The first attempt to use a controversial "parent trigger" law to convert a regular public school into a charter school has raised at least one key question: Just how public should the petition drive to gather the parent signatures needed to trigger the change be?
On Dec. 7 a majority of parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton Unified School District filed a petition demanding that their school be turned into a charter school, and naming the charter school company (Celerity Educational Group) that would take it over.
The petition was the end result of a stealth campaign led by Parent Revolution, a nonprofit organization closely allied with the charter school movement, headed by Ben Austin, who is also a member of the State Board of Education. (For a remarkably detailed account, read this report in LA Weekly by Patrick McDonald who was "embedded" with the campaign, but did not report on it until it was over.)
Since then, rancor and controversy has broken out, with some parents saying they were tricked into signing the petition, and other parents who signed the petition saying they are being intimidated into withdrawing their signatures. The State Board of Education has referred allegations (and counter-allegations) to the California attorney general – currently Gov.-elect Jerry Brown – for investigation.
The law [PDF] allows a total of 75 schools around the state to use the "parent trigger" option. It has also sparked interest nationally from politicians like Rahm Emanuel, now running for mayor in Chicago, to interest groups like the conservative Heartland Institute [PDF]. So the conflict at McKinley, and how it is resolved, has relevance far beyond Compton.
But he said his organization had no choice but to secretly gather the signatures, to avoid the "lies and intimidation" that would be directed at parents seeking change at a school where he said less than 50 percent of students graduate, and less than 2 percent graduate with the credits they need to go to college.
"All we are doing is using the exact same tactics that unions use when they organize workers," he said. "We are running up against the same lies threats and public intimidation … that workers all over America run into when they try to organize a union," and for which secrecy is sometimes needed.
As a result, while Parent Revolution was tracking down parents and getting their signatures, the McKinley PTA and school administrators were completely in the dark. Jo Loss, president of the California State PTA, said that when the law was being debated exactly a year ago in Sacramento in a special pre-Christmas legislative session called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, her organization pushed unsuccessfully for more transparency in the process.
The State PTA tried to convince lawmakers to require that an "intent to file a petition" be submitted to a school district before the beginning of a petition drive, and that public meetings be required. "We think parents are well-qualified to make this decision, but they need to get accurate information about what all their options are under the law, and also what is happening at their school now," she said. She noted that the Compton petition presented parents with a single option – turning their school in a charter school – and parents didn't have the opportunity to review other options allowed under the law. Those include replacing half the staff, finding a new principal, or closing the school altogether and sending students to schools with higher test scores.
More fundamentally, she said, the PTA questions the notion of using a petition to force major changes, including closure, at a school. "A petition is not a meaningful, thoughtful process for school reform," she said.
Ted Mitchell, president of the State Board of Education and a strong supporter of the law, told California Watch that "transparency is always a good thing" and "the broader the discussion the better." But he said that the parent trigger is designed to be a last resort. Before parents turn to it, he said, the school should have been aware of their concerns and responded to them. "The school should be engaging parents in a conversation well before the parents feel they must wrest control of the school away from the district," he said.
Outgoing State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said that the law "is an example of a good idea not being fully vetted" before it was enacted. He said that the California Department of Education had "no input into the process," and that the impetus for reform should come from the school itself, "not from another entity pushing parents to pull the trigger." He also worried that the law would be used just to push charter schools, not to consider all the other reform options it allows.
The California Teachers Association denied suggestions that it is involved in intimidating parents. CTA spokesperson Frank Wells said that the parent trigger law, which the CTA vigorously opposed when it was being debated in the Legislature, "has been a vehicle for an outside agency to agitate." He said that transforming the school should not consist of "a stealth campaign dealing with people one-on-one, but getting everyone in an open room to talk about what is going on in the school, what improvements have been made, and what options are open to parents to turn things around."
As things currently stand, the parent trigger law is completely silent on whether all parents at a school should be involved in the process, and how open, or furtive, it should be. Said Parent Revolution's Ben Austin, "If there were ground rules, and there was an enforcement mechanism, so parents could actually be free of intimidation, of course we would be OK with that." If the various dissenting parties could devise ground rules along those lines, that may help resolve at least this dimension of a debate that has real-life consequences for children and their parents around California.