Selected readings on US charter schools
Parents at three failing public schools — two in Los Angeles and one in the High Desert, between L.A. and Las Vegas — will reopen after parents forced their local school districts to enact sweeping changes at the schools, successfully using California’s 2010 “parent-trigger” law.
The law allows groups that gather signatures from 51 percent or more of a school’s parents to force changes originally set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The schools must have failed to meet federal benchmarks five years in a row, be below California’s 800 Academic Performance Index benchmark score and not be in a special federal program meant to help the absolute worst school districts.
In Long Beach, approximately six schools are eligible to have the trigger pulled on them, according to Parent Revolution, the L.A. nonprofit that helped pass the law and which has been involved in helping organize all petition efforts so far. And approximately three are especially vulnerable, with API scores below 700, as have had all of the schools with successful parent trigger efforts to date.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest public school district in the state, 171 schools are eligible for a parent-trigger effort, according to Parent Revolution’s 2011 data. | View: List of parent-trigger eligible schools | ParentRevolution.org
“I think it’s possible that we will see more such efforts” in Los Angeles, said John Rogers, the director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. “There’s been an extraordinary amount of money that’s been put into the parent-trigger initiative (from groups) that have been trying to do damage to teachers unions or to increase competition in the education sector.”
Since 2009, Parent Revolution has received more than $6.3 million from the Walton Family Foundation, according to investigative reporting website Frying Pan News.
The money has provided resources and momentum: Parent Revolution is talking with more parent groups in Southern California, said Ben Austin, the organization’s executive director.
But the bruising and very public battle in Adelanto, and the publicity surrounding parent-trigger efforts in Los Angeles, may mean just the threat of a petition is enough to get some districts to come to the table with parents, according to Austin.
Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, about 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was the first school where parents forced changes. After months of legal battles that divided residents in the city of 32,000, the school was handed over to a charter school operator from neighboring Hesperia. It reopened July 29 as Desert Trails Preparatory Academy.
A push to privatize?
Critics of parent-trigger laws — seven states have them and 20 more have considered the idea — say this is what to expect from the parent-trigger movement and its deep-pocketed conservative backers: a push to privatize public schools around the country.
But in Los Angeles, the two schools reopening in August are each going a different way.
At 24th Street Elementary School in the West Adams neighborhood, the school’s employees have had to reapply for their positions, leading to an influx of new teachers and tighter integration with a charter school that already occupied part of the campus.
And at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts, parents ousted Principal Irma Cobian, leading most of the school’s teachers to leave as well.
That’s what the parents wanted, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problems the school faced, critics say.
“The parent-trigger law is written in such a way, it’s an approach that guarantees problems,” said Warren Fletcher, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “The law works around scapegoating. Sometimes it’s the principal, sometimes it’s the support staff — most often it’s faculty. … (But) a struggling school is usually struggling for many reasons.”
The law “Balkanizes” school communities, he said, dividing it into those who sign the petitions and those who don’t.
“And since only those who signed a petition can vote for what comes next, whether it’s choosing between charter school operators or helping pick a new principal, it disenfranchises those who chose not to sign.
“While still having one, two or three students at the school, that parent has been removed from the solution,” Fletcher said.
Cobian is worried that parent-trigger supporters’ successes this year will set a dangerous precedent.
“It’s open season on us if someone has a grievance,” she said. “That bothers me.”
At its June 18 meeting, the LAUSD school board voted to lobby the state Legislature to make the parent-trigger process more transparent. An independent body verifying the collecting of signatures and how they were gathered was needed, the board said, as was more publicly available information about targeted schools’ performance over the past five years and what reform measures have previously been attempted.
The suggested changes were in response to previous efforts.
In Adelanto, the local school district and the parent union fought a long court battle over signatures some parents wanted to rescind and parent-trigger supporters who were accused of tricking parents into signing.
At 24th Street and Weigand Avenue, teachers and other employees said LAUSD and UTLA advised them not to answer parents’ questions, so as to not interfere with the petition process.
Parents need a voice
L.A. school board member Steve Zimmer, who originally made the motion for more transparency in the parent-trigger process, agreed that parents at many schools don’t have the sort of voice they ought to.
The parent-trigger law, Zimmer said, “didn’t come out of nowhere. This didn’t drop out of the sky. For a long time, there has been an imbalance in terms of parent voice in terms of the governance process and change process in schools.”
A feeling that their school districts were unresponsive to their previous complaints was often cited by parent- trigger supporters in Adelanto and Los Angeles.
“Had (Parent Revolution) never showed up with the surveys to ask those questions, we’d probably have those same problems today,” said Alicia Mendez, who has a fourth-grader at 24th Street Elementary.
“I participate in bake sales. I raise money for school. I drive on field trips. That’s what you do at a school that’s working,” Austin said. His daughter attends a public school and he’s a member of the Parent Teacher Association there. “But at a school that’s not working, old-school parent engagement is important, but not sufficient. … Parents need a seat at the table where they can’t be told to go do a bake sale when it’s time for the big kids to make a decision.”
Zimmer called for parents who didn’t sign the petition to still have a voice in the process.
“When I voted in the primary I didn’t cede my right to vote in the general election,” he said. “The schools that we’ve seen transformed have found a way to bring the disparate voices together.”
But most of all, he said, the anger and divisiveness that has characterized parent-trigger efforts so far has to change.
Parents came to blows in Adelanto during the height of the parent-trigger effort there and cars and houses were vandalized in Watts during the Weigand Avenue parent-trigger process.
“We have a role to play in dialing back the conflict at our schools,” Zimmer said. “Because what we know absolutely is that when adults fight, kids lose.”
But the long-term effects of the parent-trigger movement will be put to the test this school year.
“A year from now, parents will be able, for the first time ever, to be able to make a decision on what kind of model they want at their schools, not just based on theory, but reality,” Austin said. “Parents will be able to visit these schools, see what’s working, see what’s not, and make informed decisions.”
Fletcher is more skeptical: “Those challenges those schools faced, those neighborhoods they’re in, those things haven’t changed,” he said. “You’ve taken those schools that were already facing challenges and put them back at square one, and that’s not what anyone wants.”
“I want to see the school shine,” Weigand Avenue mother Gloria Aroche said through a translator. “I’m anxious to see it happen.”
Source: Press-Telegram – by Beau Yarbrough