Parent groups and charter schools are the beneficiaries of education reform passed by the state Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger January 6th that will give them greater access in influencing public education in California.

The new legislation was passed in conjunction with the state’s desire to access funds from Race to the Top, an education program initiated by the administration of President Barack Obama.

California stands to obtain $700 million of the $4.3 billion that will be allocated by the federal government if school districts agree to specific reform measures, which may include closing “failing” schools and reopening them as charters, permitting parents to move their children to higher achieving schools or firing principals at low-performing schools.

In certain school districts, teacher evaluations would be linked to student performance, an element of the bills that many teachers unions across the state, including Los Angeles’ largest union, United Teachers Los Angeles, vigorously oppose.

Schwarzenegger praised the legislation as a new beginning for parental empowerment.

“Now, parents have the right to free their children from underperforming schools without a principal’s permission,” the governor said days after he signed the education reform. “That means parents can send their children to a new school or even a new district. That is a great freedom.”

The education measures focus on a school district’s lowest achieving schools, which judge student performance based on Academic Performance Index (API) test scores. The baseline for a school that is performing well is 800.

But test scores are not the only way to determine if a school is making significant progress, says Lonnie Wallace, principal of Venice High School.

“There are a number of other factors that should be considered when determining whether or not a school is showing improvement,” Wallace said.

The Board of Education of the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) January 5th that details its collaboration with the state to win federal funding from the Race to the Top initiative.

“These grant funds can help us to provide innovative programs and better schools. We are committed to improving public education in our district,” LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said. “We will do everything possible to ensure our students get a fair share of that money.”

Heather Kahler, a Venice mother of two whose daughter attends Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School, has a different view on the state’s decision to apply for the federal funding.

“Now lawmakers want to relieve themselves of the responsibility of education being up to the standard it should be in this country so they can get more money to put into a system they deprived in the first place,” Kahler, who is a member of her daughter’s school booster club, asserted. “Schools do need to be held accountable, but it begins at a fundamental level. The schools need to have a budget, equipment, and an environment that can allow that to happen.”

Locally, the concept of the ability of parental power to bring change to schools has been taking shape over the last few years. Last August, the LAUSD school board voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution that will allow charter schools, independent school operators and even LAUSD to take over what the school district classifies as “failing schools” in the hope of improving student achievement.

“The School Choice Initiative” was backed by the Parent Revolution and by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who campaigned throughout the city for the proposal last year.

Villaraigosa characterized the initiative as a reform tool that would allow parents to have a stronger voice in reshaping their children’s academic future.

“This is about giving parents the choices that will force schools to improve or close down,” the mayor said.

The resolution opens up 250 schools, including 50 new ones, to charters and other entities that would assume leadership of the educational institutions.

“This is much more than a vehicle to help California gain ‘Race To the Top’ funds,” said Ben Austin, executive director of the Parent Revolution. “It’s a complete shift in paradigm about how we think about education reform.”

The Parent Revolution is a group of parents who have grown increasingly frustrated with LAUSD and have begun demanding changes to how the district educates its approximately 700,000 students. Last summer, they signed a petition demanding that LAUSD transform their schools from what many consider to be failing institutions into high quality schools.

The organization has ties to Green Dot Charter Schools, which has been seeking an increased presence on the Westside. Austin, a former Villaraigosa aide who at one time considered running for the District 4 school board seat, is a former Green Dot executive.

“I joined the Parent Revolution because it is a voice for parents,” said Venice resident Claudia Trevizan, whose daughter is in third grade at Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista. “It seems like every other group at LAUSD has a union or a voice, and this is an organization that can help us change the way our children are being taught.”

Kahler took issue with the notion that firing principals would solve many of a school’s woes.

“Parents removing a principal is only directing aim at part of the problem. There are so many other factors that go into this,” Kahler said. “At a school, success is measured on parent involvement, socioeconomic status, quality of teachers, quality of surrounding environment, and the prior knowledge and attitude that a child brings with them to the classroom.”

Like Wallace, Kahler, who is studying at Loyola Marymount University to become a teacher, thinks there are many intangibles that should be considered when judging a teacher, an administrator or a child’s performance.

“Are (the students’) parents providing them with safety, nourishment, shelter and a non-abusive home? How is a child who is afraid to go home every day or has little to go home to supposed to concentrate on success in school when their parents are abusive, divorcing, or on drugs?” Kahler asked.

Wallace believes that parents play a vital role in their children’s education, as do principals and teachers. But she has mixed feeling regarding parent groups dismissing principals that they feel are unproductive.

“In some instances, students, parents, principals and teachers, if they believe that they have positive ideas about enhancing student achievement, that could be a valuable thing,” she acknowledged. “But teachers and principals are the professionals, we’re trained how to educate students and we are here everyday.”

The Venice High principal said that to classify a school as “failing” based solely on test scores relies on an incomplete analysis of any educational institution.

“When a school is moving in a positive direction from where it was and it continues to make progress, you cannot call it a ‘failing’ school,” she said.

Steve Zimmer, who represents Mar Vista, Del Rey, Westchester and Venice on the LAUSD school board, did not return calls for comment on this story.

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