Desert Trails parents won’t let adults’ deceit deny their kids a great school

The parents of Desert Trails Elementary want what all parents want: a great school for their children. Over the past few years they started a PTA chapter at their school, they joined the official school committees, they volunteered, and they spent extra time helping with homework. They did everything the system tells parents to do, and still, they find themselves today trapped in a school ranked the worst elementary school in their entire district and in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state.

So last June they decided to organize on behalf of their children. They formed their own Parents Union chapter, engaged their community, and organized for seven months to collect historic Parent Trigger signatures representing 70 percent of the parents in an effort to transform their failing school. But with their new power, the parents sought collaboration, not confrontation.

Their first proposal after announcing their supermajority wasn’t an outside charter school operator or an unprecedented departure from the status quo. It was rooted in a modest union contract modification to create a framework for accountability based on reform contracts that National Education Association affiliates have signed in districts across America, including in the LAUSD. Even more recently, parents introduced an innovative new Partnership School model that calls for parents, teachers, and district officials to share power and collaborate on a kids-first agenda.

The Desert Trails Parent Union seeks collaboration because they know we can’t have great schools without great teachers. The parents understand that a kids-first agenda is good for parents and kids, but also good for good teachers. It’s good for kids if teachers are paid a lot more money. It’s even good for kids if we raise taxes to do it, as CTA and CFT are rightly calling for on the November ballot. It’s good for kids if teachers are respected, empowered, and not micromanaged by a bureaucrat who’s never met their kids or set foot in their classroom. It’s even good for kids if teachers are unionized and have basic workplace protections. But it’s also good for kids if teachers – as well as all other grown-ups, including parents – are held accountable for student performance. Parents have strong disagreements with the California Teachers Association about the issue of accountability. But we also broadly agree on a whole host of other critical issues.

Instead of collaboration, harassment

Unfortunately, in its final opportunity to collaborate with parents, the district denied parents their constitutional right to petition based on an illegal “rescission” process riddled with lies, harassment, and forgery. The defenders of the status quo have proven themselves willing to cross moral, ethical, even legal and constitutional boundaries in a desperate attempt to defend an indefensible status quo.

Ultimately, parents got what they expected: adults willing to do whatever it took to retain power at the expense of kids. We have no idea who forged CTA’s “rescission” petitions. That is for the courts to figure out. But we do know for an incontrovertible fact that someone forged the rescission petitions without the parents’ knowledge in a rescission campaign instigated by CTA. We also know that the parents of Desert Trails have been denied their constitutional right to transform their failing school using  the Parent Trigger. .

But the fate of Desert Trails is no longer in the hands of the status quo.

The district last week chose to yet again reject the parents’ offer of partnership, choosing confrontation over collaboration and forcing parents into the courts to defend their rights and fight for their children. On Thursday, parents filed a lawsuit to preserve their constitutional right to petition the government under the Parent Trigger law, and their children’s constitutional right to a decent and equitable education under the California Constitution.

The parents have a high-powered pro bono legal team from Kirkland & Ellis that is committed to representing them entirely for free. The district, on the other hand, has chosen to spend the parents’ own taxpayer dollars that should be invested in children and teachers and instead pay high-priced lawyers to defend an indefensible status quo in a case that they are certain to lose.

Parents support teachers’ right to unionize; they simply want teachers unions to support that same right for them. It will be impossible to form partnerships if parents must endure lies, harassment, forgeries, and violations of their constitutional rights every time they organize on behalf of their children.

Parents will no longer be silenced, because this isn’t about them, it’s about the future of their children. But if CTA and other teachers unions can accept that parents now have the same power as they do to unionize and act collectively, then they will find that parents unions and teachers unions have much in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda.

Ultimately, everyone on all sides of this issue must ask themselves a fundamental question: Would you be satisfied sending your own child to a school where two-thirds of the kids can’t read or do math at grade level? Would you be satisfied sending your own child to the lowest-performing school in your district that is ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state every single year? If the answer is no, how can you ask another parent to send their child instead? If everyone can start from that same simple premise, then wherever we end up on this journey will be the right destination for our children.

Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the nonprofit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.

Parents exercising choice have a right to expect high-quality charters

Across our state and our nation, parents and policymakers are not only waking up to the crisis in public education – they are waking up to the fact that they have the power to do something about it.

Over the past decade, high-quality charter schools have become an important part of the solution to the problems facing students trapped in failing schools. By providing better academic choices for parents in primarily low-income and underserved communities, high-quality charter schools continue to give parents the power to vote with their feet and chart an educational destiny for their children based on ability and desire, rather than zip code and socioeconomic status. In addition, parents in California and other states have historic new power under the Parent Trigger law to transform their failing schools through community organizing, by either forcing the district to bring in new staff and fresh leadership, or converting their school to a high-quality charter school.

However, when we face problems this daunting, intractable, and long-standing, we must approach solutions with both humility and pragmatism. A kids-first agenda is not the same as blind ideology or rigid adherence to one single theory of change. While we have finally begun to force powerful defenders of the status quo to acknowledge the importance of adult accountability in traditional public schools, we must view public charter schools through the same exacting lens of a kids-first agenda.

Viewing charters through this lens means acknowledging that there is no magic wand that makes every charter school good for kids. While many charter schools are doing exceptionally well, others have results that are indistinguishable from the failing traditional public schools down the street.

That is why I spent much of my tenure on the State Board of Education drafting and passing new regulations to shut down the lowest-performing charter schools. And that is why our organization, Parent Revolution, strongly supports the charter accountability measures – AB 440, AB 360, and SB 645 – that are working their way through the Legislature.

These bills would take several important steps toward ensuring real accountability for California charter schools. They would increase academic standards, augment transparency, tighten conflict of interest safeguards, and chart a bold new process to shut down some of the lowest-performing charter schools in the state. This legislation recognizes the simple fact that charter schools are given large sums of public dollars and granted transformative freedoms from the education bureaucracy – but in exchange, parents expect excellence and innovation.

These bills are not perfect, and we urge lawmakers to fix the shortcomings present in the current draft. Adjustments should be made to ensure that charter schools undertaking school turnaround work – arguably the most challenging work facing educators and policymakers – are provided the time they need to demonstrate sufficient student achievement rather than be punished for taking on the toughest assignments. We also share the concerns of some that district bureaucrats could abuse these well-intentioned standards in order to defend a failed status quo by over-regulating charter schools that are innovating and improving. But overall, we believe the legislation lays the groundwork for parents and policymakers to hold charter schools accountable for student performance.

We applaud the California Charter Schools Association for endorsing this legislation, even if it winds up shutting down some of its own members. There are far too many examples of organizations that defend their own narrow self-interest at the expense of the public good. By taking this stand, CCSA has chosen to represent the children that they serve, rather than the adults who pay their dues.

Unfortunately, there are some extremist charter school supporters who continue to put the interests of adults before the interests of children and oppose any sort of accountability for charter schools. The president of Parents for Public Virtual Education has penned multiple op-eds, including a piece for TOP-Ed last week, blasting the idea that any charter operator of any kind should be held accountable to any measurable academic standards. She and others should be reminded that charter schools are public schools, funded by public dollars. They have no inherent right to operate indefinitely without consequence no matter how badly they are serving children.

Parents know that failing charter schools are just as bad for children as failing district schools. We don’t care what section of the Education Code our child’s school falls under. We just want that school to help our children unlock their potential and realize their dreams.

Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the non-profit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.

‘Parent trigger’ organizers need protection from harassment, intimidation

John Fensterwald’s post last week on the “parent trigger” and its implementing regulations missed the mark in one or two spots. First and foremost, we completely agree with John and others who argue that more open dialogue and debate as part of the parent trigger organizing process is a desirable goal. It is crucial, however, to understand why parents would want to organize under the radar; to do so, one need look no further than the response from Compton Unified employees since the parents of McKinley submitted their signatures last month and became completely “public.”

The district responded with a torrent of lies, harassment, and intimidation of parents as part of a concerted “rescission” campaign. They used school resources for this purpose, sending robo-calls out to all parents, and calling them in to school ostensibly for reasons relating to their children, only to browbeat them into “rescinding” their parent trigger signatures. Parents have even been lied to by school staff that their children will be kicked out of the school if it is transformed with the parent trigger (and you don’t have to believe us. One of the teachers even wrote that online!).

And just this week, two days after McKinley parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Compton Unified announced that even after all the lies, the intimidation and the harassment, the district has made up a signature verification process out of thin air that both explicitly violates the emergency regulations promulgated and passed by the State Board of Education, and disenfranchises hundreds of parents who have stood up for change at one of the worst schools in California. Compton Unified will require all parents to come to the McKinley campus – the epicenter of the district’s illegal rescission campaign – to verify their signatures. If the parents can’t come during this narrow window – regardless of whether they are sick, working, or being foreclosed on (a problem multiple parents are grappling with) – their signature will be thrown out.

So while we are strong supporters of open, public debates, and would even be supportive of requiring them as part of the parent trigger implementing regulations, it is critical that such provisions are coupled with a much stronger prohibition of and accountability for public employees lying to and intimidating parents who are fighting for their kids. Also needed are basic protections from the use of school resources to campaign for or against a parent trigger action. It is unfair and wrong to force parents into organizing in public without giving them basic protections from taxpayer-funded harassment and intimidation.

Additionally, it is important to remember that, as John noted, the parents who are organizing in Compton have no access to the list of parents at the school or their contact info, which makes organizing incredibly difficult. This is particularly true in low-income communities where social networks and ties amongst parents are much weaker than in middle class communities, and many parents are busy working two jobs or more just to make ends meet. As a result of these challenges, over 25 percent of parents at McKinley have still never even been contacted about the parent trigger or been given an opportunity to participate in the discussion (which makes it that all the more remarkable that 63 percent of the school has stood up in support). Any attempt to make the organizing process more fair and transparent must allow parents fighting for change to be able to communicate with their fellow parents, particularly in communities with large pre-existing barriers to this occurring. Any attempts to erect additional requirements for parents trying to organize without simultaneously empowering them with the necessary contact information are clearly not serious attempts at the “transparency” or “openness” that all sides claim to want.

Potential leverage and bargaining power

It is primarily on the overall potential of the parent trigger law as a paradigm-shifting new right for all parents where we think John’s post misses the mark. We certainly acknowledge that the parent trigger law is somewhat limited in the school transformation options it explicitly allows for. But exploring the law through such a narrow lens misses the forest for the trees, and leaves totally unsaid what we believe to be the law’s greatest potential: giving parents real bargaining power. In many instances, to be sure, parents will simply want to break with their school district and transform their school through charter conversion, or keep it in the district but force the school to make radical changes, such as bring in a new staff. But ultimately, the most transformative use of this law lies in its simple, original purpose: It gives parents power.

For too long, districts and others have merely ignored parents and pushed them towards bake sales or meaningless committees while their children were stuck in failing schools that no parent should be forced to accept. Districts could do this with confidence, knowing that parents didn’t actually have much power to effectuate change. With the parent trigger, those days are over. Giving parents the power to organize and force radical changes at their school completely changes the conversation between districts and parents. We believe that negotiated in–district reforms and transformations, forged with the looming and very real threat of organized parents submitting parent trigger petitions, will ultimately be both the most common usage and most transformative legacy of this law.

Despite the shake-up of the State Board of Education last week, we remain hopeful that  the new Board will act with a sense of urgency and promulgate reasonable and fair implementing regulations for the parent trigger. These regulations have already gone through more than four months of debate, three separate votes, and two full public comment periods. Parents are organizing at schools throughout California, and are in desperate need of fair and reasonable rules and regulations to guide their efforts and protect their interests.

New Board members like President Michael Kirst have spent decades tirelessly advocating for the interests of students and the need to improve public education. We still believe Gov. Brown and his new Board members will ultimately choose to stand on the right side of history and public policy and work to empower parents who are desperate for change, rather than use regulations to erect more roadblocks to change.

Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the non-profit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.