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Stealth charter school campaign draws criticism

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

Parent Revolution's Austin told California Watch in a telephone interview that ideally the process would be more transparent, involving an open discussion among parents and other interested parties, with a democratic vote taken at a public meeting at the end of it. "I absolutely agree that this would be the ideal way to handle this. The more sunlight on this the better, because the facts are on our side," he said. 

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. 


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


Comments are closed for this story.
Caroline Grannan's picture
There's a gaping flaw in Ben Austin's dishonest effort to compare the predatory attack on a challenged, high-need school community to a union organizing drive.

The Parent Trigger operation targeting McKinley Elementary was orchestrated by professionals, funded by billionaires and corporate titans, and applauded by the leader of the free world (reportedly), as well as the governor of California, the mayor of Los Angeles and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. This is not a “revolution of the little people," as it has been (variously) cluelessly or dishonestly portrayed.

According to the Los Angeles Weekly, Parent Revolution “has 10 full-time staff members and a $1 million annual operating budget, is funded by blue-chip philanthropic endeavors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation [of Wal-Mart]."

Parent Revolution, not McKinley parents, launched and ran the petition drive. As the L.A. Weekly wrote: "Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. ... [Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben] Austin and his staff surveyed parents at several schools in Compton, asking if they were interested in a transformation. ... field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton, knocking on hundreds of doors, walking its sidewalks and driving its streets, asking people if their children attend McKinley, making contacts."

Needless to say, an organizing drive from within a school community does not require paid organizers to cold-call all over town, asking strangers if their children attend the school.

It's hard to understand Jack O'Connell's characterizing the Parent Trigger law as a "good idea" when it's evident to anyone who has ever been part of a school community, or a close observer of one, that it would be guaranteed to rip the school community apart, igniting conflict, hostility and -- yes -- undoubtedly intimidation.

And that's what has happened at McKinley, with (according to the L.A. Weekly) 200 angry parents protesting the impending charterization at a meeting of the Compton Board of Education. Parent Revolution's this-is-the-best-we-can-do damage-control strategy has focused on accusing the parents who are NOT on the side supported by the billionaires and politicos of intimidation.

By the way, a spokesman for the Heartland Institute has posted comments about the Parent Trigger on a number of websites, applauding it as a route to eliminating public education, which is a key goal of the Heartland Institute. I agree with that spokesman that the Parent Trigger, should it function as intended, would indeed be a step toward eliminating public education -- though we hold opposite views on whether that's a good thing.

SharonH's picture

The Parent Trigger is just another undemocratic ed “reform” venture that blocks the presentation of opposing views and the delivery of important background information. As the PTA said, if public meetings had been called to have a discussion and debate about the petition and charter conversion, then parents would have become acquainted with the pros and cons of ALL options and could have made a more fully informed decision.

But the organizers knew if that had happened, the parents also might have also heard some unsavory things about Parent Revolution. They might have heard the voices of people who challenge Parent Revolution’s stated motives. They might have learned enough to realize that they were being made into pawns for a behind-the-scenes privatization scheme. They might have learned that there is a very dark side to the billionaire-funded “reform” projects.

I’m still trying to figure out SEIU’s role in all of this. In following the money (Form 990s):

- In 2005, the Broad Foundation gave $100,000 to the Small Schools Alliance. This was the year the organization was founded; its total revenue was $980,608. In those days, the SSA seemed to be a promotional arm of Green Dot in the guise of conducting research and informing the public about “small schools.” In 2005, $104,910 was spent on student/parent workers, $343,565 was spent on advertising, and $468,286 was spent on consultants.

- In 2006, the Broad Foundation gave $64,750 to the SEUI, "To engage SEIU members in Los Angeles around an education reform package to change the Los Angeles Unified School District.” Mmmmm…interesting.

- In 2007, the Small Schools Alliance officially changed its name to Los Angeles Parent Union. That was the year it received a total of $150,000 from the Broad Foundation: $75,000 “To match SEIU funds to support the Small Schools Alliance launch of the Los Angeles Parent Union” PLUS $75,000 “To match SEIU funds to support the Small Schools Alliance business plan of the Los Angeles Parent Union.” The total revenue of the LAPU that year was $324,628.

- The Broad Foundation and SEIU each gave $25,000 to the LAPU in 2008.

Given that the SEIU has been in support of activities that weaken the UTLA, I’m curious about the current relationship between the two. I doubt SEIU members would appreciate a reciprocal effort put forth by UTLA.

Also, Austin's rationale for his organization's secrecy doesn't work for me. The reason trade union organizers have gone about it quietly is because engaging in those activities threatened their livelihoods, and even their lives. Austin demonstrates his contempt for McKinley's teachers by comparing that historical situation to their desire to express their point of view to the parents of the school.

Django's picture
The "parent trigger" as implemented is not about parent empowerment; it's about shifting power from local boards of education to private interests.

As an active parent, I had hoped that the first implementation of the trigger law would be accompanied by a parent education/engagement process similar to Site Council training. It would include how to analyze achievement data, information about all transformation options and a vigorous school-wide discussion to determine the optimal plan that would best serve the needs of the students and surrounding community. This process must be organic. To effect a sustainable transformation, it must be initiated by, decided by and supported by the stakeholders most closely affected.

That is not what happened in Compton.

If the California parent trigger is to be a model law, its first implementation should have been initiated by an informed parent community, from within – not imposed from without.

We should all be alarmed. A member of the State Board of Education, Ben Austin, had a hand in drafting the policies and rules for the trigger, runs an organization (Parent Revolution) that campaigned for the trigger, actively played a matchmaker role in soliciting a school for the test case, chose the conversion option and chose the charter agency. This is a clear and disturbing conflict.

Further clarification of the parent trigger rules and policies should be undertaken by the yet-to-be-appointed new members of the State Board of Education. Any members with conflicts should be recused from participation. The McKinley trigger application should be suspended until implementation policies are clearly defined.
Louis Freedberg's picture

Thanks for these very interesting comments, which raise additional questions which I hope to look into in the New Year. I did not mention that there is a 15 day comment period for the permanent regulations covering the "parent trigger" law currently in effect. You can read here CTA's many amendments to the regulations approved by the board on December 14. http://www.scribd.com/doc/45848210/CTA

EducationTruth's picture
Dear Mr. Freedberg; I read your article “Stealth charter school campaign draws criticism” with much interest. Ben Austin, who is on the State Board of Education as well as closely aligned with Parent Revolution part of the charter school movement has put himself in a conflict of interest position. Parent Trigger is undemocratic and does not follow the values of our country as it is all about lack of transparency. I find his lame excuse for secretly gathering signatures to be insulting to the parent’s and their intelligence. Austin then correlates the poor tests and graduation results of the children from Compton as somehow the reason the parents cannot be trusted to make sound decisions based on fact but on trickery. This whole charter school movement is full of money grabbing people who have less than honorable intentions. It would be interesting to find out if Ben Austin is somehow financially tied to this Charter School management company. It is bad enough in the USA we have 150 charter schools that are managed by the Gulen Movement. Have you heard of exiled Islamic Imam Fethullah Gulen? Read any of Ex-FBI Turkish translator Sibel Dengiz Edmond’s information and how Sibel in an August 2009 deposition refers to “Fethullah Gulen as being 100% a threat to US Security”. Gulen has an ambition to dominate and control: media, interfaith dialog, politics, education, military and police. The Gulen Movement in Turkey has successfully done this and is currently under investigation. The Gulen Movement or Hizmet gains support with bribes, FREE trips to Turkey for politicians, academia and media. They also are big on giving out awards and honors at their Gulen Insititute dinners throughout the country. Did you know that these Gulen managed Charter schools are the #1 importer of teachers? Most come from Turkic Islamic countries. This adds to the long numbers of unemployed American teachers who are catching the blame for everything. We hope you can do an investigative article about them. This is a dismantling of the American Public School system for profit. The $billions these people and their NGOs make off with is staggering, not to mention they use Contractors from their own circle to build the schools or have one purchase the building they are in and the inflated rent/lease money goes to another country.
Caroline Grannan's picture
Louis, here are some other things to ask about.

As I understand it, the law establishing the Parent Trigger actually allows votes/signatures by certain categories of individuals outside a school's current parent community. I haven't researched this beyond seeing press reports, all of which have been a little vague. The reports generally indicate that parents living in the school's catchment area who are POTENTIAL parents at the school can vote too. How would that be defined? (Are non-parents who plan to have kids included? Parents at other schools who might transfer their kids? etc. etc.)

There is another Parent Trigger situation (McKinley actually isn't the first, as far as I can see) in which the entire move is led by a FORMER parent at the school-- that one is Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland/Tujunga. (Parent Revolution is involved in that one, of course, though it's not as clear as it is in the McKinley case that Parent Revolution initiated and orchestrated it before seeking out parents to use as front persons.)

Here are things I'd want to know if I were looking into this situation in a role beyond parent volunteer observer:

-- Exactly what categories are allowed as potential voters/petition signatories in a Parent Trigger situation?

-- How are the signatures/votes verified as belonging to individuals in those categories?

-- Were all the signatures on the McKinley parent trigger petition from actual current parents in the school or were the other categories of voters included (unnoticed by the press, if so)?

-- Does every parent in a school get a vote -- one vote per parent or one vote per child? Does that mean single parents simply get less representation, and parents with several kids in the school get more votes than parents of one kid?

-- Are there parents at McKinley who were actually unaware of this petition drive?

The fact that the covert nature of the petition drive meant there was no debate about the pros and cons of turning the school over to the Celerity charter chain has been seriously underplayed in the discussion, in my view, so thank you for taking a look at it.

Also, by the way, I note that Parent Revolution seems to be trying to paint the McKinley PTA as part of the establishment from which the petition drive was necessarily concealed. That's really strange in that the membership and leadership of a school PTA consists of parents in the school, usually with a few teachers sprinkled in. How could the PTA leadership be unaware of the petition drive unless it was concealed from a fair number of parents in the school? How can the petition be given any validity if not all parents in the school were even aware of it?

The amount of credibility this Parent Revolution project has been given, considering the glaring questions about it, is really startling.

Caroline Grannan's picture
Thanks for the link to the CTA response. That provides some idea of the specifics as to the signatories, and it clarifies what I've read -- that prospective parents in the school are also allowed to sign the petitions. I'm also curious about the Mount Gleason Middle School case in Sunland/Tujunga. There are news stories online describing THAT as the first use of the Parent Trigger -- any reporter can find them within 10-15 grueling seconds -- so why is this case being described far and wide as the first use of the Parent Trigger? At Mount Gleason, the campaign is being led by a FORMER parent at the school -- thus someone who's apparently not qualified to sign the petition. What's that about? (Also, if you search around beyond the mainstream news coverage, you learn that her sole goal is to replace the principal -- not charterize, close down or restructure the school.)
Caroline Grannan's picture
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