Guest post by Caroline Grannan -- P.P.
The current hot story in education reform is California's Parent Trigger law and its deployment against high-poverty McKinley Elementary school in disadvantaged Compton, near Los Angeles.
The simplified description of this law, which the state Legislature passed last year, is that it mandates radical change at a school if petitions are turned in bearing the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents at the school (and for middle and high schools, of parents at feeder schools, a situation undoubtedly as unwieldy as it sounds).
In the McKinley Elementary situation, as with other complex education reform issues, reading through the press coverage may cause dizziness due to the conflicting perspectives. Here's a clear-eyed summary from a recent Los Angeles Times editorial (Jan. 29, 2011):
The first parent trigger petition, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, offered an example of how the process shouldn't work. The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents' options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn't understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures. Meanwhile, the school district has set up a process for verifying the signatures that is harder on parents and more intrusive than is reasonably necessary.
As the Times account indicates, this Parent Trigger was deployed not to empower the McKinley parents, but rather to turn McKinley over to a pre-selected charter operator. This Parent Trigger drive was initiated not by the parents but by Parent Revolution, an organization founded by the Green Dot charter school operator.
The Parent Trigger law squeaked through the California legislature last year, sponsored by departing state Sen. Gloria Romero. (Romero was running unsuccessfully for state Superintendent of Public Instruction; after being defeated in the primary, she was hired by Democrats for Education Reform, which promotes charter schools, privatization and other currently vogueish education panaceas.)
The Parent Trigger was conceived by a group called Parent Revolution, formerly known as the Los Angeles Parents Union. It's no secret that the organization was founded by the Green Dot charter school chain, though occasionally there's a halfhearted effort to portray Parent Revolution as a “grassroots” parents' group.
The Los Angeles Weekly, a fiery, right/libertarian “advocacy journalism” practitioner, has taken a fervent stance in support of Parent Revolution and its Parent Trigger campaign against McKinley Elementary. The Weekly's detailed coverage is invaluable for following the course of events – not just despite but because of its fierce backing of the Parent Trigger and because of its contemptuous treatment of McKinley teachers, the McKinley PTA and anyone else who might question the Parent Revolution operation.
For that reason, the Weekly's description of Parent Revolution's wealthy and powerful backers carries far more weight than mine would:
Parent Revolution looked for a vulnerable school in a vulnerable district to target with a Parent Trigger campaign, and then sent paid organizers out into Compton to knock on doors in search of McKinley parents. An actual parent-led effort wouldn't require paid organizers to cold-call door-to-door in search of parents at the school, it should go without saying. The L.A. Weekly:
Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. … (Parent Revolution's paid) field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton, knocking on hundreds of doors, walking its sidewalks and driving its streets, asking people if their children attend McKinley. … [Organizing director Pat DeTemple] set up a computer program to track trends in the progress of his staff's work. Once a parent signature was obtained, DeTemple input that parent’s address in the program, and a green dot appeared on a digital map of Compton. If a particular block in McKinley Elementary's feeder area showed no green dots, he'd ask one of the five salaried organizers to make a follow-up visit to the block.
After the Parent Revolution operatives had collected sufficient signatures, the petitions were delivered on Dec. 7 to Compton district officials in a professionally staged, photo-op PR event, attended by reporters from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and staffers representing Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The Weekly describes the well-orchestrated scene:
The crowd — including parents, children and reporters from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, local TV channels 2, 4, 7, 11, radio news stations KPCC and others, as well as aides to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — then clambers into two yellow buses and arrives at Compton Unified School District headquarters on Santa Fe Avenue.
There, [McKinley parent Ysmenia] Guzman hands over a book of parent signatures to acting superintendent Karen Frison ... who is waiting outside the building flanked by several school district police officers. …
Guzman holds the receipt [for the signatures] in the air and several parents and their children cheer and began chanting, "Yes we can! Yes we can!"
The Parent Trigger law allows the petitioners to choose one of four options: Close the school entirely; replace the school with a charter school; replace the principal; or fire the staff and reorganize the school. The McKinley Parent Trigger operation was based from the beginning on only one of those options – replacing McKinley with a charter school. The charter operator , the Celerity Educational Group, was pre-selected by Parent Revolution. The L.A. Weekly:
Around the same time that Parent Revolution was researching Compton Unified, Celerity was looking to open a school in the stubbornly anti-charter district. The two organizations found each other.
The process has drawn criticism as the signature drive was quiet and low-profile. There were no open meetings, presentations of the various options the parents could have chosen, discussions with the school district, opportunities for debate and rebuttal, or the usual messy interactions of democracy.
One of those messy interactions did transpire a week later, on Dec. 14, at a Compton Unified School District (CUSD) board meeting. Again, the L.A. Weekly was there and live-blogging – and described “hundreds of angry parents – many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition.” Again, this description comes from an outspoken supporter of the Parent Trigger petition. This significant event has gone almost entirely unremarked upon, with the storyline from Parent Revolution being that a few individuals manipulated by the McKinley PTA or deceived by scheming teachers have voiced opposition.
Excerpts from the Weekly's account of the Dec. 14 meeting, which it describes as “packed” with 200 to 300 people:
We're reporting live from the CUSD board meeting, packed with press and hundreds of angry parents -- many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without understanding its gravity.Above all, the air is buzzing with confusion. …
More and more, the crowd reveals itself as anti-Parent Trigger. The only speakers who get a positive reaction are the ones defending CUSD. …
Another man rouses parents: "How dare they come here and say not the whole truth? If we look at charter schools, we know what they are about. They are about the dollar."
… the crowd chants, "COMPTON! COMPTON! COMPTON!" Someone waves an "I [Heart] Compton" shirt above his head.
It seems the concept of a charter school has now become the antithesis of hometown pride. … One mother, who rushes out the side door before we can ask her name, says she was approached at her job twice and forced to sign the petition, y "yo no quise fimar" (I didn't want to sign). Parent Kirk Douglas Brown says he signed the petition, but now wants to publicly revoke his signature.
A strong localized defense begins to arise, based on the sentiment that "outside interests" like Parent Revolution, Celerity Educational Group and even L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are coming in and "telling us what to do with our city."… There's a new civil war …
Outside the Weekly's report, this meeting and the crowd of protesters opposing the charterization have gone entirely unnoticed in the national conversation about the Parent Trigger.
Here's an outline of the further plot twists in this strange saga.
· Both the state Board of Education and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made public accusations of harassment and intimidation in the Parent Trigger brouhaha, and directed the state Attorney General's office to investigate.
o The accusations were intended to paint the McKinley teachers and PTA members as the harassers, intimidating parents who had signed the petition. The press got understandably confused, and some accounts (including the Los Angeles Times') described the charges as accusations that the signature-gatherers were the harassers.
§ (Parent Revolution and the L.A. Weekly have repeatedly painted the PTA as some kind of operation of what public-education opponents call the “blob,” though school PTAs consist entirely of parent volunteers and teachers.)
o Ben Austin, who is the hired Executive Director of Parent Revolution, was a member of the state Board of Education at the time that it made those charges. Austin is no longer on the state board.
o Gov. Schwarzenegger has been replaced by newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown, who has a very different attitude from Schwarzenegger's about education reform.
o Austin's then-colleagues on the state Board of Education were highly supportive of charter schools and the Parent Trigger. Jerry Brown replaced a number of them as soon as he took office, and the state board is no longer likely to be an automatic booster.
o Nothing more has been publicly heard about any investigation process by the state Attorney General's office.
· “Parents,” or rather Parent Revolution, in a blaze of publicity, reportedly filed charges with the U.S. Department of Education accusing some teachers of harassment for such behavior as supposedly badmouthing charter schools to children.
o It hasn't been made clear what the USDOE's investigation process is, what the charges or penalties would be, whether the charges are against the school or individual teachers, whether the teachers would get due process, whether they need legal representation and have to pay for it themselves, and so forth.
o Post-blaze-of-publicity, nothing further has been heard of that move.
· The Compton school district, winging it clumsily, tried to create its own verification process for the petition signatures, sending certified letters to the school parents directing them to come in person to the school during a specific period to confirm their signatures. This prompted widespread outrage from Parent Revolution and its supporters.
o There is no language in the Parent Trigger law regarding verifying petition signatures. The district – caught by surprise, without guidance and under highly publicized attack by the powerful Parent Revolution – devised a poorly thought-out process.
o The district recanted most of its required process after the outcry; despite some coverage, it's utterly unclear what transpired. As questioning voices have asked, should a school district hand the keys of a public institution over to a private operator, no questions asked, upon receipt of an unverified list of names?
· Parent Revolution announced that two major law firms would be representing it against Compton Unified – pro bono. It was not clear whether the firms, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Kirkland & Ellis, are aware that they're donating their services for free to a billionaire-funded operation that could well afford to pay their standard fees – and representing it in an assault against a challenged, high-poverty school district.
The Compton Unified School District held a meeting to discuss possible plans to merge McKinley Elementary with another nearby school – that is, close McKinley. Details were not clear. This plan was met with outrage by Parent Revolution, though that setup is one of the options parents may choose under the Parent Trigger.
That was the situation at the point where the L.A. Times – whose initial coverage of the McKinley situation was favorably inclined toward the Parent Trigger, and whose coverage of charters and Green Dot has been largely positive and uncritical -- stepped in with its possibly game-changing editorial of Jan. 29.
Most important is a public process. The petitions amount to elections; they force dramatic changes up to and including transferring the school to charter operators. Parent trigger must not become a means for private charter groups to get free school buildings through secret proceedings.
The McKinley experience shows that in order for the parent trigger to fulfill its potential, tinkering alone won't do. Regulations by the state Board of Education, which were suspended after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed new board members, fall short as well. It will take new legislation to correct the gaping inadequacies of the first law.
One other tidbit about the Parent Trigger: There is a previous school where an effort has been underway – Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland, near Los Angeles. A former parent at the school launched the effort, working with Parent Revolution. The parent has said that there was no support for charterizing, so she just wants to get the principal replaced. After a Feb. 14, 2010, article in the Los Angeles Daily News, that effort has been low-profile.Parent Revolution isn't talking about Mount Gleason at all now. Why? My guesses:
· Parent Revolution is only interested in efforts to charterize.
· The effort is gaining no traction.
· It's a little embarrassing that the parent behind the effort – as a former parent at the school – is herself not qualified to sign the petition under the Parent Trigger law.My own view on the Parent Trigger is that it's entirely unworkable – that it's guaranteed to cause damaging conflict in a school community that will only do harm to the community and its children – and that this should be evident to anyone who has been part of a school community.
The “civil war” at McKinley bears out my view, though it's a wilder ride than anyone could have predicted. The Mount Gleason situation actually doesn't back up my opinion, as it sounds more like a quiet fizzle.
Numerous commentators are hailing the Parent Trigger. It's beloved by the free-market far right, those who would like to see public schools eliminated and education fully privatized – big supporters include the Wall Street Journal editorial board, National Review and the Heartland Institute. (That conflicts confusingly with the ongoing efforts of Parent Revolution to compare itself to heroes of the labor movement and the civil rights movement, and to emphasize the Democratic Party insider background of its top staff.)
I wish the best to the students and families at McKinley Elementary in Compton. It's quite clear that the Parent Trigger is not in their best interests.