Triggering School Reform—and Union Dirty Tricks

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In California, parent power brings out the worst in the education establishment.
By DAVID FEITH

Where’s the toughest battlefield in American education these days? Certainly New Orleans and Harlem host controversially high concentrations of charter schools, while New Jersey and Louisiana boast governors who challenge teachers unions with verve. But for downright nastiness, Southern California is ground zero.

SoCal earns this dubious distinction largely because of the educational establishment’s rage over “parent trigger,” a reform that’s been on California’s books since January 2010. It’s a “lynch mob provision,” declared Marty Hittelman, president of the powerful California Federation of Teachers. Why? Because it gives unprecedented rights to parents whose children are stuck in failing public schools. If more than 50% sign a petition, they can force a school closed, shake up its administration, or turn it into a charter.

The first parent trigger was pulled in December 2010 at Compton’s McKinley Elementary School. Immediately, McKinley teachers began leaning on parents to rescind their signatures—first at a PTA meeting, then by pressuring their kids during school. Soon the school district insisted that parents validate their signatures by appearing at McKinley with official photo identification—naked intimidation of those who were undocumented immigrants and a violation of the First Amendment, said Los Angeles Superior Court. Yet the district persisted, soon rejecting every parent’s signature on technicalities that are still tied up in court a year later.

Which brings us to the latest brawl, in the small Mojave Desert town of Adelanto, 80 miles northeast of L.A. That’s where a second group of California parents recently submitted a trigger petition—for Desert Trails Elementary, where two-thirds of sixth-graders failed state exams in English and math last year. The 450-plus parents looked poised to succeed until Tuesday night, when the educational empire struck back.

At a public meeting, the Adelanto school board announced that, upon review, the trigger petition represented only 48% of parents—not the 70% that petitioners claimed when they filed last month. The loss of nearly 100 signatures, it turns out, was the result of a systematic and legally questionable pressure campaign waged against parents.

“About two weeks ago, the California Teachers Association flew in a cadre of paid operatives from Sacramento,” says Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, the liberal activist group that conceived of parent trigger and has supported the campaigns in Compton and Adelanto. “Suddenly parents were accosted in the parking lot by CTA operatives blocking cars from moving until the driver agreed to take a flier plastered with lies.” Operatives also went door-to-door across Adelanto.

Mr. Austin says many parents were told that if they didn’t rescind their signatures, Desert Trails would be closed within days. Others heard that all the teachers would be fired, and still others had their picture taken for refusing to rescind. One parent on Thursday told Parent Revolution’s lawyers that she withdrew her signature after being told that if she didn’t, other parents “were going to pocket all the money once they took over.”

In almost all cases, those spreading such misinformation refused to identify themselves. That was the experience of Desert Trail parent Jeffrey Hancock at his front door last weekend.

“They never said what organization they were with, and wouldn’t give their names. Just that they were ‘partners of Desert Trail parents,'” Mr. Hancock says. “We asked them specifically for their names because when they first knocked on the door we thought they were church people.”

Mr. Hancock adds that he and his wife were far less vulnerable to intimidation than were other parents. “Some of their citizenship is at stake—they might not be legal citizens—so it made them nervous.” He adds, “They were threatened with the INS.”

If this is true, it wouldn’t be the first time: In early 2010, Spanish-language fliers surfaced in several L.A. neighborhoods warning parents that if they voted to convert a public school into a charter, they “might be deported.”

CTA spokesman Frank Wells acknowledged that his union sent representatives to Adelanto, but he said their primary purpose was to hold information sessions for Desert Trails parents. The door-to-door rescission campaign was “parent-led,” he told the L.A. Times, and “as far as us going around and telling people to do something one way or another, the answer is no.”

Messrs. Austin and Hancock maintain their suspicions, largely because almost every one of the 97 rescinded signatures materialized over four days last week. That’s either a feat of superhuman community outreach, or the work of people whose jobs give them ready access to the names and addresses of Desert Trails families.

Whodunit aside, there’s a more fundamental question about the Adelanto rescission campaign: Was it legal? After last year’s Compton melee, the California State Board of Education published detailed regulations for the parent-trigger process. Those regulations clearly state that “parents and legal guardians of eligible pupils shall be free from . . . being encouraged to revoke their signature on a petition.” Says Mr. Austin: “The regulations are the game-changer here—they say rescissions are illegal. But we’re going to have to sue and set that precedent.” Sounds like a solid case.

Win or lose, the Adelanto experience holds several lessons for parent trigger. First, some quarters of the education establishment will oppose parent power no matter its packaging. In contrast to the Compton effort, the Adelanto trigger drive was announced publicly in advance, and parents sought to negotiate terms with district officials rather than bring in an outside charter to take over the school. This soft approach evidently meant nothing to the union.

But the Adelanto model highlights that parents in the future might be able to work around hostile unions altogether, instead exercising leverage over district officials. “At Desert Trails,” Mr. Austin points out, “parents aren’t thinking of trigger as an end in itself”—say, the path to a charter school—”but as a tool to get power to bargain. That’s transformative.”

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