Parents Group Stymied in Push for School Turnaround

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Parents trying to force establishment of a charter school in lieu of a failing elementary school using California’s so-called “parent trigger” law have been rebuffed by a judge who ruled that the petitions for the change could not be validated.

The setback for the parents of students at Compton’s McKinley Elementary School comes as other states are considering similar laws and New York is enmeshed in a legal battle over plans to create charter schools in place of failing schools there. Also, there are continuing attempts to weaken the California law.

In May, Judge Anthony Mohr of a Los Angeles Superior Court tentatively ruled in favor of the Compton School Board after its decision to reject the petitions was challenged by the parents.  The judge said the parents’ petition could not be considered “official” because the signatures did not include dates indicating what years their children attended the school.

On June 9, Judge Mohr heard additional arguments from McKinley parents and asked that the Compton School District respond within the next several weeks. McKinley parents argued that the judge ruled incorrectly in the case and on rejecting the parents’ petition.

Without dates with the signatures, the school board argued, it could not confirm that the parents actually had children enrolled in the school at the time they signed the petitions.

The California parent trigger law allows parents to demand the school’s principal and half of the staff be replaced, for the school to be turned into a charter school, or for the school to be shut down altogether, if the parents of at least 50 percent of the school’s students sign a petition. The Compton parents have been the only ones in the state to try to use the law for a school turnaround and wanted Celebrity Charter Schools to take over McKinley.

The law caps the number of schools that could change as a result of the trigger at 75 statewide, even though there are a total of 1,300 public schools in California that would qualify. In order to qualify, a school must have missed federally required Average Yearly Progress Goals for four consecutive years as laid out by No Child Left Behind.

The Compton School Board also rejected the parents’ petitions because they referenced an incorrect state law, and indicated additional documents were being attached, but they weren’t.

Meantime, the California State Board of Education is considering a proposal that would require a majority of teachers to support any parent-sought changeover – a move that supporters of the law say would strip parents of the power to force changes because the California Teachers Union adamantly opposes the trigger law. The state board could consider permanent regulations for the parent trigger law at a July 5 meeting.

Thwarted from turning McKinley into a charter school, Celerity Charter Schools will open a facility this fall within the boundaries of the Compton Unified School District and just a few blocks from McKinley Elementary. Charter School advocates say they still hope to take over McKinley.

Celerity’s program is built around research practices and project-based learning that has been a successful approach across the country. Their schools offer extra-curricular activities such as yoga and dance classes and technology programs.

New York’s battles

In New York City, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has joined with the City Teachers Union in a lawsuit that would block the opening of 20 charter schools in public school buildings this fall.

At a recent event in New York, 2,500 people voiced their opposition to the NAACP’s efforts.

The NAACP and its supporters say that the Chief Executive of the Success Charter Network (Eva S. Moskowitz) singled out the NAACP and challenged its commitment to African-Americans. However, the NAACP says it isn’t fighting against charters, but for the need for all children to receive a quality education.

A similar lawsuit in New York last year stopped the closure of 19 public schools, 15 of which New York id trying to close this year.

This particular lawsuit accuses the New York City Education Department of failing to abide by the law when it proposed to close the schools and co-locate the charter schools in public school buildings. The Department states that the city failed to allow court-mandated plans to help failing schools improve.

At the same time, a group in Buffalo, N.Y. is trying to getparent trigger legislation, similar to that in California, through the New York legislature.

Buffalo ReformED, a parent-driven education reform advocacy organization, led parents from across the state to Albany on June 15 for a meeting with state legislatures to push the Parent Trigger law.

Hope for underperforming schools

Katie Campos, founder of Buffalo ReformED, and Hannah Boulos, executive director, believe that public education should be what is in the best interest of the students. However, they say, school systems often have competing interests that come in the way of what is best for students.

The group chose to start their efforts in Buffalo because the Buffalo Public School District is one of the most underperforming public districts in New York. Only 25 percent of all African-American students in Buffalo Public Schools graduate, and less than 50 percent of all of the students in the same schools graduate—and for those fortunate enough to graduate, just 15 percent are deemed college-ready.

“Parents are desperate for change. Our system is broken, and parents are saying enough is enough,” Boulos said. “They are organizing, standing together, and demanding the power to transform their child’s failing schools through community organizing.”

Buffalo ReformED had hoped to have parent trigger legislation passed as early as last month.  

However, Assembly Education Chair Cathy Nolan, who was once very supportive of parent trigger legislation if it was made into a Buffalo-only bill (which it now is), said on June 16 that she is uncertain if she can support the law.

“If the bill is not passed in this legislative session, we will continue working hard to build support for it over the summer and next fall in order to pass it in early January 2012,” Campos said.

Another group supporting parent trigger legislation is the Heartland Institute, based in Chicago, Ill. and Washington, D.C.  The Heartland Institute’s goal is to develop, discover and promote free-market solutions to economic and social problems. Among the problems the group is specifically interested in is education.

Marc Oestreich, legislative specialist for the Institute, said, “the Parent Trigger legislation allows for parents to take the reins in their child’s education.”

“The parent trigger forces accountability on a system that has almost none, and, with the right reform options, can bring real choice to the parents that deserve it,” Oestreich said.

Parent trigger legislation has been introduced in more than a dozen states in the 2010-11 legislative year. Indiana came within a day of passing a version after both the House and Senate passed separate measures. The Texas legislature has sent a watered down version of a parent trigger bill to Gov. Rick Perry (R) for signing.