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.”

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.)

Compton parents pull parent trigger

Today, parents at a Compton Unified elementary school will become the first in the state to use  a new “parent trigger” law. They will  demand that an outside  charter school operator be brought in to take over their low-performing school. Organizers predict that parent groups in other districts, fed up with poor achievement and unsuccessful district reforms, will follow the lead of McKinley Elementary parents.

Confident that they have more than the majority of families’ signatures needed to exercise their right, the parents plan to drop off  their petitions  at the Compton Unified’s central office. The petition asks the board specifically to bring in Celerity Educational Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that runs four charter schools, starting next fall.

The Legislature passed the “parent trigger” law in January as part of legislation to strengthen the state’s unsuccessful Race to the Top application. The provision was pushed  by Los Angeles Sen. Gloria Romero and opposed strongly by the California Teachers Assn. A half-dozen other states are considering adopting California’s law.

Under parent trigger, a majority of parents within a school can request one of four reform options similar to models that the Obama administration is requiring for failing schools: closing it down, transforming it through a longer day and other changes, restarting it with mostly new teachers and a new principal, and converting to a charter school. Most parents are expected to pursue the latter option, and the burden will be on district trustees to justify why they shouldn’t agree to that choice.

Schools that have failed to make targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law four consecutive years qualify for the parent trigger – about 1,300 of  the state’s 10,000 schools. The law capped the number of parent trigger schools at 75. Getting enough signatures, amid expected opposition of teachers and districts, could prove daunting in many cases.

Last month, the Little Hoover Commission endorsed the parent trigger in a  report on charter schools, saying: “This latest development expanding opportunities for parents to petition to convert existing schools into charter schools is another step in the right direction, …  The Commission believes that parents should have the opportunity to petition to convert poor-performing schools into charter schools.”

Parents at the 500-student McKinley Elementary have been organizing since the summer, according to Ben Austin, a member of the State Board of Education and a leader of Parent Revolution, a non-profit organization  that that lobbied for the law and has sought out parents to take advantage of it. Austin said he’s confident McKinley leaders have gathered signatures of 62 percent of parents. Under temporary regulations adopted by the State Board of Education, parents are entitled to one signature per student.

“It’s been an uphill fight,” Austin said. “The district holds all the cards. Only it knows the enrollment numbers and controls contact information for parents.” Organizers had to counter lies by opponents, Austin said, that a charter school would charge tuition and exclude special education students.

McKinley Elementary, with low-income minority children, scored in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide, with an API score of 684, an increase of 26 points from 2009.  African-American children’s scores dropped seven points to 635.

The district itself has struggled for years. Only 47 percent of students graduate, and only 3 percent of  seniors – one tenth of the statewide average – have passed enough courses with high enough grades to qualify for a four-year public university.

In a scathing evaluation of the district this fall,  a state District Assistance and Intervention Team concluded, “We remain deeply concerned about the commitment to student achievement across the district, and have grave reservations at this time, about the capacity of the District to make significant gains for students.” The report cited a focus on “adult issues as a priority before student needs;” a lack of civility and respect for people in meetings and during school visits; and a failure to hold adults accountable for their work and for unethical behavior.

Parent, charter activist nominated to State Board of Education

Gov. Schwarzenegger isn’t backing down from nominating reform advocates and charter school supporters to the State Board of Education.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger announced three nominations to the 11-member board. Two – Ben Austin and Alan Arkatov – are charter advocates. Arkatov is a board member of the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, which runs 16 highly-respected  charter schools in Los Angeles, although that’s just one of his roles. He is well-connected in Los Angeles Unified and served as president of  eEducation Group earlier in the decade  and was founder and chairman of OnlineLearning.net before that.

As executive director of the Los Angeles Parents Union and Parents Revolution, Austin was a force behind the “parent trigger” that the Legislature adopted in its Race to the Top legislation in January. It empowers a majority of parents at low-performing schools to petition their local school board for a change in their school’s leadership and governance, including conversion to a charter school. Austin was a consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter organization in Los Angeles, before that.

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