters. There, surrounded by television camera crews and other news media, Guzman walked up the front walk of the headquarters building clutching a notebook full of the signed petitions.

She was greeted at the building door by Acting Superintendent Karen Frison. When Guzman said she was there because the parents cared about the education of their children, Frison replied, “We all care for our children.”

Later in the day, the acting superintendent released a statement: “Although we have not been given an opportunity to discuss the concerns of the school’s parents, the district looks forward to addressing all concerns. Compton Unified values all of its students and remains committed to providing them with a productive and safe learning environment that fosters student achievement.”

At a meeting of McKinley parents the weekend before the petitions were delivered, Patrick DeTemple, organizing director for Parent Revolution, said, “There is only one demand that we have. That is that the school board approve the petition and do it quickly. My guess is that that will not be their natural instinct.” But “that’s why we have lawyers,” he added. Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, one of the biggest and most prestigious law firms in Los Angeles, has agreed to represent the parents pro bono.

Under regulations established by the California Board of Education in July, the local school board must adopt the option requested by the parents unless it finds it cannot do so and designates in writing which of the other options identified in the law it will implement. Those include closing the school or firing the principal and half the teachers. While there is no hard and fast deadline for action on the parent trigger petition, there is one – 60 days – for the charter school petition, which was submitted at the same time.

What’s next?

Approximately 1,300 of California’s 10,000 public schools are considered to be failing. The new law allows parents to use its provisions to overhaul 75 schools a year, if they collect enough signatures. DeTemple said that Parent Revolution is organizing now to try to transform more schools during the 2011-12 academic year. Deputy director Rose declined to say where organizing is taking place, without permission from those parents, “since we have seen the tactics of the other side once they realize parents are fighting for change.”

In May, the Connecticut Legislature passed a law somewhat similar to California’s trigger law. Effective on July 1, it gives parents authority to intervene in poorly performing schools. The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Jason Bartlett (D), requires that School Governance Councils, comprising seven parents, five teachers and two community leaders, be set up for failing schools and that they be an option in other schools. The councils will have the authority to recommend reconstituting a failing school to improve performance.

New Jersey State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R) introduced a parent-trigger law Dec. 13, including these options: replacing the staff at a low-performing school, converting it into a charter, or obtaining vouchers for students to attend other public or private schools. His proposal also sets a six-month deadline for action after a school system receives a petition from a majority of the households with students at the target school.

One of the sponsors of the California law, former state Sen. Gloria Romero, rode the bus to the Compton school district headquarters with parents. She said she wanted to do that “to watch parents use the law.” (Her term ended this fall after she chose to run for state superintendent of public instruction and lost.)

The parents had been in Sacramento night and day during the debate on the law, “working the halls, scrambling for votes. A lot of people wanted it to go away, and it passed by only one vote,” Romero said. “Today is the culmination of all that.”