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California

Larry Sand
Trigger Tremors
California’s parent-empowerment law gains ground—and meets new resistance.
8 August 2013

Last week, parents in the Southern California desert city of Adelanto celebrated the opening of the first school transformed under the state’s 2010 parent-empowerment law, also known as the parent trigger. After two San Bernardino County Superior Court judges upheld their petition to take control of foundering Desert Trails Elementary School, parents selected a nonprofit charter operator to reopen the school as Desert Trails Preparatory Academy. But even as parents celebrate their accomplishments in Adelanto and elsewhere, school-reform opponents are renewing their efforts to undermine the law.

Under the law, if a majority of parents with children at a failing public school sign a petition, they can “trigger” a change in the school’s governance, forcing the school district to adopt one of a handful of reforms: getting rid of some teachers, firing the principal, shutting the school down, or turning it into a charter school. The legislation, authored by former state senator Gloria Romero, empowers parents to circumvent sclerotic school boards and obstructionist teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions recognized the danger at once, which helps explain why California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittleman called Romero’s bill a “lynch mob provision.”

Desert Trails was a hard-won fight. In January 2012, parents submitted 466 signatures to the Adelanto Elementary School District, representing 70 percent of the 665 students enrolled. Within days, the California Teachers Association launched a counter-petition drive—just as it had done successfully against a parent-trigger petition drive a year earlier in Compton. But this time, parents sued the school district to accept their petition and reject the CTA’s eleventh-hour rescission campaign. (City Journal’s Ben Boychuk chronicles the Adelanto effort in The Beholden State: California’s Lost Promise and How to Recapture It.)

Since the Desert Trails parents won their victory, parents at three other Southern California schools have availed themselves of the law. Parents at Haddon Avenue Elementary School in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima gathered some of the signatures they needed to trigger staff and other changes at the school, but they suspended their petition drive when administrators and teachers agreed to an in-district reform plan. At 24th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles, parents overwhelmingly approved a collaborative partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and Crown Prep Academy, a charter operator. Under a plan that takes effect next week, the district will be responsible for instruction in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, and Crown Prep will oversee fifth through eighth grade. In an unusual circumstance, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, happy to be included in the process, was a willing party to the conversion at 24th Street Elementary. But UTLA chief Warren Fletcher, no fan of the law, warned that the union was “watching what happens at 24th Street and other schools—watching to see if it destabilizes the schools.” What Fletcher doesn’t seem to understand is that poorly performing schools are destabilized already.

Meanwhile, parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in L.A. petitioned for a “transformation” model, allowing them to replace the school’s principal and make other structural changes at the campus. Weigand’s parents voted to keep all the teachers but get rid of Irma Cobian, the principal who had let the school deteriorate during her four years on the job. You wouldn’t know that from reading the Los Angeles Times, though. In a one-sided story, reporter Teresa Watanabe claimed that “teachers and students alike loved the principal.” Watanabe cited a student’s claim that “Cobian is a special principal who gives her hugs and understands her struggles,” such as losing her father to cancer last year. Only in passing did Watanabe acknowledge that some parents were dissatisfied with Cobian and with the school’s administration, or that a group of parents and teachers in 2011 submitted “no confidence” letters about Cobian to district officials. And crucially, Watanabe failed to note that, prior to Cobian’s arrival in 2009, the school’s score on the Academic Performance Index—the state’s annual measure of test-score performance of schools and districts—was 717, or 23 points above the city’s average. By the close of the 2011–12 school year, Weigand’s API had plummeted to 689, or 57 points below the city’s average. Only a handful of elementary schools in Los Angeles fared worse during that period.

The Times’s soft-pedaling galvanized parent-trigger opponents. Diane Ravitch, a onetime reformer who is now a teachers’-union stalwart, used Watanabe’s story to attack Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles–based advocacy group that has helped organize parents across the Southland. “Ben Austin is loathsome,” Ravitch wrote on her blog. “He ruined the life and career of a dedicated educator [Cobian]. She was devoted to the children; he is devoted to the equally culpable foundations that fund his Frankenstein organization—Walton, Gates, and Broad. His biggest funder is the reactionary Walton Family Foundation, which spends $160 million every year to advance privatization. Ben Austin is Walton’s useful idiot. He prattles on about his liberal credentials, but actions speak louder than words.” She ended her post with a curse: “Ben, every day when you wake up, you should think of Irma Cobian. When you look in the mirror, think Irma Cobian. Your last thought every night should be Irma Cobian. Ben, you ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre. Never forget her. She should be on your conscience—if you have one—forever.” Ravitch’s inflammatory attack invited heated rebuttals from prominent education writers and bloggers, including Rick Hess, Joanne Jacobs, RiShawn Biddle, Whitney Tilson, and Alexander Russo. Eventually, Ravitch issued a tepid apology.

Ravitch wasn’t the only anti-reformer opposing parents’ efforts. Claiming that 14 schools were targeted for future petitions—Parent Revolution puts that number at 50—UTLA held a press conference and demonstration against the parent-trigger law at Weigand in May. Then in June, at a Los Angeles school board meeting at which the parent trigger was on the agenda, board member Steve Zimmer offered a resolution calling for a change in the state law that would bring “more transparency to the signature-gathering process.” Seconding Zimmer’s resolution, UTLA boss Fletcher denounced the parent trigger as a “bad law” and a “cruel hoax” that “guarantees bad outcomes.” He finished on a solemn note, warning that “a system based on hatred hurts children.” This was interesting talk from the leader of an organization whose mandate is to protect teachers at any cost, with practically no regard for children’s best interests.

In response, Parent Revolution’s deputy director, Gabe Rose, issued a statement supporting the part of Zimmer’s proposal that would give parents more information “on the state of their children’s schools.” He praised the resolution’s emphasis on accurate data and making options available to parents. But he fiercely condemned “the continued harassment and intimidation of parents—too often by district staff using district resources—who are trying to organize to improve their children’s low performing schools.” Parents, their children, and their communities cannot wait for school districts to phase in incremental reforms. The parent-trigger law is the best thing to happen to them in years. Parent empowerment clearly threatens the education status quo, and the status quo is pushing back. But as events in Adelanto and Los Angeles show, parents aren’t willing to back down so easily.

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