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Pulling the Trigger

California parents take control of schools—and the blob fights back.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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How bad is McKinley Elementary School in Compton, California? Bad enough that in late 2010, over half its students’ parents petitioned the district to transform their inner city public school into a privately operated, publicly funded charter school. 

Compton Parents for Change

Damian Dovarganes / AP

The Parent Empowerment Act, known colloquially as the “parent trigger” law, was enacted in California in 2010 and provides several ways of making drastic changes to low-performing schools. If the parents or guardians of at least 50 percent of the students sign petitions, they can “trigger” a major change, forcing the school to hire new faculty, hire a new principal, close the school entirely, or convert it into a charter school. McKinley parents were the first to take advantage of the new law. Since filing their petitions in December, however, they have met stiff opposition from the district. 

Theresa Theus, an unemployed single mother, says she knew from the beginning she didn’t want her child to go to kindergarten at McKinley. Students there, she says, are undisciplined. The school doesn’t seem to enforce curriculum standards across grade levels, so many students are not learning at the appropriate level. 

“Why should [my child] be held back?” Theus asks in a phone interview. Her older son dropped out in his teens, and she says she doesn’t want the same fate for her five-year-old daughter. Says Theus, “I’m not going to let this child be a failure.” 

It isn’t just parents like Theus who recognize how terrible McKinley is. The school ranks 22nd out of 24 elementary schools in the Compton Unified School District, according to California’s 2009 index of academic performance, which also places the school in the lowest decile of elementary schools in the state. And last year, an independent audit concluded that across the district too much focus was placed on “adult issues” at the expense of “student issues” and that teachers, administrators, and other staff are “not held accountable for their work.”

The parents decided they’d had enough. On December 7, parents and guardians representing 61 percent of McKinley students petitioned the district to transfer the operation of the school to Celerity Educational Group, a charter operator highly regarded in the Los Angeles area.

But the district was unwilling to give in without a fight. Two days after the petitions were filed, it hastily convened a “PTA meeting” at McKinley where officials “encouraged” parents to rescind their signatures. 

The intimidation didn’t stop there. Parents who had signed petitions reported that some teachers were harassing their children at school. And one teacher posted a message on an Internet forum addressed to one of the parents leading the drive: “Ms. Hernandez, you will regret having supported Celerity when your child is rejected by them.”

Since then, the parents have been locked in a legal battle with the district over the validity of the petitions. The district’s first ploy was to “verify” the signatures—not required by the regulations—by asking every signatory to provide an official photo ID, a conveniently impossible task for many of McKinley’s illegal immigrant parents. 

In addition, the district claimed that many of the petitions “did not conform to the official state content standards and requirements,” though the alleged errors were either inconsequential, like the lack of a proper header, or nonexistent (the district incorrectly claimed the petition lacked the required “affirmation” statement). Because of these “insufficiencies,” the school district determined in late March that it could not verify any of the petitions.

“This is a power game,” says Linda Serrato of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit school choice group supporting the McKinley families. “It’s about maintaining the status quo.”

So far, though, the parents and their pro bono legal team have been successful in overcoming the obstacles the school district has erected. The ID verification process has been stopped by a temporary restraining order, and an independent third party is expected soon to determine whether or not enough petitions meet statutory standards.

McKinley is hardly the first would-be charter school to face opposition. In 2009, Birmingham High School in neighboring Los Angeles, for instance, won a lengthy battle to convert itself into a charter school, over the vociferous objections of a powerful teachers’ union. The unions are generally hostile to charter schools, since a charter often exempts the school from collective bargaining agreements.

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