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.

Parent Trigger II: Desert warfare

State regulations written to bring order and rationality to the Parent Trigger petition process are getting a bruising debut in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto. The recriminations and accusations of misinformation and fraud that undermined the first Parent Trigger effort in Compton and ended up in court last year are echoing in the battle over Desert Trails Elementary School, calling into question the capacity of rule makers to anticipate and deter bad conduct.

On Tuesday, pro bono attorneys for the Desert Trails Parents Union called for a criminal investigation into actions that led 97 parents to revoke their signatures on petitions calling for the conversion of their elementary school into a charter school. Based on the rescissions and other technical flaws they found with other petition signatures, the Adelanto School District trustees last week rejected the second Parent Trigger petition under the parent empowerment law. They ruled that the parents group fell 16 signatures shy of the 333 needed to represent a majority of the children at the school, which was necessary to demand wholesale school reform. The  parents group originally submitted signatures representing 70 percent of the students in the low-performing school.

The parents group plans to ask the school board to reverse its decision when it meets tonight and is threatening to go to court if it doesn’t. The parents and their attorney, Mark Holscher, charged that the counter-reform parents group, which was aided by California Teachers Association staffers, engaged in fraud and misled parents to revoke their signatures. The Parents Union presented evidence that in at least two instances, parents signed blank revocation forms with unchecked boxes that someone later altered to list reasons for withdrawing their signatures. These parents have signed affidavits saying they didn’t understand what they were signing.

CTA representatives and parents opposed to reform charged it was the Parents Union, organized by the pro-Parent Trigger group Parent Revolution, that misled parents into signing the charter takeover petition in the first place. What did create potential confusion was that Parents Union asked parents to sign two petitions – one calling for internal reforms, in which parents would hire the principal and have a big say in running the school, and one calling for an independent charter operator. The tactic was to submit the charter petition as leverage to broker school reforms, said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. Talks, in fact, have been going on, he said.

Silent on revocation

The State Board of Education adopted Parent Trigger regulations last summer after nearly a year of work and multiple revisions. The regulations thoroughly spell out details of the signature gathering process, such as who can vote, how names should be verified, and when the school board must act. But the regulations don’t deal with signature revocation, other than to say there should be no “harassment, threats, and intimidation” related to gathering signatures or revoking them.

Holscher claims signature revocations shouldn’t be permitted at all, and certainly not once the petitions are submitted. He  points to another section in the state election code that prohibits revoking signatures for initiatives. The intent is to protect voters, once their signatures are made public, from coercion.

No regulation can anticipate infinite possibilities of bad faith, but the state PTA, the low-income advocacy group Public Advocates, and others called for the Parent Trigger regulations to include one or two public hearings explaining the Parent Trigger process and providing parents “with useful information so that their signatures could be informed,” said Liz Guillen, director of Legislative and Community Affairs at Public Advocates. A hearing might have cut down on charges of misinformation. A requirement for a public hearing made it into the final draft of the state regulations, but the State Board eliminated it out of concern that inclusion would have been interpreted as a state mandate, adding costs and possible rejection by the Office of Administrative Law, which keeps an eye out for mandated expenses. The Board noted that nothing in the law prevents a district from holding an extra hearing on its own. Nonetheless, compared with the costs to districts and parent groups of a protracted court fight over a Parent Trigger petition, the cost to the state of an extra hearing is a deal.

For all its possible flaws, Rose, who was part of a group that crafted the regulations, isn’t grousing about them. “The regulations are vitally important but the district is not following them,” he said. “There are lots of protections here.”

The biggest is a 60-day  period, after a school districts rejects a Parent Trigger petition, allowing parents to fix problems with signatures, respond to technical reasons that signatures were rejected and collect new signatures. Rose said that in 17 instances, a parent who signed the revocation notice wasn’t the parent who signed the petition in the first place; and there were two dozen instances in which parent signatures were rejected because a signature wasn’t on file in the district office for comparison.  Add them all up, and there is well over 50 percent of parents legally on board, he said.

Brown vetoes API alternative

Calling it “yet another siren song of school reform,” Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill that would have expanded the state’s accountability system to include measures other than standardized tests.

SB 547, the top education priority of Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, was one of 15 education-related bills that Brown killed on Saturday, the day before the deadline for acting on legislation before him. Among the others: SB 185, a direct challenge of Proposition 209’s ban on considering race and ethnicity in admitting students to CSU and UC; and AB 203, modifying the Parent Trigger law.

In a sharp, two-page veto message of SB 547, Brown mocked “academic ‘experts,’ ” backed by “editorialists and academics alike,” who have “subjugated California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation.” He singled out the “current fashion” of collecting “endless quantitative data … to distinguish the educational ‘good’ from the educational ‘bad.’ ” Instead, Brown indicated that he favors a “focus on quality” instead of quantity – with measures such as “good character or love of learning,” as well as “excitement and creativity.”

As to how to do this: “What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.”

Steinberg and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a sponsor, had rounded up widespread and diverse support for SB 547 from business groups, some advocates for low-income children, the career technical education (CTE) community, and much of the education establishment – the PTA, school boards, and administrators associations. (The California Teachers Association, which will cheer Brown’s anti-testing rhetoric, took no position on the bill.) Even an organization representing gifted students signed on.

Replace with Education Quality Index

Some supporters, Steinberg included, fundamentally disagree with Brown over the use of data to measure student and school performance. Others acknowledge that standards-based reforms and standardized tests, as demanded by the Legislature and the federal government, are here to stay. All agree that the current system, basing a school’s Academic Performance Index mostly on annual math and English language arts tests, narrowed the curriculum in many schools and created perverse incentives to focus on testing.

SB 547 would have replaced API with an EQI, an Education Quality Index, that would have added more indices, particularly in high school. Measurements could have included dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates. Standardized tests would have counted no more than 40 percent in high school, no less than 40 percent in K-8, as determined by the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education. Backers of the current system questioned whether the EPI would be too squishy. Brown took the opposite view ­– that it would have demanded more of the same, hard data.

In his veto message, he also criticized the timing, taking effect at the same time that the state was switching to Common Core standards in math and English language arts, with their own set of demands. The combination would “add significant costs and confusion,” Brown wrote.

But Steinberg disagrees, noting that the transition to the Common Core standards, with a focus on college and career readiness, is the right time to change the accountability system to reflect that priority.

“It’s a fine idea that the governor wants qualitative pieces, but that does not change the fact that our high schools are not focused on the economy and what we expect young people to do when they graduate from high school,” Steinberg said in an interview.

“I disagree with his view on data, which can show what works and what doesn’t; that is what taxpayers want with their money. What we are doing (with SB 547) is not negating quality measures, just trying to improve quantitative measures.”

Steinberg said he would meet with Brown soon to create a bill in 2012 that fixes “a flawed system that has negative consequences for children and schools.”

(Readers: Is Brown a visionary or a policy Luddite? What do you think?)

More applied learning meeting A-G

Brown did sign two other bills that Steinberg sponsored to encourage more hands-on learning in high school. SB 611 will encode in statute the new UC Curriculum Integration Institute, which brings together CTE and core academic teachers, along with UC professors, to design innovative courses, blending applied learning, that satisfy A-G course requirements for admission to UC and CSU. The Institute has created a half-dozen so far with limited funding; with SB 611 in hand, Steinberg says he will approach foundations to underwrite the effort for hundreds of additional courses.

SB 612 complements SB 611 by reauthorizing the California Subject Matter Projects, which provide teacher training and development for courses created by the Institute and related courses.

Other vetoes

SB 185: In his veto message, Brown said that he actually agreed with the intent of the bill, which would have allowed CSU and UC to consider race, gender and  ethnicity  when considering undergraduate and graduate admissions, and that he wrote briefs backing the position when he was attorney general.

But the courts, not the Legislature, must determine the limits of Prop 209. Passing the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), “will just encourage the 209 advocates to file more costly and confusing lawsuits.”

AB 203: The veto of a bill dealing with the “Parent Trigger” law was a surprise, since the sponsor, Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, had gone to great lengths to get Parent Revolution, the chief proponents of the law, and skeptics to agree to the language. It clarified pieces of the parent empowerment law, which the Legislature passed in a hurry in late 2009. The law permits a majority of parents at a low-performing school to petition for a wholesale change, such as a conversion to or takeover by a charter school.

But Brown said that the State Board has spent a full year writing regulations covering the petition process and these should be allowed to work before changing the law.

In a statement expressing her disappointment, Brownley said the bill “could have reduced potential litigation over the law’s ambiguities” by clarifying aspects of the signature process. Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, credited Brownley for collaborating and listening to parents with his group, then added, “But I do think the Governor’s veto sends a strong signal that it’s time to stop tinkering and start implementing the Parent Trigger.”

Empowering parents — to sign petitions or become engines for change?

On Wednesday, the California State Board of Education will vote to approve regulations implementing California’s parent empowerment law. Given the intense scrutiny this law has received, it’s important to remember that it is just a small step on the road toward truly empowering parents.

Nibbling at the edges

Passed by the Legislature in 2009, the “Parent Trigger” statute allows parents to petition their school district boards to adopt one of the turnaround interventions handed down by the feds. But community advocates like us wonder: What if parents don’t want any of these turnaround options?

There are many reasons why they wouldn’t. Though much ballyhooed by some, especially charter advocates, the new law is actually quite modest in scope. First, only 75 of the state’s 9,000 schools can actually implement a trigger. Second, if they succeed, they are essentially limited to using one of the federally prescribed and fairly narrow school turnaround interventions set out under the School Improvement Grant program. The petitioned district must either: (1) close the school, (2) replace it with a charter school or reopen with new management, (3) fire the principal and at least half the staff, or (4) fire the principal and transform the school in line with federal regulations.

Unfortunately, none of the four options was then or is now supported by research indicating that they actually work. Moreover, other strategies that have succeeded are precluded from consideration. The bottom line: Enabling parents in a handful of the state’s schools to force through one of four unproven federal turnaround options may be useful in some instances, but this minor step forward is hardly a revolution.

There’s another way – one in which parents, students, teachers, and community members are active participants in the process of developing and implementing a plan for transforming their schools, not merely signers of a petition.

A blueprint for success

We know it can be done. A report by Communities for Excellent Public Schools (“A Proposal for Sustainable School Transformation,” July 2010), a national coalition of more than 25 community-based education reform organizations, highlights the community-based school reform effort at Greenleaf Elementary in Oakland. After failed attempts to use No Child Left Behind-driven reforms (e.g., firing teachers, charter conversion), Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) supported a design development team composed of students, parents, educators, community members, and district staff to do the hard work of a year-long planning process.

This process included mapping the assets of the school and neighborhood, analyzing student achievement data, visiting high-performing schools serving similar students, and participating in extensive community engagement and partnership. The report describes how the team’s unified vision for the school became a reality:

Greenleaf Elementary, serving low-income Latino and African American students, has become a symbol of pride and hope for a long underserved neighborhood. In addition to a strong standards-based academic curriculum, students enjoy enrichment through music, art, and physical education classes. The school partners with a variety of community-based organizations who provide resources for students and families that include counseling, dental screening, food giveaways, and English and computer classes. Through an active parent leadership team parents are active partners in the life of the school. Teachers are part of a professional learning community, receive support and guidance from coaches, and share parents’ vision and expectations for high achievement for every student.

Despite multiple changes in district leadership, including a state takeover, the school community kept its eye on the prize – higher levels of student achievement – due in large part to the support, engagement, and commitment of Oakland parents, community members, and district and school leaders who had been part of the process from the beginning and were fully invested in its success.

The results speak for themselves. Just three years after the school’s transformation began, the percentage of students proficient in English had risen from 14 to 42 percent, and from 25 to 66 percent in math. Because of similar community-led reform efforts at schools throughout the district, Oakland Unified has been named the most improved urban school district for six years.

Still fighting for change

We, along with other parent and student advocates, will continue pushing to increase the rights and opportunities for low-income parents and communities to partner with their children’s schools. And we will continue to work to improve our state’s parent empowerment laws.

Why? It’s true that the “Parent Trigger” regulations attempt to make a limited and vague statute work. Assemblymember Julia Brownley’s pending AB 203 makes some important improvements to the statute as well, and it deserves to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But larger, more powerful parent and community engagement is both possible and desperately needed. Again and again, we and our community-based allies have advocated that sustainable school turnaround efforts must be developed, embraced, and implemented by an entire school community if they are going to be successful. School and district staff alone cannot identify, implement, and sustain a school turnaround.

True parent empowerment requires hard work and support to build the capacity of schools, districts, and communities so that parents can be engaged and informed partners in the school improvement process. That’s real empowerment – and that’s what our policies should be designed to encourage.

Katie Valenzuela, a Policy Advocate for Public Advocates, co-authored  this piece. Liz Guillen is Director of Legislative & Community Affairs at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. She works closely with community and grassroots organizations across California to advocate for improved opportunities to learn in the public school system.

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.

No conflict for Patricia Rucker

The California Fair Political Practices Commission has dismissed a complaint filed by a parent activist group against Patricia Rucker, a State Board of Education member who works as a paid lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. In doing so, the FPPC clarified what it considers to be a conflict of interest.

Members of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution filed the complaint days before the State Board was to take a final vote on the proposed regulations for the Parent Trigger, the law that enables a majority of parents at a school to demand a structural shakeup, including the replacement of the principal and, in some cases, at least half of the staff. The CTA opposed the law and suggested a series of amendments to weaken the regulations, including giving teachers veto power over a charter conversion.

Parent Revolution parents said they would withdraw the complaint if Rucker recused herself from participating in the issue. As it turned out, she joined the rest of the Board in unanimously approving regulations that Parent Revolution backed. CTA’s most damaging amendment was not included in the final draft that the Board passed. (Rucker indeed may have voted on the merits, or she may have seen that the Board was about to pass it and didn’t want to be the lone, predictable dissenter.)

In a one-paragraph explanation finding no violation of the state Political Reform Act, Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s Enforcement Division, wrote, “While the proposed regulations may affect teachers and administrators who may be the subject of a parent trigger petition, there is no evidence that such a petition would have a material financial effect on the CTA, as Ms. Rucker’s employer. (Regulation 18705.3(b)(2)”

That would appear to be a narrow lens through which to define a conflict of interest – saying it’s not OK to vote on issues directly affecting the CTA as an organization but OK to vote on issues that advance interests of union teachers that Rucker’s employer represents.

Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group responsible for California’s Parent Trigger law, did something rare in education politics: it outmaneuvered a powerful teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers basically admits as much in a guide used last month at the union’s TEACH conference to describe how the Connecticut chapter diluted that state’s version of the parent trigger. There, on page four, third bullet point down, it reads: “We learned from mistakes made in CA.” A few pages later, under the heading “Plan A: Kill Mode,” is list of lobbying strategies.

The guide had been posted on the union’s website along with all the other presentations from the conference. It was quickly taken down, however, after RiShawn Biddle, author of the blog Dropout Nation, posted it on his site. A note where the link used to be states, “We have posted all the presentations from the sessions to make the information available to all the attendees. However, we have received complaints about these materials and have removed them because they do not represent AFT’s position.”

The loudest complaint came from Parent Revolution at a press conference earlier this week. Executive Director Ben Austin called it a “cynical strategy to disempower parents” and released a letter sent to AFT president Randi Weingarten demanding an apology. As of this writing, there was no response from Weingarten.

Austin felt especially betrayed by the AFT because he says Parent Revolution has long supported and lauded Weingarten’s progressive approach to negotiating contracts. “She has really demonstrated that teachers union leadership can simultaneously advocate for teachers and children.”

Are you a good shift or a bad shift?

Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no question that Parent Revolution took parent power to a new level. Until now, grassroots organizing around education has remained local. Even the historic, game-changing 1968 New York City teachers strike was a battle over control of local schools in the City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood.

“The more traditional grassroots community-based organization model is one where they’re putting pressure on school boards, mobilizing in microcommunities around micro issues, like the closing of a school,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is a group that is working at the state level, which I think you have to do these days.”

Henig stops far short of Ben Austin’s claim that Parent Revolution is creating a new paradigm in the way we think about education. During a phone call after the press conference, Austin told me that support for the parent trigger from members of the State Board of Education (SBE) and California School Boards Association “speaks to the fact that the political tectonic plates are shifting underneath us.”

“It’s too grand to say it’s the wave of the future,” responded Henig.

Parent Revolution did lose its first takeover bid, in the Compton Unified School District, when the judge rejected the petitions (which we reported here).  But, that was before the State Board of Education drafted regulations.  Austin doesn’t expect that to happen again.  In fact, he says, they may not even have to submit the petitions; just the threat of having them may be enough to force change.

“It has more to do with giving parents leverage to bargain,” said Austin.  “The reality is that when parents have organized 50% of the parents in the school, they do have the ability to sit at the table and look the leadership in the eye and say, ‘For all intents and purposes we have the ability to fire you,’ and to look at the teachers and say, ‘We have the ability to cancel your contracts.'”

If it is a trend, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, worries that another outside group pushing its agenda adds to the confusing pile of reforms foisted upon superintendents and principals.

“How do they prioritize? What’s the right thing to do? I think it actually makes the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis very difficult, and it’s already very difficult,” said Levine. He argues that California needs to commit to a single strategy for the next five years “to try to change the trajectory of low-performing schools.”

Grassroots vs. ‘Astroturf’

Parent Revolution isn’t the only parent group focused on statewide change. Over the past few years a number of organizations have emerged, including Educate Our State and Parents for Great Education, with an eye on Sacramento. As we reported here last spring, Educate Our State launched a campaign during the budget negotiations that generated more than 35,000 letters to state lawmakers urging them to support Gov. Brown’s proposal to extend the temporary taxes.

Although they weren’t successful, the effort was more organically grassroots than Parent Revolution.  There were no major donors, no professional educators, and no former elected officials. Parent Revolution, on the other hand, was started by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, out of his frustration with Los Angeles Unified School District. [Update:  Barr founded LA Parents Union which evolved into Parent Revolution in 2009 under the leadership of Austin]. Ben Austin worked in the Clinton administration, served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat on the State Board of Education.

But the key difference between those other organizations and Parent Revolution is money. The group is funded by the biggest players in education reform – Gates, Broad, and Walton – giving opponents something more filling to criticize.

“They’re much less grassroots; they’re Astroturf,” said California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass, using the new tag for groups allegedly doing the bidding of wealthy business leaders. “We see Parent Trigger as just one little piece of the overall assault on education by the billionaire boys club,” said Glass, barely containing his irritation.

What he didn’t say is that Parent Revolution has a $1 million annual budget, or that the AFT has also been a beneficiary of Gates largesse. The union received three grants in recent years totaling nearly $4 million, and is a partner to a $335 million grant to support intensive training programs to improve teacher effectiveness. Ironically, Green Dot is also one of the partners.

The larger question, however, is whether parents know enough about teaching and school administration to decide which schools live and which schools die.  Loving your children and having attended school, doesn’t make parents – or legislators – experts.

“Schools can, like all institutions, be improved,” said UC Berkeley education historian and professor Daniel Perlstein. “But allowing parents, rather than educators, to direct inadequate resources simply will not revolutionize the education of children living in an increasingly unstable and unequal society.”

Ben Austin said he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  “At the end of the day,” said Austin, “all we’re saying is parents should have some power and that power should be real.”

New parent trigger regs approved

The State Board of Education (SBE) received a standing ovation yesterday morning.  Members of the Los Angeles advocacy group Parent Revolution, wearing their matching navy tee-shirts, applauded wildly and shouted “si se puede”.

Even board member Patricia Rucker smiled.  The lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, against whom Parent Revolution has filed a conflict of interest complaint, had voted with them, giving the latest – and possibly last – revised set of parent trigger regulations a unanimous send-off by the State Board.

At the start of the meeting Rucker seemed to set a different tone when she would not recuse herself from voting on the issue saying that because “there’s no fiscal connection for her personally, the legal questions didn’t exist.”

Her yea vote, said Rucker, wasn’t an expression of support or opposition for the proposed regulations, just a nod to release them for public comment.

They’ll be put out for a 15-day public comment period, and if there are no substantively new issues raised, the regs will be sent to the Office of Administrative Law for final approval.  They won’t even need another vote by the SBE.  You can almost hear the board intoning its huzzahs.

Despite the SBE’s united front, the public comments period of the board meeting indicated that parents are still deeply divided.  Opponents raised concerns about giving charter schools too much influence and they urged the state board to make sure that all instances of parent trigger petitions are transparent.  They also continued their appeal to give teachers a significant say in whether a persistently under performing school should be closed and converted into a charter school.

To that, former State Senator Gloria Romero, author of the Parent Empowerment law, said dryly, “This is the parent trigger law, this is not the ‘parent go get a permission slip from the teacher’ law.”

Final (maybe) Trigger regs to a vote

On Wednesday, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst may finally succeed in getting the Parent Trigger off his and the Board’s agenda. But first, he must persuade a majority of the Board to pass the latest version of Parent Trigger regulations that he personally helped revise.

He’ll have an ally in Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that has been packing State Board meetings with dozens of parents month after month. While initially voicing fear that Kirst and other new State Board appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown would sabotage the law, last week Parent Revolution praised the latest “fair, thoughtful, pro-parent draft” of regulations.

The readable, 21-page draft could provide guidance to the dozen states where Parent Trigger legislation has been introduced but not moved forward, in part because of controversy and uncertainty surrounding California’s law. The latest version clarifies and incorporates some of the compromises that Parent Revolution and representatives from the Assn. of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Assn. worked out over months of negotiations. It excludes a contentious option suggested by the California Teachers Association that would have given a majority of teachers at a school subject to a Parent Trigger petition the power to overturn parents’ demand for a conversion to a charter school. Parent Revolution has called for Board member Patricia Rucker, a CTA lobbyist, to recuse herself from Wednesday’s vote.

Learning from Compton experience

Under the Parent Trigger, which the Legislature passed hurriedly in January 2010, a majority of parents in an underperforming school or the feeder schools to that school can demand one of four drastic changes: closing it down, switching to a charter school, firing the principal and half of the staff, or transforming it through after-school programs and other changes. (These are the same four controversial options that the Obama administration requires for failing schools that get federal School Improvement Grant money.)

The law’s vagueness has been a problem for the State Board, which was left with the task of writing implementation regulations. The need for specifics became evident in the nasty fight between activists and teachers at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified over the only Parent Trigger petition submitted so far. Both sides charged harassment; the parents sued the district over the signature verification process and tactics of intimidation. A Superior Court judge supported the parents on most issues and criticized the district’s tactics but eventually threw out the petitions on a technicality. Faced with a year’s delay, the parents chose to open up a charter school in a nearby church this fall.

The Compton experience informed Kirst and State Board of Education employees as they sought common-sense solutions to points of contention over the signature collection and verification process, deadlines for filing, and disagreements in particular over converting the school to a charter, which will likely be parents’ most frequent preference. Some key changes to in the latest draft:

  • The state Department of Education will create a website with sample petitions – a remedy to the technical omission in the Compton case;
  • Petition signers, school personnel, parents, and district officials shall be free from threats and intimidation and shall not discourage parents from signing a petition;
  • Petitions must identify groups like Parent Revolution that are organizing petition drives; paid signature gatherers must identify themselves, cannot be paid by the signature, and cannot offer incentives and material awards for signing;
  • Parents can designate key organizers to whom the district should turn to help reach parents and verify signatures;
  • Districts should use standard methods, like emergency forms on file at the school, to verify parents’ signatures; they should not disqualify signatures on technicalities if it’s clear that parents intended to sign a petition;
  • Petition organizers get one second chance to fix technical problems with the petition and add signatures if others have been disqualified.
  • Districts will have 40 days to verify the signatures and respond the first time a petition is submitted and an additional 25 days for verification a second time after parents fix mistakes and add names;
  • If parents request a specific charter group to run the charter, the district will vet the petition like any other charter proposal under the state charter law;
  • If parents want a conversion to a charter but don’t suggest a specific operator, they will have the opportunity to recommend one.

Creating the regulations has been prolonged and contentious, because the stakes for parents displeased with their school and teachers who might lose their jobs are high.

Tight timetable

Kirst and drafters were careful to avoid creating new mandates that the state would have to pay for. So reasonable ideas, like requiring informational hearings explaining  parents’ options and giving both parent activists and the district a chance to say their piece, have been omitted from the final draft.

Kirst said it’s not possible to anticipate every conflict, but that the regulations deal with many of the issues that have been raised and should cut down on potential lawsuits.

The Board is under a tight timetable. If there are no significant objections to the draft regs, the Board can approve them on Wednesday or, after a 15-day review, take a formal vote in September. But if significant new issues are raised, pushing back a vote on the regulations to October or later, the Board will miss a deadline and have to start the entire process again, which the Board would like to avoid.

Meanwhile, a bill to clarify certain aspects of the Parent Trigger law, AB 203, is moving along surprisingly with no significant opposition. It is sponsored by Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

State Board member under fire

Patricia Rucker, a State Board of Education member whose day job is lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, is facing a conflict of interest complaint by supporters of the Parent Trigger law that the CTA wants to gut.

The complaint is a preemptive strike by parents affiliated with the nonprofit group Parent Revolution. It was filed Thursday with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, less than a week before the State Board is scheduled to take a crucial vote on Parent Trigger regulations that the Board has been reworking for nearly a year. In a Parent Revolution press release, the parents said  they would “happily withdraw their complaint” if Rucker recuses herself from participating in all Parent Trigger discussions and votes – something she has declined to do so far. It would be fascinating to see what the FPPC would do if she doesn’t.

A spokesman for the CTA said it had not been notified of the complaint and therefore would not comment. The FPPC  has 14 days to decide whether the complaint warrants a formal investigation.

CTA’s ‘seat’ on State Board

Rucker was among the seven nominees that Gov. Brown proposed when he cleaned house on the State Board after his election in November. While a dividend to the union that helped elect Brown, Rucker’s nomination continued a de facto tradition of designating a CTA seat on  the 11-person Board. Joe Nunez, the associate executive director of Governmental Relations for the CTA, previously held that position.

Nonetheless, Rucker’s nomination raises conflict of interest questions, with her obligation as a public official to serve the greater good of K-12 students potentially clashing with  her loyalty as a CTA employee to take its line on issues before the Board.

This was evident with the Parent Trigger, a first-in-the-nation law, passed in January 2010, that permits a majority of parents at an underperforming school to demand radical changes including, as one option, a conversion to a charter school, with the loss of union teaching jobs. The CTA unsuccessfully fought the law, and its chief lobbyist before the board, Kenneth Burt, has threatened to sue  over various versions of Parent Trigger regulations CTA didn’t like.

Parent Revolution parents questioned Rucker’s conflict of interest at the April 21 State Board hearing on proposed Parent Trigger regulations. She declined to respond, and the Board’s lawyers, leaving it up to her, didn’t venture an opinion. Later in the day, picking up on a legal argument Burt made, Rucker suggested an amendment requiring  a majority of teachers to approve a Parent Trigger petition for a conversion to a charter school. This would essentially give teachers the  power to void the parents’ action. Board President Michael Kirst expressed doubt at the time whether this would be wise or necessary, and the provision is not in the final draft that the Board will consider on Wednesday.

The Board will be on a tight timetable. If it approves the regulations without serious objections, it can take a final vote in September. But if a new, substantial issue is raised, forcing more public comment delaying a vote until October or later, the Board will have to start the entire year-long process again from scratch. Fearing Rucker might stall the process, parents want her out of the way.

Wanting to please unions and corporate interests – and perhaps enrich discussion with different points of view –  governors have sought balance on the State Board;  there has traditionally been a “business seat” as well as a  CTA seat.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger changed the makeup by naming  a number of charter school advocates and executives, including Yvonne Chan, a principal of the state’s oldest conversion charter school; the late Donald  Fisher, a funder of KIPP schools; Ted Mitchell, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, which finances charters; and Rae Belisle, former CEO of EdVoice. After the Senate refused to approve Belisle’s nomination, Schwarzenegger named Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. This also led to charges of conflict of interest – this time by the CTA and the California School Boards Association. But the difference here is that Austin recused himself and left the boardroom during discussions of Parent Trigger. And Mitchell reports that he recused himself on any vote that involved an organization on whose board any NewSchools representatives sat. He also recused himself  during the Board’s decision to grant Aspire Public Schools, which NewSchools funded, a statewide charter.

While not familiar with the specifics of the current complaint, Dan Schnur, the former chairman of the FPPC and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, suggested the perception of a conflict increases when an official is not just an advocate but a full-time lobbyist, who then may gain access to other decision makers because of his or her position. Brown could have appointed a teacher or retired teacher to represent teachers’ views.  Appointing a lobbyist to the Board “sends an unfortunate message,” he said.