An investigation of the state law that allows public schools to be converted into charter schools has sparked a new discussion on the legislation among parents in Westchester and Venice, and how criteria deriving from it can affect how an institution is viewed by local communities and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The “parent trigger,” which allows parents whose children attend what LAUSD considers a “failing” school to request a conversion to a charter school if they acquire 60 percent of parental signatures, is facing its first test since the law was passed last year. The Parent Revolution, a nonprofit school reform organization that has members from Venice and Westchester and ties to Green Dot Charter Schools, was involved in the first implementation of the new law at McKinley Elementary School in Compton last month.

Parents for and against the charter conversion have lodged allegations of intimidation, lying and threats against each other in the initial use of the parent trigger.

The state law, passed last year by the Legislature, applies to every school in California that is on Program Improvement Year Three or above, has an Academic Performance Index (API) score of under 800, and is not classified as one of the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state.

The state Board of Education has asked the California attorney general to look into what transpired in Compton, and the fruits of that probe could have wide-ranging reverberations on how the parent trigger law is implemented throughout the state.

State Board of Education President Theodore Mitchell wrote a letter last month to then Attorney General Jerry Brown asking him 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.

Mitchell’s request 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.

Orville Wright Elementary School in Westchester is one of 75 schools on the state list where the parent trigger could be used, but so far there has been no mention of employing it there.

Mylah Wessels, who is a member of the Orville Wright Parent Teachers Association, like many parents, is aware of what transpired in Compton.

“We have all been keeping an eye on Compton, as they are the first to use the parent trigger law,” she said.

Another Orville Wright parent, Ann Wexler, thinks the new law has merit.

“I think parent trigger is great, and I find it amazing that the education establishment is so threatened by this law that it has to try to rip it apart at the highest level,” Wexler said. “It would almost be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.”

Although the conversion occurred in Compton, parents and educators in Venice, Westchester and Mar Vista are also exploring options for their middle school children. The Parent Revolution has been exploring the creation of a charter middle school in the Venice/Mar Vista area. Wexler is also leading a group of parents who say they are frustrated by LAUSD’s failed promises to grant them more local control over their children’s education and are in the beginning stages of starting a similar school in Westchester.

The parent trigger was designed to target schools that are “failing,” which is often a subjective criteria. Charter proponents frequently cite a school’s API as a crucial barometer for determining whether a school is failing or not.

Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, for example, has an API of 657 but has been hailed as an example by LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines as well as LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer as a school that is improving. Zimmer, who represents District 4, which includes Mar Vista, Del Rey, Westchester and Venice, dismisses the notion that schools like Mark Twain and Orville Wright, which has also seen steady improvement over the last several years, are failing.

“They have made great progress over the last few years,” he said. “From my point of view, schools that have been consistently trending downward despite assistance from the district would be the focus of (a possible takeover from independent operators).

“Mark Twain has been trending upward, and I don’t see that they are at risk to be classified as ‘failing.’”

In 2009, Barbara Einstein, a Venice parent who is a Parent Revolution board member, sent a letter to various booster clubs and parents asking them to gather signatures at their respective schools in order to create a charter middle school. She referenced an August 2009 approval by the LAUSD school board that encourages nonprofit organizations, charter schools and others to bid on 12 low performing and 18 new campuses.

“As you know, on Aug. 25 the Public School Choice Resolution was passed by the LAUSD school board. If implemented correctly, this resolution is going to give parents like us better options and choices in our schools,” Einstein wrote.

“That’s why we are going to begin to collect parent signatures for a new charter middle school in Venice to serve our children. In order to make this charter school possible, we need over 100 signatures from parents of current fifth graders.”

Program Improvement is a component of the national No Child Left Behind Act that mandates that each school adopt accountability measures known as Adequate Yearly Progress for all public schools. 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, which some believe is the district’s vernacular for a “failing” school.

Einstein said she believes that the Parent Revolution will be vindicated when the investigation has concluded.

“I am convinced that (other Parent Revolution members) didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

Parent Revolution Deputy Director Gabe Rose agrees. “We welcome an investigation,” Rose said. “We have documented proof of these threats made by members of the school staff.”

Wexler attended a meeting in Compton before the Dec. 7 controversy and came away impressed with the parents who are charter proponents. She feels that the state investigation can yield potentially important results that can make the transition to charters smoother for schools that wish to convert.

“If (the Parent Revolution) feels comfortable with an investigation, they are probably presuming it will vindicate their actions, so why not,” she said. “Let’s get the process straightened out so it will be easier for other schools to do this.”

Wessels said that charters can provide an alternative to public education, but it often depends on the organization running the school.

“I think it depends on what type of charter it is. Let’s face it, every charter has an agenda, and not all charters take special education students or students who are not performing as well as others,” she noted.

Wessels also strongly disagrees with placing a school that has shown a steady pace of improvement, parental engagement and innovation on campus in the category of failing or in what is known as Program Improvement, the category that Orville Wright is currently in.

“To have that kind of label when we’ve shown a lot of improvement is absolutely ridiculous,” she asserted. “To really know how a school is performing, you have to visit the campus and talk to the staff, the students and teachers and see what’s happening.

“Test scores are not the only thing to consider to determine if a school is failing.”

While she is supportive of the parent trigger, Wexler said she would not like to see Green Dot, which has ties to the Parent Revolution, open a charter middle school in her neighborhood.

“I don’t think we need a Green Dot school in Westchester,” she asserted. “What we need is local control and a school based in the community.”

Zimmer, who also backs the state investigation, thinks that the Compton controversy underscores some inherent problems in the parent trigger law.

“There are some real flaws in the ‘parent trigger’ law that leaves the door wide open to this type of (controversy),” he told The Argonaut.

The school board member said he is not against charter school conversions but he believes that parents – and the public – should know as much about a charter school as possible before they can take over a traditional school, including who is funding the effort, and if they accept only the best students.

“I believe in choice, but I believe in an informed choice,” Zimmer said.

Newly sworn-in Attorney General Kamala Harris will inherit the investigation from Brown, who is now the governor.