The California Board of Education has asked the state attorney general to investigate accusations of improper conduct during a proposed conversion to a charter school in Compton where members of the Parent Revolution, an organization that has actively pursued establishing a charter middle school in the Venice /Mar Vista area are involed.

The allegations stem from a recent attempt by the Parent Revolution to institute one of the first uses of the “parent trigger,” a new, somewhat controversial law that allows a majority of parents at a particular school to take over an institution or seek a conversion to a charter.

On Dec. 7, the parent organization, which is led by Ben Austin, its executive director and a former Green Dot Independent Charter board member, teamed up with a group of Compton parents to become the first school to employ the new state law that allows a school to be converted to charter if 60 percent of parents sign a petition requesting the change.

McKinley Elementary School has been called a “failing school “ by many and was seen by some reform advocates as a beachhead that would give more schools the impetus to initiate their own plans for improved student achievement.

The trigger law provides parents of pupils who are or will be enrolled in any failing school in California the option to petition their local school district to implement reform in the school.

“Accusations of rampant abuse, lying, and intimidation of parents in relation to this petition have recently come to the State Board of Education’s attention. Apparently, there is direct evidence that school district employees used their positions of authority to intimidate and give false information to parents,” Theodore R. Mitchell, the state board president, wrote in a letter to state Attorney General Jerry Brown obtained by the Argonaut. “This behavior is clearly inappropriate and deeply troubling, no matter whether it is perpetrated by school district personnel, teachers, parents, or others.

“There can be no place in the Parent Empowerment process, or in any kind of open democratic process, for that kind of fear tactics and intimidation,” Mitchell continued. “As such, the state Board of Education believes that an investigation is needed to determine the validity of these allegations, identify the responsible parties, and determine if any laws have been violated.”

Mitchell asked Brown to investigate the collection of signatures for the petition, as well as any inappropriate behavior that may have occurred both before and since the petition was submitted to the school district.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who narrowly defeated Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley in November in the race for attorney general, will inherit the case from Brown, who will be sworn in as governor in January after defeating businesswoman Meg Whitman.

The letter was also sent to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and state Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss.

Barbara Einstein, a Venice parent who is a board member of the Parent Revolution, said she does not believe the allegations are true. “I am convinced that (other Parent Revolution members) didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office also weighed in on the charter controversy in a letter to Brown, and appeared to side with the parent reform group.

“I am respectfully requesting that you, as attorney general, immediately investigate these allegations of misinformation and intimidation and pursue any and all legal remedies necessary to preserve the rule of law,” the governor wrote.

Schwarzenegger, who backs the parent trigger, was dismayed over the events in Compton, including many of the accusations lodged by members of the Parent Revolution.

“I am very disturbed by recent reports that parents of students in McKinley Elementary School who supported the parent trigger petition have been subjected to threats and intimidation. The power these parents in Compton are using was lawfully given to them by our Legislature in bipartisan legislation passed and signed into law last year,” the governor wrote. “Instead of being supported in their effort to ensure that their children get the quality education that is a constitutional right, these parents have been subjected to threats and a misinformation campaign. These intimidation tactics are being used in an effort to persuade them to take back their signatures.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy applauded the actions of the state board of education. “I’m glad to see that the attorney general has been asked to be involved in this,” Duffy, who has clashed with what he calls similar tactics on behalf of the Parent Revolution, told The Argonaut. “UTLA strongly believes in active parent engagement in any reform effort, but unlike the Parent Revolution, we’re not just concerned with winning or losing; we’re concerned about what leads to improved student achievement.”

UTLA and Austin’s group wrangled previously over what one side considers parental empowerment and the other characterizes as a “giveaway” of public schools to charters and outside operators. Last September, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted 6-1 for the “School Choice Initiative,” which allows 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 initiative was backed by the Parent Revolution and by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who campaigned throughout the city for the proposal last year.

In February, the local school plans, backed by UTLA, won in 25 out of 29 elections in an advisory vote and 87 percent of voting parents preferred the union plans, prompting accusations of unethical practices by teachers and their allies from the Parent Revolution.

Parent Revolution Deputy Director Gabe Rose said his organization has evidence that parents who signed the petition in Compton were subjected to threats and intimidation, tactics that echo what Duffy claims members of the Parent Revolution have engaged in on prior occasions.

“We welcome an investigation,” Rose said. “We have documented proof of these threats made by members of the school staff.”

Duffy countered that he has heard from parents who are not in favor of the charter movement who allege that some school principals who are receptive to charters have given names to the Parent Revolution to contact.

In his letter, Schwarzenegger touched on some of the most damaging allegations reported by Compton parents who support the parent trigger law. “Parents have been told that supporting the petition will lead to their children being thrown out of school or charged tuition – claims that are completely false,” he wrote. “Undocumented parents have allegedly been told that supporting the reform effort will even lead to their deportation from this country.”

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey in District 4, said the volley of accusations back and forth in Compton are a direct result of a law that is not clearly defined. “There are some real flaws in the ‘parent trigger’ law that leaves the door wide open to this type of (controversy),” Zimmer told The Argonaut. “School communities can successfully have change when all stakeholder groups have full and complete access, not when only one stakeholder group has access.”

Duffy said the accusations made by Compton parents that members of the Parent Revolution were the parties that were engaging in intimidation and scare tactics “ clearly shows a pattern, which is parents being engaged in conversations about things that are not accurate.”

Nicholas Schweizer, the executive director of the state board, said Mitchell’s request was to ask the attorney general to investigate the entire situation that occurred in Compton, not solely allegations made on behalf of either group. “The state board is not taking sides in this dispute,” Schweizer clarified.

Mitchell’s requests also asks the attorney general to determine whether there have been any violations of civil rights or other laws, and to take whatever action is deemed necessary and appropriate.

Asked if she thought the controversy in Compton would thwart efforts in Venice and Mar Vista for a charter school, Einstein, whose four daughters attend Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista, responded, “I don’t have any worries that this will affect our ability to start a charter school. I don’t think that there will be any kind of backlash.”

Rose agrees. “Parents have been working very hard on the Westside for change,” he said. “The only common thread between what happened in Compton and here is that parents are standing up to demand better schools for their kids.”

Zimmer also welcomes the investigation and thinks that it might yield some interesting information. “I think that when you have a radically new public policy like the parent trigger law, the more eyes that are carefully examining how it’s playing out could lead to a better law,” he said.

Duffy says he hopes the investigation is not only a cursory probe. “I hope that it goes very deep,” he said. “It’s about time the public saw what’s going on, which is an effort to siphon away the best students to charter schools.”

In February after the advisory vote on the Public School Choice Initiative, Zimmer made a statement that could shed light on why the two sides appear to be locked in an education reform struggle that has at times resembled warfare.

“When you declare war on people, you have to expect them to act like combatants,” Zimmer stated. “UTLA is acting like a combatant, and when you declare war on someone it is unrealistic to expect them to act in a different way.

“I had hoped that the Parent Revolution would have forged a different path, but they showed no willingness or openness for a different path.”

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