Judge to throw out Trigger petitions

Parents at Compton Unified who filed the state’s first Parent Trigger petition will get the charter school they’ve demanded. It just won’t be at their school, McKinley Elementary, but in a church down the street instead.

In a major setback to their cause, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge tentatively ruled that he would throw out the petitions signed by 265 parents on a technicality: a failure to have each parent fill in the date when they signed the petition. While stating that he was “aware of the pain, frustration and perhaps educational disadvantages this ruling may cause,” Judge Anthony Mohr wrote that state law compelled him to nullify the petitions.

Mohr released his ruling on Friday, the same week that the Los Angeles County Board of Education approved a separate charter school petition filed on the parents’ behalf. Parent Revolution, organizers for the parents, had assumed that they might need a backup for this fall in case litigation over their Parent Trigger plan to assume control of McKinley Elementary extended past the summer. Now, it seems they will need Plan B, starting a charter school in a nearby church building, sooner than they anticipated. The parents intend to formally announce their new plans tomorrow, Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin said Monday.

The McKinley parents became the first to take advantage of a year-old parent empowerment law that allows parents at a low-performing school to demand structural change if at least a majority of parents petition district trustees. Converting a school into a charter school is one of the options. The Compton parents had chosen Celerity Education Group, a Los Angeles-based charter organization, to run the charter operation.

During months of litigation, Judge Mohr had signaled strong support for the parents and frustration with the district’s tactics to thwart their petition. However, in the latest ruling, he said that state law required that parents or guardians date when they signed the Parent Trigger petition, in order for the district to verify that each child was enrolled and that parents had authority to act on their child’s behalf on a specific date.

Noting that prominent Los Angeles attorneys had written the petition pro bono for the parents, Parent Revolution spokeswoman Linda Serrato said in a statement, “it is deeply troubling that an entire organizing campaign can be thrown out because of such a minuscule typo.”

A decision to start a charter outside the district will end a contentious battle, although one or two other parent groups have said they also are organizing under the Parent Trigger law. The State School Board is now drafting new regulations for the process. One proposed provision would require the state to create a model Parent Trigger petition on a website for groups to copy. Mohr has certainly indicated one feature that should be highlighted: a box for the date next to each parent’s signature.

Mohr will issue his final ruling June 7.

Could teachers veto charter option?

Teachers would have the power to nullify parents’ demands to restart their low-performing school as a charter school, based on a rewording from a previous draft of the Parent Trigger regulations.

The conflict in language, which infuriated parent advocates and pleased representatives of the California Teachers Association, was one of the more contentious points at a hearing Thursday before the State Board of Education on regulations for the parent empowerment law. By the end of a long day, the reason for the discrepancy between the past and current versions wasn’t clear, and the difference won’t be resolved until the Board votes on the final wording, probably in July. Meanwhile, the change set conspiracy tongues wagging.

At issue is how to resolve a conflict between two laws. The Parent Trigger allows a majority of parents at a school facing its fourth year or longer of federal sanctions for poor performance to choose from among four options for structural reforms. One of those, which may end up being the most popular among parents, is to change to a charter school. Parents can even request a specific charter operator, as parents at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified, the first to submit a petition, have done.

Most charter schools start from scratch. However, there’s also a state law that allows a district school to be converted to a charter school if half of the teachers there approve. Lawyers for the teachers association argue that the restart option under the Parent Trigger constitutes a conversion charter and so must follow existing law, including the requirement that the majority of teachers give their consent. Only the Legislature, not the State Board, can amend the law, CTA lobbyist Ken Burt said.

But the Parent Trigger’s purpose is to empower parents to change schools, not put obstacles in the way, advocates of the law said. “It’s nonsensical on its face” to also require teachers’ approval, said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, adding that if teachers had wanted to convert the school to a charter, they already would have done so.

State Board President Michael Kirst implied that he agreed. The charter option under Parent Trigger would appear to constitute a new charter, not a conversion; the circumstances are different, he said.

Earlier drafts of the Parent Trigger regulations omitted a reference to the subsection of the law – Section 47605 in the Education Code ­– pertaining to a teachers’ vote. But the latest version included it.

Pressed to explain, Department of Education attorney Elizabeth Stein attributed the change to a “drafting problem” and said it was not the Department’s intent to include the teachers’ signatures. This drew applause from parents and community leaders from Compton and Los Angeles, who once again drove all night in a chartered bus to testify at the hearing.

But Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger was ambiguous. He said staff copied procedures from the charter conversion statute and took no position on the requirement for teachers’ approval.

The State Board agreed to publish two versions of the Parent Trigger regulations – the Department’s current draft along with changes suggested by other groups – for a 15-day comment period. Alternate wording on the conversion charter dispute, proposed by Parent Revolution, the Assn. of California School Administrators, the California School Boards Assn., and the California Charter Schools Assn., will be among those considered.

Among other changes, the State Board will consider requiring:

  • the Department of Education to create a model petition on its website, explaining the options for reform, that parents groups could copy;
  • parents groups to translate their petitions in languages spoken by parents in the school;
  • the school district to hold at least one public hearing for parents explaining the Parent Trigger options;
  • the school district to adopt specific procedures for verifying parent signatures. If they aren’t mandated to take specific steps, school districts could ignore them and violate parents’ rights, as Compton Unified did, Rose and other parent advocates argued.

Parent Trigger 4.0 and counting

The State Board of Education has set aside most of Thursday to listen to arguments over draft regulations on the state’s contentious parent empowerment law known as the Parent Trigger. The 21 pages of regs are now in the fourth iteration in seven months. It’s a bear to read, with underlined text, bold underlined text, bold double-underlined text, and now shaded double-underlined bold text plus strike-through text – recording the history of changes like an archeological dig. Odds are there’ll be at least a fifth version­ – all this without confronting some of the bigger issues that only a change in law, not regulations, can resolve.

The good news is that over the past month key adversaries on the issue closeted themselves away to work through most of their differences. Representatives of Parent Revolution, the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), the California School Boards Association, and the California Charter School Association will ask the State Board to incorporate their compromise language, drafted by ACSA legislative advocate Sherry Skelly Griffith, in the next version. The Board would be wise to seriously consider their request.

The Parent Trigger law allows a majority of parents in certain schools facing federal sanctions for low performance – and the majority of parents in feeder schools to those schools – to demand structural changes, like converting a school to a charter school or transforming it through a slew of reforms, some controversial (firing the principal and rewarding teachers based on student performance) and some not (more teacher training and a longer school day, assuming there’s  money). It’s a powerful tool for frustrated parents in unresponsive districts.

The Legislature passed the Parent Trigger early in 2010, with ambivalence, in an effort to increase chances that the state would win Race to the Top money, and so wrote into state law the four remedies that the federal government demanded for turning around bad schools. Congress will probably drop or expand those limited options when it reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind law. But they’ll remain in California law regardless. That’s one problem with the Parent Trigger law that only a change in state law can fix. Another is that it’s vague, open to interpretation and dispute.

The law was intended as an experiment, limiting the number of Parent Trigger conversions to 75 schools. So far, under the State Board’s emergency regs, one parent group has “pulled the trigger.” The phobic reaction of Compton Unified school officials and the school board to the parents of McKinley Elementary and their non-profit organizers, Parent Revolution, should give the State Board pause. A Superior Court judge already has slapped down the district for tactics it used in demanding parents verify their signatures, and could overturn the district’s rejection of the petition on technical grounds.

No appeals process

The latest draft regulations, as expected, go into the signature verification process in detail, suggesting that the district verify parents’ signatures with forms already on file and then contact parents if there’s a problem. (The ACSA-Parent Trigger group wants the signature verification method to be mandatory and the verification language to be tighter.) But the draft regs contain no appeal process to challenge the district’s decision; building this in also may require amending the law. One court has already made it clear that it will step in if parents’ First Amendment rights are violated.

The State Board’s challenge is how to write regulations to deal with districts that defy  the intent of the law or, potentially, parents signing a petition based on bad information or false accusations.

The draft regulations would require that parents be notified at the start of the school year that the school is eligible for a Parent Trigger petition and that the options be explained. Outside organizers, like Parent Revolution, would have to be identified on the petition. The regs suggest that the parents be referred to a State Department of Education website explaining the restructuring alternatives, although the Department wouldn’t be required to create the site.

The regs would prohibit threats, harassment, and intimidation against parents, school staff, organizers, and community members; there have been allegations of abuse in the McKinley case. The ACSA-Parent Trigger group would go further and ban the use of school and district resources in influencing a decision. They would also require signature gatherers to abide by school hours and sign-in regulations. They would put a deadline on further signature gathering once the petition is submitted. And they would require that petitions include the names of lead petitioners, whom the district could contact to help verify signatures of parents – a smart suggestion that could alleviate tensions between parents and the school.

The draft regs require no informational hearing at any point in the process. There is a need for one, but the challenge would be how to ensure a meeting would be run fairly and objectively, assuming a breakdown in trust between parents and the district. Having a third party, like a county office of education, run a hearing or oversee the signature verification would require a change in law.

Parents can pick choice of reform

Parent petitioners have the right to demand which structural change the district should adopt, whether it’s closing down the school, converting to a charter, replacing half the staff and the principal, or adopting the broad “transformation” strategy with a menu of reforms. The McKinley parents have presented a charter petition for Celerity Education Group, which runs charters in the Los Angeles area, to take over their school.

Under the draft regulations, a school board could choose another option but it would have to say so in writing. Parent Revolution wants to impose a high legal burden to override the parents’ preference. ACSA and other groups want to give districts more discretion. Regardless, the proposed charter school would have to go through the normal process for approving any charter school.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson created a large group of more than a dozen parties to guide the Department in revising the regulations for the State Board. It met twice. A similar group could be created to suggest revisions to the Parent Trigger law that regulations alone couldn’t fix. Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has created AB 203 for that purpose.

But Ben Austin, a former State School Board member and executive director of Parent Trigger, has made it clear that his group doesn’t trust that Brownley, who opposed the original law, would be a fair arbitrator. And he suspects that the California Teachers Association would attempt to weaken the law. For now, the action lies with the State Board, with the courts, the Legislature – or both – lying in wait.

Judge sides with Compton parents

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has slapped down Compton Unified over tactics it used against parents who have launched the state’s first parent trigger initiative.

In a ruling Wednesday Judge Anthony Mohr issued an injunction prohibiting the district from requiring McKinley Elementary School parents who signed the parent trigger petition from showing up in person to verify their signatures and to prove their identities with a photo ID. Mohr has given Compton Unified until 5 p.m. April 1 to verify the parents’ signatures.

In December, more than half of the McKinley Elementary parents signed a petition demanding that Compton Unified turn the school over to a charter school operator – one of four reform options under the parent empowerment law that the Legislature passed last year. The district in turn imposed the verification requirements that the judge has now declared unconstitutional on the grounds that that the district’s requirements violated parents’ First Amendment speech rights. The district has also rejected the petition on technicalities; the court has not yet ruled on that response, although the judge’s April 1 deadline may indicate he wants to move quickly on outstanding issues.

In April, the State Board will consider regulations on how the parent trigger petitions should be handled; verification of signatures is only one of the issues that the law itself fails to clarify. Mohr’s ruling based on First Amendment speech rights is instructive. It signals that the State Board should avoid imposing tight restrictions on signature gathering.

Parent trigger misfires by disrupting and dismantling local schools

(This article was written in collaboration with Sharon Higgins.)

Simplistic ideas may look appealing at first glance, but they rarely solve complex problems. Too often they have the potential to make things worse.

That’s true of California’s so-called Parent Empowerment Act. It created the “parent trigger,” which allows a majority of parents in a low-performing school to petition for drastic changes, including takeover by a charter school operator.

As urban public school parents and advocates, we support true parent empowerment and involvement, and effective, research-based reforms such as smaller classes and increased parent participation. But the parent trigger doesn’t promote sound practices for school improvement. It benefits corporate charter school operators – not children.

The parent trigger was created by the organization Parent Revolution, which is not a parent group but was founded by charter school operators, backed financially by billionaires and corporate interests.

The law allows parents to petition to: hand the school over to a charter operator, close the school, replace the staff and create a new administrative structure, or replace the principal.

Parent trigger drives are under way at two California schools. At Compton’s McKinley Elementary, the situation has exploded into chaos after more than 60 percent of the school’s parents signed a petition calling for takeover by the Celerity Educational Group charter operator.

McKinley parents did not initiate their parent trigger. Rather, Parent Revolution targeted their school to be a test case by pre-selecting the charter operator and then deploying a sophisticated, secretive operation, sending paid signature-gatherers door to door. With no transparency or public discussion, parents never learned about the options or heard opposing views. After the petitions were submitted, 200-plus parents protesting the charter takeover packed a Compton school board meeting, news reports said.

Meanwhile, a parent trigger at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland, near Los Angeles, is run by a parent who wants to replace the principal. That lagging effort doesn’t benefit corporate charter schools, and Parent Revolution has given it scant attention.

What are the problems?

  • The parent trigger’s narrow, disruptive options have shown no reliable success in improving schools nationwide. In fact, decades into the charter school movement, and despite its aggressive promotion by moneyed interests, there is still no consistent research demonstrating that  charter schools provide an academically superior education.
  • The outcome of the parent trigger – disrupting and dismantling schools – is likely to harm vulnerable students and communities where the school provides stability.
  • A parent trigger “transformation” has significant impact beyond the targeted school. If parents voted to close a school, neighboring schools would be severely affected.
  • Allowing a hostile takeover of a public asset by individuals is questionable. Consider applying that to a police department or a park.

Better ideas

  • We praise state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the Los Angeles Times editorial board for recognizing that the parent trigger is deeply flawed.
  • We support genuine parent empowerment through the strengthening of School Site Councils, PTAs, PTOs, Title 1 Parent Advisory Councils, and more. We believe that reform strategies must be devised at the school level, to address each school’s specific needs.
  • If the parent trigger continues, transparency and disclosure must be required. Options must be aired fully and discussed openly, with all parents included – as well as teachers.
  • The law must fully specify details, including the steps after a petition is delivered.
  • Paid organizers must publicly identify themselves and disclose their financial backers.
  • The law must specify what entity oversees the entire process.

School reform must truly empower parents and benefit children. To us, the parent trigger is simply a ploy to channel public money into private hands.

For further reading:

The Los Angeles Times on Parent Revolution’s founding:The initiative is the latest envelope-pushing project for the publicity-savvy [Steve] Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools.”

The Los Angeles Weekly on the Compton parent trigger: Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. … [Parent Revolution’s paid] field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton …”

California Watch on the secretive signature-gathering: “The petition was the end result of a stealth campaign led by Parent Revolution, a nonprofit organization closely allied with the charter school movement …”

The Los Angeles Weekly on Compton parents’ opposition to the parent trigger:We’re reporting live from the CUSD board meeting, packed with press and hundreds of angry parents – many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without understanding its gravity.”

The Los Angeles Daily News on the parent trigger in Sunland, Calif.: “We want to see change.”

The California Federation of Teachers blog: “They never said this was a petition for a charter school. … I don’t want that for McKinley.”

Caroline Grannan, of San Francisco, and Sharon Higgins, of Oakland, have a total of 33 years’ experience between them as urban public school parents, volunteers, and advocates. They are West Coast founding members of Parents Across America, a national organization working to strengthen the parent voice in setting education policy at national, state, and local levels.

Kirst: Expedite parent trigger regs

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said Wednesday that the State Board does not plan to ask the Legislature to fix the parent empowerment law known as the parent trigger – to the great relief of the embattled law’s advocates. Instead, the State Board extended emergency regulations implementing the parent trigger and speeded up the timetable for adopting final rules to clarify disputed issues.

Kirst’s statement allayed worries of the 100 Los Angeles area parents, affiliated with the nonprofit organizers Parent Revolution, who had driven all night to Sacramento for the second straight month. Among them were parents from McKinley Elementary in Compton whose landmark parent trigger petition calling for a charter school was denied on a technicality by Compton Unified’s board last month. One after another, often with emotion, the primarily Hispanic parents pressed for strong regulations shoring up their right to demand structural reforms at their schools.

Parent Revolution had speculated that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Julia Brownley, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, both of whom opposed the parent empowerment legislation last year, would sabotage the parent trigger law by amending it – a charge that both denied. Brownley has introduced a AB 203, which she said could serve as a cleanup bill to fix issues that cannot be clarified through regulations.

However, Kirst and the State Board defused the issue by directing a committee with a diverse representation that Torlakson assembled – from Parent Revolution to the California Teachers Association –  to make recommendations by next month on permanent regulations. Kirst has dedicated the April 21 State Board meeting to the parent trigger issue. Meanwhile, the emergency regulations, under which a majority of parents at a school can file a parent-trigger petition, will remain in effect. By a 9-1 vote, with CTA legislative advocate Patricia Rucker opposed, the State Board also extended the regulations, which were due to expire next week.

“President Kirst’s statement …  signaled  an intent to craft regulations that serve parents and children, not bureaucrats and special interests,” said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, as well as a former State Board member whom Gov. Jerry Brown replaced in January.

Passage of final regulations in April would remove a high-profile source of contention for Brown. He wants activist parents and the CTA focused on a June ballot extending state taxes, not fighting one another on parental choice. But reaching consensus on the permanent regulations will not be easy. The vagueness of the emergency regulations contributed to the conflicts in Compton. The district and Parent Revolution have accused one another of using tactics of intimidation and misinformation. Compton administrators demanded an onerous signature verification process that a District Court judge rejected out of hand.

Under the parent trigger, a majority of parents at a school who sign a petition can demand one of four strategies: closing down the school; restarting as a charter school; replacing most of the teachers and the principal; or adopting another transformation strategy that could involve a longer day and a different curriculum. Issues that must be resolved include:

  • Signature verification: what forms of ID will be needed;
  • Transparency of information and objectivity of the approval process: how to ensure that parents receive accurate information about all options open to them and that the petition is handled fairly and expeditiously by the district or a third party;
  • Charter process: who decides which charter operator will take over the school;
  • Appeals process: an uncovered piece of the law;
  • Parent protections: how to prevent retribution against parents who sign a petition.

Compton Unified and McKinley parents will be fighting in court for months, if not longer. On Tuesday, the Compton board escalated the conflict by rejecting the application by Celerity Educational Group to open a charter elementary school near McKinley Elementary.

Celerity is the charter operator that McKinley parents had designated in their petition to operate their school. Because of the possibility of protracted litigation, parents had urged Celerity to file a separate application to open a charter school this fall in a nearby church. The  superintendent and staff of Compton Unified had recommended that the board approve the charter – a move that could have reduced tensions. But the board voted no, 6-1.

Parents: Don’t gut ‘parent trigger’

Five dozen parents from Compton and all corners of Los Angeles drove all night in a packed school bus to deliver their message, in impassioned one-minute speeches in Spanish and English, to the State Board of Education: Don’t undermine the year-old  law giving parents the power to force structural changes in underperforming schools.

“Our children have a right to a university education,” implored one parent. “Failure is not an option.”

“We need your immediate attention,” demanded another. “Move swiftly to add to the mandate of a parent trigger law.”

Board members listened closely, and appeared moved.

“This is urgent,” agreed Yvonne Chan, a charter school principal from Los Angeles.

“Your bus trip was worth it and made an impression today,” said new Board member James Ramos.

“All of the Board is committed to move swiftly and thoughtfully to give you what you need,” said Gregory Jones.

Then, within minutes, high intention ran into Sacramento reality. It became evident in the Board’s discussion that turning aspiration into regulation, urgency notwithstanding, will  not be quick or easy – and will likely be contentious.

If parents came hopeful, they left Sacramento Wednesday uncertain and not a little bit suspicious.

The “parent trigger” law that gives a majority of parents at a school the right to demand a change of leadership or bring in a charter school operator is “difficult,” said new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson: “vague where it should be specific and specific where it should be flexible.”

The emergency implementation regulations that the State Board adopted last summer provided little guidance and are set to expire next month. Parents at an elementary school in Compton that submitted the first parent trigger petition in December already have filed suit – and have won a preliminary injunction over burdens that the district required for signature verification. Parent groups at middle schools in Carson and Sunland-Tujunga, in northeast Los Angeles, are deep in their own petition drives. Spurred by the organizers of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution,  parent activists want action now.

But the draft regulations that the State Board worked on for half a year doesn’t address the conflicts that already have surfaced in Compton over tactics and procedures. Groups representing teachers, school boards, administrators, the state PTA, and Public Advocates, which represents low-income families, asked the Board to take more time to get the regulations right.

Torlakson recommended – and the State Board unanimously agreed – to bring representatives of all of the groups, including Parent Revolution, together over the next month to hash out issues and provide direction to the Board.

But his disclosure that the Department of Education would also work with Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, on a “cleanup bill” to clarify the parent trigger law caught parent organizers by surprise and alarmed them. As an Assemblyman with close ties to the CTA last year, Torlakson led the opposition to the parent trigger law. Brownley proposed a watered-down version of the law.

“We are  certain to see a repeal effort under another name,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. “I have never heard in all public hearings and conference calls for eight months before now CDE (Department of Education) staff once say, ‘This law is just too hard; we need cleanup legislation.’”  (Go here for a short video interview of Gabe Rose.)

The Department’s position is that it is going to be difficult to craft regulations that hold up in court with the parent trigger as currently written. But Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger told me that Torlakson, while offering to work with Brownley, is not leading an effort to rewrite the law. He opposed the parent trigger because of philosophical differences; he questions whether parents should be given the authority to take control of a public asset. But he also saw problems with the law’s language.

Important issues must be addressed,  Zeiger said, naming off a few:

Definitions: Who is a parent? If parents from feeder schools have a say, how do you determine who?

Transparency: How do you set up a process where everyone can participate and make it equitable for all parties (teachers, parents)? How do you ensure there will be an accurate presentation of options? Should there be an officially sanctioned petition title with early disclosure, as with other petition drives?

Signatures: Does it matter if there are paid circulators? Should it be clear who is paying for the petition?

Procedural: Does a petition drive extend beyond one year? How long does it last?

Charter approval: Does a petition drive calling for a conversion charter school initiate a formal charter approval process, as with any new charter?

Parent activists have very different concerns: They want the regulations to protect them from harassment from district officials; they want simple and easy signature verifications; and they want tight deadlines. They know districts will try to drag out the process.

Agreeing that districts have a conflict of interest, newly nominated Board member Carl Cohn, a former superintendent from Long Beach and San Diego, suggested that county offices of education be brought in to oversee the petition and public hearing process. That likely would require a change in the law.

The State Board has a number of difficult decisions: Should it let the emergency regulations expire; replace them with new ones; adopt the draft regulations it inherited, with changes (because of formal review time line, that would take months, regardless); start the regulations process again and watch to see what the Legislature does, if anything?

For a State Board that wants to focus on issues of assessment, governance, finance reform and Common Core standards, the parent trigger issue will be time-consuming and controversial. For Gov. Jerry Brown, who will want a united campaign to pass tax extensions in June, any battle pitting parents against the education establishment would be perilous.

Strengthen and straighten out state’s parent empowerment process

Recent events at McKinley Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District have brought to light flaws in the state’s new parent empowerment or “trigger” law. This law must be fixed immediately so that the actual process for empowering parents is as worthy as the goal.

Using the new “trigger” provision, parents at McKinley were asked to sign a petition to turn their low-performing school into a charter school to be run by an outside organization. Unfortunately, this first real-world application of the new trigger provision has deeply divided the school’s community and pitted well-meaning parents against each other.

The most empowering part of the new law: It allows a petition to be circulated among parents at chronically low-performing schools that calls for a specific turnaround strategy, thereby intensifying the pressure for positive change.

Let’s be clear. Persistently underperforming schools cannot and should not be tolerated. Wherever there is a clear pattern of a public school repeatedly not providing students with access to a quality education, rapid change must happen.

The California State PTA believes all parents must be empowered to make changes at schools that result in dramatic and sustained improvements in student achievement. But for these changes to occur, the process of selecting and implementing a school turnaround strategy should be thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive of all parents, and should ensure accountability to the community.

  • Public hearings and transparency. The current law does not require that accurate, independent information and analysis be provided to all parents at a school prior to making crucial decisions about the school’s future. We believe that before a petition is circulated, parents should submit an intent to file a petition to the school district. This important step would then set in motion one or more required public meetings at which information about the school’s performance and the options for turning it around could be communicated to everyone concerned.

  • Independent analysis. In addition to public hearings, an independent report should be required. This report should be developed by a committee that includes parents or by an outside group with no direct stake in the outcome. It would describe and assess the various alternatives for turning around the school.
  • More disclosure. Another weakness of the current law is that it allows for a petition regarding a school to be circulated by anyone, including an organization that seeks to operate a charter school at that very school site. In addition, there is no mandatory review or analysis of any promises or claims made by those circulating the petition, nor is the petition required to include information about the group or groups sponsoring it. To increase transparency we believe any affiliation must be disclosed, including whether the petitioners are associated with a parent group, union, school district, specific charter school operator, or education-management organization. The current law is also silent on whether paid signature gatherers can be used to qualify these local petitions. We believe they should not.

Here’s the bottom line: Parents must have access to as much information as possible about all options before they are asked to sign a document that could fundamentally affect the education their children receive.

We know from research and experience that the most meaningful parent-engagement strategies are those that are thoughtfully implemented and that focus on building the knowledge and capacity of parents to be full partners in education. This includes helping parents and community members build stronger working relationships with their schools and district staff and leaders through a collaborative process.

One of PTA’s fundamental, longstanding purposes is “to bring into closer relation the home and school, that  parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the education of children and youth.” By focusing equal attention on planning for what happens after the so-called trigger is pulled, we increase the chances that, whichever turnaround solution is implemented, the parents and school community can work together to achieve real results for students.

Jo A.S. Loss is president of the California State PTA, which has nearly 1 million members throughout the state, including more than 250,000 in the Los Angeles area. Loss lives in Castro Valley and serves on the Castro Valley Unified School District Board of Education. For more information about the California State PTA, visit www.capta.org.

Parents reject Compton’s demand

Parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton Unified plan to ignore the district’s demand that they show up today or Thursday with an official photo ID to verify their signatures on the state’s first “parent trigger” petition. Organizers are charging that the district’s requirement is a transparent effort to disenfranchise them – many are undocumented immigrants without driver’s licenses – and say they’ve lined up pro bono lawyers to go to court.

That appears inevitable. The district has been combating the parents’ campaign to turn the elementary school, whose state academic scores are among the bottom 10 percent, into a charter school through the parent trigger law. Officials will cite the failure to conform to their verification requirements to disqualify the signatures and throw out the petition.

Under the year-old parent trigger law, a majority of parents at a school identified as needing academic improvement can demand one of four turnaround school strategies, including shutting it down or turning it over to a charter school.

Last month, parents at the low-income, primarily Hispanic and African American school submitted signatures signed by 62 percent of parents of the 438 students. The district, teachers, and the school’s PTA launched a counter-campaign, charging deception by the organizers, and persuaded some parents to retract their signatures. The non-profit group Parent Revolution, which organized the parents, in turn charged harassment and intimidation by the district, and has filed complaints on parents’ behalf with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In terms of numbers, Parent Revolution acknowledged that the percentage of signers fell to 51 percent but is now back up to 55 percent. Organizers  said that they haven’t been able to contact a quarter of the parents, because the school won’t provide them with names – and doesn’t have to under the law. Here is the Parent Revolution analysis of the numbers.)

McKinley parents filed under emergency regulations for the parent trigger that the State Board of Education adopted last July. Those regulations were silent on the verification process. The proposed permanent parent trigger regs say that the district “may make reasonable efforts to verify” the signatures and that the district “may only contact parents or legal guardians to verify eligible signatures on the petition.”

Other districts have far less onerous ways to verify signatures – like matching signatures on file with the district with those in question – than requiring working parents to show up two days between either 7:30 to 9 a.m or 3 to 6 p.m. and sign a verification form. The requirement to bring an official photo ID – code for a driver’s license – is not likely to sit well with the largely Hispanic community in Compton. They’ll see it for what it is: an attempt to keep parents away.

Ben Austin, the former State Board member who heads Parent Revolution, called it a “despicable, cynical ploy.”

The new State Board put off adopting the final parent trigger regulations at its meeting earlier this month, and the agenda for the February meeting won’t be out until next week. Given the charges on both sides and the district’s nasty tactics, the State Board will want to spell out in more detail  ways to make the signature gathering and verification process fair and transparent.

The parents’ petition calls for turning the school over to Celerity Education Group, which operates charter schools in Los Angeles serving low-income children. The Compton Unified Board could choose another option, but it would face a burden of justifying why the parents’ wishes shouldn’t be followed.

(See here for my general view  of the parent trigger – and a response to my post by Ben Austin.  Some smart and engaging comments, too, by TOP-Ed regulars.)