Monday, October 03, 2011

Parent Trigger efforts

By David Bacon
Rethinking Schools, Fall 2011

        Parent trigger laws, according to their proponents, give parents power. Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Broad Education Foundation, calls them "a way for parents' voices to be heard."
   Sounds good. But is the parent trigger concept a way to put parents in charge of their kids' education, or is it part of a political agenda that will rob parents of even more control?   While hardly anyone argues that parents don't want, and don't deserve, a voice in their children's schools, many educators, and even parents themselves, doubt that parent trigger laws increase their involvement.
  Many teachers believe parent trigger laws are a way for charter schools to gain a bigger share of the education system.  For McGinity, that's not a bad idea.  The Broad Foundation promotes the proliferation of charter schools, which he says simply offer parents "a different way for a school to operate."   Teachers, however, are alarmed.  They see the expansion of a privatized education system, and view parent trigger laws as a means for rushing the process forward.
   Their concerns illustrate the big stakes behind passing and implementing these laws.  Several very conservative players in national education reform have made parent trigger proposals a key part of their agenda.  As they're introduced in state after state, California's experience is being watched closely.
    California's parent trigger law, SBX5 4, called the Parent Empowerment Act, was introduced by former State Senator Gloria Romero, and passed in an extraordinary session of the legislature.  California was rushing to qualify its application for Federal Race to the Top funds, and proponents said the law would help its chances.  In the end, the state did not qualify, but the law stayed on the books.  The California version of parent trigger says that if the parents of 51% of a public school's students sign a petition (the "trigger"), they can decide to fire the principal, or bring in an entirely new staff, or close the school, or have it taken over by a charter school operator.
     While the California law specifies four options, the parent trigger process is closely related to the establishment of charter schools, which do not guarantee parent control.  Using the trigger, "you get one shot and that's it, because once that charter is formed, that charter dictates how it will operate," John Rogers, associate professor of urban schooling at UCLA, told NBC's Education Nation. "[Parents] have fewer rights in the context of a charter than they would at a public school."
    Prominent Democrats, among them Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a former field rep for United Teachers Los Angeles), spoke for the bill, although the votes to pass it came mostly from Republicans.  Teachers unions lobbied against it, while a chorus of mainstream media hailed it.  Patrick Range McDonald of the LA Weekly claimed it was the product of "minority parents and fierce reformers, who seemed to materialize from thin air."
       Not quite.  While some grassroots parents undoubtedly did support the bill, it was the product of powerful political figures, backed by the wealthy foundations that shape much of the country's debate over education reform.  SBX5 4 was written by the Los Angeles Parents Union, started in 2006 by the Green Dot charter school company.  The LAPU was headed by political operative Ben Austin, who then started another organization, Parent Revolution, to promote and implement the parent trigger law. At its birth, Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget supplied by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Hewlett-Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
       Austin, recently replaced by Governor Jerry Brown on the state Board of Education, is Parent Revolution's executive director.  He was an aide in the Clinton White House, and deputy to Los Angeles' former Republican Mayor Richard Riorden.  PR's organizing director is Pat DeTemple, a lawyer who worked for Service Employees Local 1199 on the east coast, for the United Farm Workers before that, and was an organizer for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

Taking Aim: Compton, California

When the law passed, Parent Revolution sent organizers into southeast Los Angeles, one of the nation's poorest communities, with some of its lowest-scoring schools.  At first, they concentrated on parents at Willard Elementary School, in the Compton School District.
     Compton, where most families are African American and Latino, has huge budget problems, as do most working-class communities in the state.  As of May, California had a $25 billion budget deficit.  State spending on K-12 education was cut by more than $1,000 per student (13.1 percent) between 2007-08 and 2010-11 - a total education budget loss of $18 billion.  Over half the state's schools reduced instructional days, two thirds slashed summer school, and three-quarters of its high schools increased class sizes.  A year ago districts sent teachers and classified employees 23,000 layoff notices, and most recipients never went back to their classrooms.  This spring thousands more pink slips went out.  Some may be rescinded by the fall.  Many won't be.
   In the current recession Compton's problems have grown to crisis proportions.  Last summer its unemployment rate hit 22% while the state was at 12%.  Job loss undermines the tax base funding schools and social services.  According to Carolyn Ritchie, president of the Compton Council of Classified Employees, AFT Local 6119, this year its school district faced a potential shortfall of $6.5 million, and last June had to lay off employees.  "Because they have to submit a budget to the county office of education for the next three years," she explains, "the Board of Trustees convened a committee of unions, teachers, classifieds, parents and principals, and held a series of meetings.  They came up with eight options, some of which did involve school closures."
    When Willard parents heard from PR organizers that the school might close, principal Mario Marcos sent a letter home with students, explaining the budget options.  "No decision has been made regarding closing any of our schools in the district," he emphasized.  Parent Revolution then moved its petition drive to nearby McKinley.
      McKinley has an Academic Performance Index score of 684, one of the lowest in the Compton Unified School District.  "A woman named Rosemary came to my door," recalls parent Carla Garcia.  "She said she wanted to make changes to improve and beautify McKinley.  There was a place on the form that asked about our concerns, so I signed and circled safety.  I've been worried that the school gates are sometimes left open, and children might wander out, or other people come in."  Garcia's daughter Ayalett is in Ms. Williams' first grade class, and Lynette is in Mr. Tellez' 3rd grade class.  She's had kids at McKinley since 2000.
   Parent trigger proponents argue that the petition process lets parents decide how their school should be changed.  But the petition Garcia signed didn't offer a choice of the four options in the law, because it must specify only one.  Parent Revolution staff wrote the McKinley petition, before the process of contacting parents had begun.  At the start of two inches of legal language in dense small print at the top of the page, it says it would "transform McKinley Elementary School under the RESTART MODEL, to be reopened under Celerity Educational Group, a Charter Management Organization (CMO)."
       Celerity has four campuses in Los Angeles, and in 2008-9 total revenue of $11,028,959, with expenses of $9,329,906.  While its bylaws state "employees may join and be represented" by unions (a right guaranteed by state and federal law), another section says job duties, discipline "and all other work basis will be negotiated in individual at will agreements."  At-will employment allows employers to terminate employees or change their conditions "at will."
     Right away parents were divided over whether or not they favored a charter conversion.  Some, like Garcia, felt misled.  "They never said this was a petition for a charter school," she charges.  "I don't want that for McKinley."  She eventually withdrew her signature.
        Parent Caroll Turner, however, was so impressed by Celerity she enrolled her daughter at one of its schools.  "I don't think McKinley is a good school," she said.  Turner came to Compton recently from Tyler, Texas.  Before arriving she tried to talk with district staff about where to enroll her daughter.  "They didn't tell me McKinley was a failing school," she said.  "When I found out, I wanted to change that.  Every child has a right to a good education."
   Other parents had mixed feelings about charters.  Lilia Buenrostro, with a son in 3rd grade, works part time in the cafeteria and volunteers after school.  She went to McKinley herself as a child.  "I'm not against charter schools," she explains.  "But why don't they organize one from scratch?  I don't want them to do it at McKinley.  I want McKinley to stay public."
       "I don't oppose charters either," says Ritchie.  She has one teenage son in a local charter, and one in public school.  "What I don't like is the process they used to get signatures.  I don't want to see public schools become charter schools, but my main concern that that we have an open process.  As a parent myself, I'd be furious if I didn't have any say."
       That became the second source of division among McKinley parents.  Organizers employed a strategy like that used by unions facing hostile employers.  "We knew we'd be in for a fight in Compton," explained DeTemple, Parent Revolution's lead organizer.  His crew had no list of parents to work from, so they went door to door, he says, with surveys to identify them.  "We knew our petition would be challenged, regardless of the number of parents who signed, and that would go on for a long time."  To resolve those challenges in time to bring Celerity in for the following fall term, they wanted to get their petition filed by December.
     Organizers visited people individually, and then held house meetings for small groups of parents.  They didn't try to organize large, open meetings to which all parents, much less teachers and staff, could come and debate their course of action.  As a result, many parents felt excluded.
        Victor Varelas, an Ecuadorian immigrant, and former labor and student activist, was one of those parents who believed the school didn't pay adequate attention to families.  He points to the benches in front where parents wait to pick up their children.  "Why isn't there some cover from the sun or rain?" he asks.  "On street sweeping days they get tickets for parking in front while they walk their kids to class.  A $51 fine is a lot for families in this neighborhood.  The school promises to do something about it but nothing changes."
     That's not what organizers discussed with him, though.  "They said a charter school would get the API up to 800," he recalls.  Varelas put four children through Compton schools, including McKinley, and now has four grandchildren there.  He went to the children's open house, met with their teachers, and checked their work.  Like many parents, he worried that a bad score meant a bad school.  That's what the mainstream media and the standardized testing industry claim.  But it's hard to explain the connection.  "665 means education is bad.  800 means it's good," he says.  It was even less clear what Celerity Schools would do better than McKinley.
    In the meantime, Varelas says, "they also told parents that the school would close, at every meeting.  Some parents were scared there'd be no school at all for their children."  Finally he grew uncomfortable with the process.  "They'd always have these small meetings, where often there were more staff than parents.  Other parents began coming to me, asking why they were holding meetings without telling everyone.  The staff was always in charge at every meeting."  Finally, on the morning of the press conference where the petition was turned in, Varelas left the campaign.
        Petitions were submitted, allegedly from parents of 256 of McKinley's 415 students.  From the beginning, however, questions swirled around the signatures and the way they were gathered.  On January 19 district human relations officer Alejandro Flores sent a letter to all the parents who'd signed, asking them to come to the school on January 26 or 27 to verify their signatures.  Flores' letter was criticized strongly by Parent Revolution and its allies.  Spanish-language media focused attention on its requirement that parents show a drivers' license or photo ID to validate their signatures.  Commentators said it would make undocumented parents worry that their immigration status might be questioned. 
        Parent Revolution set up a table outside the school on the verification days, urging parents to boycott the signature checking.  Only a few more than 50 came in.  Courts halted the verification process, and months of legal wrangling ensued.  Finally, in mid-May, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr invalidated the petition because many signatures had no dates showing when parents had signed.  Without dates, the district argued, it couldn't be sure the student in question was enrolled at the time, or was under the care of the person signing.
     Then, on May 25, the L.A. County Office of Education gave Celerity permission to open a charter school at the Church of the Redeemer, two blocks from McKinley.  In December, at the time that Parent Revolution filed the trigger petition, Celerity had also independently applied for a separate charter in the McKinley neighborhood.  The Compton district turned it down, although its staff recommended approval.  The County Office of Education ultimately overruled the board.  Parent Revolution hailed the announcement of the charter's approval as a victory, and Austin told a press conference ""the parents of McKinley ... have won that fight."

Pulling for a Trigger in Buffalo
Read the entire piece at Rethinking Schools.

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