‘Parent trigger’ organizers need protection from harassment, intimidation

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

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

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

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

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

Potential leverage and bargaining power

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

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

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

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

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

Parent-trigger regs rightfully delayed

In order to come up to speed, the new members of the State School Board have put off acting on most items on this week’s agenda. The decision to delay final adoption of “parent trigger” regulations has set off critics, led by the law’s author, former Sen. Gloria Romero, and its biggest booster, ousted State Board member Ben Austin. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Daily News, dismissing Brown’s new appointees as “political hacks and educational has-beens,” said that “the future of education reform in California and the state’s reputation as a national leader in education is at risk.”

Such apocalyptic predictions inflate the importance of the parent trigger, ignore the flaws in the proposed parent-trigger regulations, and prejudge the new State Board through the narrowest of lenses.

The parent trigger, which the Legislature adopted a year ago to try to add pizzazz to a weak Race to the Top application, enables parents to force drastic change in low-performing schools. Even though organizers in only one school – McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified – so far have pulled the “trigger” by submitting signatures of a majority of parents, the parent trigger is hot. Legislators in several states are crafting their versions, and former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made the parent trigger one of four cardinal strategies of her new national organization Students First.

The concept is sound enough; empowering long-suffering parents trapped in lousy schools can be a powerful tool. In California, a majority of teachers have the power to convert their school to a charter. In principle, parents should have the same right ­– if they really know what they’re signing and can choose  from alternatives that are clearly better than what they have.

But as events in Compton have shown, parents behind a trigger campaign should be prepared for a long, bitter and expensive fight, because teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy, their union, and districts aren’t going to give up turf easily. It took five paid organizers from Parent Revolution to gather the Compton signatures, and there will be lawsuits over the law and claims of deceit, with countercharges by petitioners of threats and coercion. Any petition effort can expect such nastiness and litigation.

Resistance from self-interested adults is by itself no reason to back down, but to what end? It would have been a lot easier, with less hand-to-hand combat, to open a charter school in the neighborhood and invite McKinley parents to choose with their feet. Consider that as many as 130 new charter schools will open next year in California, many in urban areas with low-performing schools. There will probably be a handful of parent-trigger petitions this year and next; it will take years to reach the ceiling of 75 schools.

Austin and organizers insist the parent trigger isn’t just about converting to charter schools. But, in fact, the way California’s law is written, it will, with few exceptions, be all about charters.

The trigger-petition law and the proposed regulations limit the choices to the four unproven and much debated school turnaround options being pushed by the Obama administration in the Race to the Top competition and the billion-dollar School Improvement Grant program. Petitioners can demand to shut the school down, turn it around by hiring a new principal and firing half the existing staff, transform it with a longer school day and other strategies and a new principal, or restart it as a charter school. Parents aren’t likely to go to all that effort to close their school or fire half the staff. The transformation strategy would make little sense without more money – and the parent trigger provides none. The default choice will be charter conversion.

Lure of a decent building

Finding adequate facilities is the biggest challenge to opening a charter school, so the prospect of taking over a fully equipped school building is an advantage of the parent trigger. But many charter operators have been reluctant to take over an existing school, where all parents aren’t there by choice; they’d rather exert their right to unoccupied school buildings under Proposition 39 or rent non-district facilities. McKinley Elementary parents did find an operator, Celerity Education Group, willing to take over their school, but that could prove the exception.

There are alternatives for a parent trigger that the Legislature and the State Board could have considered: allowing parents to start a small school within a large middle or high school or setting up a parents council to solicit proposals from groups, including teachers, and choose the most interesting or innovative idea. Instead, the law and the almost-adopted regulations take a winner-take-all approach that could prove divisive.

Self-interest notwithstanding, the California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators have raised legitimate questions about the law: the mechanics of signature gathering, legal issues involving a charter conversion, the lack of openness in the petition process. The proposed regulations don’t require a public hearing before the petitions are submitted, at which all options would be explained to parents, who would have a chance to add or withdraw their signatures. (Organizers  say they have to operate secretly to protect parents’ identities; they should be given parents’ addresses and phone numbers.)

Rush to pass parent-trigger regulations

What really ticked off the CTA and others was that the State Board, suspecting that Gov. Brown might replace most of them, rushed the final 15-day comment period over Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The Board ignored the difficulty this would impose on educators with serious objections.

The parent trigger will give parents leverage for change, but the biggest benefit may come not from the few petitions signed but from the bigger threat they represent.

Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, reports that districts and superintendents who want to preempt the parent trigger have been calling him to learn about the law. Superintendents have more leverage, too, to force reform-resistant teachers unions to change – or else. “If you have a school that is ripe for parent trigger, an option is to start moving on one of the other options, such as a district-run charter,” Premack says.

If the law is to be more than hope and hype, the parent-trigger regulations must be written right. The new board was smart to take its time – and a second look.

(Great commentaries, for and against the idea of a Parent Trigger, in Monday’s National Journal. )

AG to examine ‘trigger’ complaints

State School Board President Ted Mitchell intends to ask the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate charges of harassment and intimidation of Compton Unified parents who have petitioned to turn their low-performing elementary school into a charter school.

“What I have been hearing is there has been rampant abuse and rampant lying, and trying  to intimidate parents,” he said in an interview after Wednesday’s State Board meeting. “There is no place in the parent trigger or in any kind of open democratic process for that level of fear and intimidation. … We need to get to the facts, and the Attorney General’s Office has the capacity and the responsibility to do that.”  (Click here for my interview with Mitchell.)

Last week, parents of students at McKinley Elementary became the first in the state to demand school reform under a “parent trigger” law passed earlier this year. As the law permits, they have specifically requested that the board turn over the school to Celerity Education Group, a Los Angeles-based charter organization.

Organizers said they turned in signatures of parents and guardians representing 62 percent of students in the K-5 school – more than the majority required.

Since then, there have been dueling press conferences and claims of threats and coercion. Opponents claim that 50 to 60 parents have withdrawn their names because they say they were misled about the purpose of the petition; the district has not confirmed that number. One parent said she thought she was  signing a petition to beautify the school.

This week, several parents who signed the petition charged they have been harassed by school staff, threatened with deportation, and wrongly told that the charter school would not take special education children. One mother, Marlene Romero, said her third grade son’s teacher called her into the school to berate her for signing the petition while a district official stood by and took notes. That teacher did make inflammatory comments on the YouTube video that parents posted explaining their campaign. (See comments by vtellez2001)

Mitchell is acting on the suggestion of State Board member Alan Arkatov of Los Angeles, who suggested to the board Wednesday that the disturbing complaints should be investigated as potential civil rights violations.

Neither he nor Mitchell said if he believed one side or the other. But Ben Austin, a board member who is also executive director of Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organizing parents to use the parent trigger, denied after the meeting that his staff misled any of the parents. (Austin recused himself during the board’s parent-trigger discussion.) “Opponents  are making this stuff up, as we knew they would. If  they are not slapped down, there will be open season on parents,” he said. (Click here for part of my interview with him after Wednesday’s State School Board meeting.)

This week, a reporter from LA Weekly, who spent several days observing Parent Revolution organizers and interviewing parents, came to the organization’s defense, saying, “The Weekly was not present the entire time Parent Revolution organizers were working in Compton, but from what we observed, charges of deception and harassment do not seem credible.”

The events in Compton have drawn national attention as several states are considering similar laws, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board is touting the parent trigger as the next big lever to reform public schools.

At its meeting Wednesday, the State Board continued to grapple with proposed regulations that will govern the petition process. Those detailed regulations will spell out time limits for districts to verify signatures (25 days) and respond to the petition (45 days), who is eligible to sign (one signature per child), and the options, besides demanding a charter school, that parents can request. The law limits exercising the parent trigger to 75 schools out of the more than 3,000 potentially eligible schools that have failed to make federal proficiency targets for at least four years straight.

But what’s mystifyingly missing from the proposed regulations is a requirement for an informational hearing at which the parent-trigger options would be objectively explained to parents and charges of misinformation and impropriety, as happened in Compton and are certain to recur elsewhere, would be aired. The state PTA and Public Advocates were among the groups that asked that public hearings be added to the regulations. But the state Department of Education rejected the idea on narrow grounds that the law establishing a parent trigger did not specify hearings.

The parent-trigger law adopts the four school reform options that the Obama administration is requiring that school districts choose for the lowest performing schools nationwide. Parents can request to close their school, restart it as a charter, fire half of the teachers and principal, or, as a less jarring choice, transform it through a longer school day and curriculum and scheduling changes. All four are hopeful but as yet unproven strategies for turning around failing schools. Anticipating that Congress may revise these options when it reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind law, several education groups asked that the parent trigger regulations incorporate other models as they evolve into law. But the State Department rejected that request, saying it was impossible to predict the future.

The board voted to send the latest version out for a 15-day comment period over the protest of a dozen representatives of education groups. They objected that the State Department of Education released its 47-page response to their earlier suggestions for the regulations only that morning and that it’s inappropriate to time the next comment period with the Christmas break.

Board member James Aschwanden agreed, saying that “we have compelling interest to do things right and  should ensure that regulations are developed in a thoughtful and reflective way.” A comment period at the end of December “sets the wrong tone.”

But the majority of board members also hear a clock ticking. Gov.-elect Jerry Brown has the option of appointing seven new board members. Knowing that the January meeting may be their last, they appear to want  to wrap up the regulations before they leave.

At the start of hearing, outgoing Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss and departing Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the parent-trigger bill as part of the state’s Race to the Top legislation last January, urged the board not to weaken the regulations.