After listening to dozens of Los Angeles parents and education reform advocates, the state Board of Education announced Feb. 9 that it will consider regulations for a controversial law that allows for far-reaching change at what some consider low-performing schools, in some cases by converting the existing school to a charter.
The Parent Empowerment law (Senate Bill X5 4) was part of school reform legislation passed last year to help California pursue “Race to the Top” federal funding. It provides parents of pupils in what some consider low-achieving or “failing” schools the ability to petition the school district to reform the institution where their child is or will be enrolled.
In order to pull the “parent trigger,” more than 50 percent of parents at the school must sign a petition requesting the change.
Reform advocates from Los Angeles, including representatives of the Parent Revolution, one of the principal sponsors of the parent trigger law, traveled to Sacramento to lodge their complaints and offer their thoughts on education and the parent trigger.
Board President Michael Kirst stated that the visits by concerned parents would give the board more insight into what they will consider at the March meeting.
“Their comments will add great value to this discussion and will help the board explore all sides of this issue,” he said.
California schools that are on Program Improvement Year Three or above, have an Academic Performance Index (API) score of lower than 800 and are not classified as one of the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state are eligible for takeover under the current guidelines.
Program Improvement is a component of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that mandates that each school adopt accountability measures known as Adequate Yearly Progress. If a school does not meet its progress goals, which include API scores, graduation levels and student participation rates in testing, it is placed in Program Improvement.
Braddock Drive and Stoner Avenue elementary schools and Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester, Grand View Elementary and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista and Venice High School are on the Parent Revolution’s list of 75 schools that are eligible for use of the parent trigger.
The Parent Revolution, a nonprofit school reform organization that has members from Venice and Westchester and ties to Green Dot Charter Schools, assisted a group of parents in Compton Dec. 7 in the first attempt to use the new law. After hearing from parents who both support and oppose the move to change McKinley Elementary School to a charter, the state Board of Education asked the state attorney general to open an investigation into the events surrounding the use of the controversial law.
Kirst said his board welcomed the feedback from the parents who came to Sacramento to address him and his colleagues.
“We were delighted to see parents and get their comments regarding parent empowerment,” he said. “The board will be listening and will work to turn this public dialogue into a fair process for parents as well as school districts that will need guidance in implementing this new law.”
Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin appeared to take exception with comments made by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torkalson, who has indicated that he wants to “clean up” the new law.
“It is pretty obvious to anyone who is paying attention what is going on here: this is nothing more than a naked effort to roll back or repeal the entire parent trigger law under the guise of ‘fixing’ it,” Austin accused in an e-mail.
Austin, a former Green Dot board member, was removed from the state board when Gov. Jerry Brown took office in January.
Feelings about the parent trigger run the gamut. Anne Wexler, a Westchester attorney whose daughter recently graduated from Westchester High School, thinks the law has merit.
“I think (the) parent trigger is great, and I find it amazing that the education establishment is so threatened by this law,” said Wexler, who is trying to start a charter middle school in Westchester. “Everyone else has enormous power over our schools, and our kids.
“So parents get a tiny bit of power and everyone goes berserk.”
Grand View Elementary School Principal Alfredo Ortiz said his school has been submitted by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education to allow for a possible charter school at the Mar Vista K-5 because of available classroom space. The school is on the Parent Revolution’s list for the parent trigger, but Ortiz does not view it as a failing school.
“All I can say is our school is thriving. The last few years, we’ve gone up 81 points,” Ortiz, who has been at the elementary school for three years, noted of the API score. “We’re doing a lot of intervention here and a lot of the things that make instruction and student focus a priority for us.
“I can’t help but think that we’re riding a huge wave of success right now.”
Parent Revolution Deputy Director Gabe Rose said his organization is not opposed to adding regulations to the parent trigger law. “It’s critical to write regulations that empower parents, not school districts and bureaucrats,” Rose told The Argonaut.
United Teachers Los Angeles President A. J. Duffy said reviewing the law was a sound decision.
“We’re very heartened that the state Board of Education has decided to take a look at this law,” Duffy said. “We know that signature gathering is often done in a very undemocratic way and is often problematic.”
Rose said that his organization backs the Free Choice Act, which many unions also support. “We just want parents to have the same rights that workers do,” he countered.
Duffy, whose teachers union has been a bitter rival with Rose and Austin’s group on school reform, claimed the Parent Revolution is behind much of the unpleasantness that surrounds the controversy of the parent trigger.
“The way that they have gone about what they call ‘reform’ is inherently undemocratic and it has been done with subterfuge,” the UTLA president accused. “We will be taking this opportunity to get up to speed on this law and looking at what options that we and parents will have after the state board gives its recommendations.”
Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe thinks the state board should take into account student achievement when considering any new guidelines.
“I do believe the performance metrics should be the most important part of the March review,” said DeSobe, a former Compton Unified School District teacher. “I appreciate the need for clarity on logistics related to public meetings, petition disclosure, and signature gathering, but the focus must be on whether or not the change produces improved student learning.
“And if it doesn’t, then what?” he continued. “There is no time to waste.”
Charter schools have begun to expand into the Westside. Along with Animo Venice Charter High School, Green Dot is seeking space on the campus of Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice for a charter middle school, which has left many parents at the K-5 school worried.
At a Feb. 4 assembly, Westminster Avenue parents expressed concern over the number of classrooms that Green Dot has requested, as well as the possibility of losing a favorite after school program.
Green Dot operates Animo Charter, which shares the campus with a traditional school, Broadway Elementary.
Ortiz says regardless of what happens with the parent trigger law, he plans to concentrate on making his school better.
“I just have to stay committed to our kids, to this community,” he said. “The one thing that I would ask of the Parent Revolution and these charter movements is to think about our kids; think about the English learners, our students with disabilities, with special needs.”
One of the knocks on some charter organizations is that they do not accept as many special needs and English as a Second Language children as traditional schools do.
“Are you willing to meet the needs of these students?” Ortiz asked. “That’s what our clientele is, and I feel that we at Grand View Elementary have done a very good job in meeting the needs of these students.”
The state board will meet March 9-10 on the parent trigger issue.