Hillary Clinton’s School Choice

August 1, 2016 by

WSJ Review & Outlook

She used to support charters. Now she’s for the union agenda.

No one would call the 2016 election a battle of ideas, but it will have policy consequences. So it’s worth noting the sharp left turn by Hillary Clinton and Democrats against education reform and the charter schools she and her husband championed in the 1990s.

Mrs. Clinton recently promised a National Education Association (NEA) assembly higher pay, student-loan write-offs, less testing and universal pre-K. She had only this to say about charter schools, which are free from union rules: “When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working” and “share it with schools across America.”

The crowd booed, so Mrs. Clinton pivoted to deriding “for-profit charter schools,” a fraction of the market whose grave sin is contracting with a management company. Cheering resumed. When she later addressed the other big teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she began with an attack on for-profit charters.

We remember when Mrs. Clinton wasn’t so easily intimidated by unions. Bill Clinton’s grant program took the movement from a few schools to thousands. In Mrs. Clinton’s 1996 memoir, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote that she favored “promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages.” And here’s Mrs. Clinton in 1998: “The President believes, as I do, that charter schools are a way of bringing teachers and parents and communities together.”

But now Mrs. Clinton needs the support of the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation known as teacher unions, which loathe charter schools that operate without unions. The AFT endorsed Mrs. Clinton 16 months before Election Day, and the NEA followed.

Shortly after, in a strange coincidence, Mrs. Clinton began repeating union misinformation: “Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” she said on a South Carolina campaign stop in November. But Mrs. Clinton used to know that nearly all charter schools select students by lottery and are by law not allowed to discriminate. The schools tend to crop up in urban areas where traditional options are worst. A recent study from Stanford University showed that charters better serve low-income children, minority students and kids who are learning English.

There’s an irony in Mrs. Clinton’s pitch that schools should simply share best practices. In 2005 the United Federation of Teachers started a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to prove that unions weren’t holding up success. The school rejected the hallmarks of charter schools like New York’s Success Academy: order, discipline and other concepts progressives view as oppressive. Principals, for instance, were renamed “school leaders.” So how’s that experiment working out? Grades K-8 didn’t meet state standards last year and closed.

Mrs. Clinton’s switcheroo follows the pro-union turn of the Democratic Party platform. This year’s original draft was at least mildly pro-reform, but the final version opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers, encourages parents to opt out of testing for their kids, and endorses multiple restrictions on charters that would make them much less effective.

The education planks caused Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary in President Obama’s Education Department, to lament that the platform “affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.” He called it “a step backwards” that will hurt “low-income black and Hispanic children” in particular.

In this election year of bad policy choices, the Democratic retreat from school choice and accountability is the most dispiriting.

Liberals and Equal Protection

June 10, 2016 by

Will California judges hear a case challenging teacher tenure?

California’s Supreme Court has the opportunity to make a civil-rights breakthrough by agreeing to hear a landmark case that challenges teacher tenure laws on equal protection grounds. Let’s see if the court’s liberals have the courage of their convictions.

Four years ago, nine public school students sued to overturn California’s lifetime teacher job protections and “last-in-first-out” policies, which have concentrated ineffective teachers in poor and minority communities. Reams of evidence in Vergara v. State of California show how disadvantaged students are the most harmed by these laws.

Teachers in California receive tenure after two years, making them nearly impossible to fire. Fewer than 0.002% of teachers statewide are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or poor performance. Thousands are ranked grossly ineffective, yet only about 20 have been terminated over the last decade. In Los Angeles Unified School District, it takes upward of 10 years and between $250,000 to $450,000 to fire a teacher. Administrators typically reassign lousy teachers to less desirable schools in poor areas.

Due to seniority rights, inexperienced teachers are disproportionately assigned to poorer schools. State law also mandates that the newest hires be the first dismissed during budget layoffs regardless of performance. During a recent budget crunch, Oakland laid off 90% of teachers, including many Teach for America alums, in some low-income schools.

A single year with a grossly ineffective teacher can cost a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings. Meanwhile, seniority-based layoffs reduce lifetime student earnings by an estimated $2.1 million per teacher laid off. In 2014 Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure laws, noting that the evidence of their destructive impact “shocks the conscience.”

Yet last month the state’s second appellate court ruled that students harmed by the laws didn’t have enough in common to make an equal-protection claim under California’s constitution. In other words, the disadvantaged students weren’t all black or Hispanic. Yet California’s Supreme Court has held that the mere abridgement of a fundamental state right like education is enough to contest an equal-protection violation.

The appellate court also ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show that the “statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students” to receive an inferior education. Instead, school administrators, albeit hamstrung by the laws, are supposedly to blame. Under this ruling, it would be nearly impossible to make equal-protection claims under the California constitution. A school-funding formula that results in lower-income schools receiving less money couldn’t be challenged. Nor could school-district boundaries that produce segregated schools.

Vergara relies on a statistical disparate-impact analysis that the left uses to bludgeon businesses. We think disparate impact is unconstitutional, but if it’s the law then progressives can’t pick and choose when it applies. The nine students have asked California’s Supreme Court to hear the case, and the future of millions will depend on their decision.

A Last-Gasp Chance for Detroit’s Abysmal Schools

February 20, 2016 by

Michigan taxpayers are on the verge of sending more than $700 million to Detroit Public Schools in the latest effort to reform the nation’s worst-performing urban school district.

Detroiters are all about the bailout. But you can’t blame other state residents—and the lawmakers who represent them—for not readily jumping on board with the plan.

This is the finale in what has been a 16-year state intervention in the Detroit school district. Without this round of emergency funding, the district is set to go completely broke by April.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has put together a sweeping proposal to restructure the district. But the prospects for those reforms are starting to look shaky, and even the one positive development in Detroit education in recent years—increased school choice—is in danger of retrenchment.

It would hardly be the first time that efforts to revitalize Detroit Public Schools, or DPS, have turned into trouble. The last big initiative from Gov. Snyder was in 2011, when the state broke out the 15 worst schools in Detroit and placed them in a reform district. That experiment didn’t work, and those schools will now likely revert to DPS.

If Gov. Snyder gets the Michigan Legislature to support his current plan for the state’s largest school district, the debt relief would translate to $1,000 more per student. The district has lost roughly 100,000 students in the past decade, and more than half of the city’s kids are in charter, private and suburban schools, but 46,000 children still rely on DPS.

How bad are these schools?

In 2009, DPS broke records for how badly its students performed on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the best measure of student performance among states. In 2015, for the fourth straight year, Detroit students scored the lowest among 21 big-city districts in math and reading. Nationally, the average fourth-grade reading proficiency level is 35%; in Detroit, it’s 6%.

In some schools, the number of students who were proficient in reading and math was near zero. The sad reality is many students aren’t learning much more at school than if they stayed home watching TV.

The district’s buildings are also falling apart, and a recent string of teacher strikes brought some of these conditions to light. Mold, crumbling ceilings and rodents are a few of the problems. That’s despite DPS’s taking on nearly $2 billion in capital debt in the past two decades for infrastructure improvements.

Still, what seems to be a generous bailout from Gov. Snyder—$72 million a year for a decade to erase the debt—is facing opposition, with the loudest protests from the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The union wants the money, with no reforms attached.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Gov. Snyder or his plan. The governor has taken a huge political hit for his handling of the Flint water crisis. DPS and Flint are linked by Darnell Earley’s decision to become the state’s emergency financial manager of the school district a year ago. Mr. Earley served in that same role for the city of Flint, during which time the lead contamination in tap water began. He is now headed out the door.

While most lawmakers accept that Michigan taxpayers are on the hook for much of DPS’s state-backed operational debt—and perhaps another $2.8 billion in capital and pension obligations—they disagree with the governor about how the district should be run.

Gov. Snyder wanted more state oversight in the form of an appointed school board and an education commission that would have directed the opening and closing of all city schools, including charters. But he is now backing away from those concepts to get more support for the financial rescue.

It now looks like once legislation passes, control will quickly return to an elected school board. While that’s what Detroiters want, the school board has a miserable track record. The board president in 2010 was barely literate and was accused of fondling himself during a private meeting with the female superintendent. DPS settled the case for $650,000. The board also once hired an interim superintendent who declared that one of his top priorities was teaching the district’s 90% black students Ebonics.

Given the disaster that is Detroit Public Schools, the city’s best option would seem to be expanding school choice. Charter schools have offered a lifeline to families, and now more than half of Detroit students attend those alternative public schools. That places Detroit behind only New Orleans for the percentage of students in charters.

But many in the charter community worry that this next iteration of Detroit education reform will squeeze out their schools in an attempt to keep DPS classrooms full and the books balanced. Every lost student costs the district more than $7,000 in per-pupil state aid. With the state on the hook for the debt pay-down, it may have a perverse incentive to curtail choice.

A rational assessment of the district’s chronic failure merits a solution that moves away from keeping the district alive and instead focuses on giving children quality schools, even if those schools are outside the traditional public-school model.

But without the community’s support, and with a governor hamstrung by the mess in Flint, it looks like Michigan taxpayers will be again throwing good money after bad in an attempt to save a school district that has defied salvation for decades.

Ms. Jacques is deputy editorial-page editor of the Detroit News. She writes frequently on education in Detroit.

A Dangerously Good Charter School

February 19, 2016 by

The high-ranked Basis school in Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to expand, but some residents—along with public schools—are raising “safety” concerns.

By ALLYSIA FINLEY
Feb. 18, 2016 6:53 p.m. ET
Arizona is becoming something of a California suburb as Golden State retirees, young families and workers move next door in search of cheaper housing, well-paying jobs and better schools. In 2014 alone, 22,000 Californians relocated to Arizona—more than the number of newcomers from all other states combined.

The influx of new residents is inciting a backlash against growth in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where denizens have mobilized to block the expansion of one of the highest-performing schools in the nation. Given that the school is a charter, the “community safety advocates” are being cheered on by local public schools.

In 2015, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Scottsdale school run by the Basis charter-school operator, grades five through 12, as the top charter and second-best public high school in the country. All Basis students take AP classes, and 96% pass their exams, compared with 57% nationwide. More than 90% of students scored proficient in math on state tests while only about half of students districtwide do. The school is particularly well known for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and foreign-language programs, which include Mandarin and Latin.

Like most charter schools, Basis Scottsdale doesn’t offer teacher tenure. Teachers are paid bonuses based on the number of students who pass AP exams with high scores. The school randomly selects students by lottery and has drawn many middle-class Asian families to the area with the promise of a free, top-flight education. There are nearly 1,200 students on the wait list.

The Basis Scottsdale school’s current facility, which holds 740 students, is cramped. It has no gym or playground. So in January, Basis purchased a nine-acre plot of vacant land about a mile and a half away for a new two-story complex with modern science labs and a full-size gym. Basis planned to convert its existing campus into an elementary school that could enroll 520 new students.

The proposed expansion has sparked an outcry from residents who claim the new school would increase traffic congestion and imperil “public safety.” At a neighborhood meeting in December, one man who had heard about Basis’ plan announced that he “was prepared to spend six figures to make sure this school doesn’t happen.” Another said of the school that “when the first kid dies, their blood will be on your hands.”

The firestorm is reminiscent of the satirized town-hall meetings on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” (“Where are my kids supposed to play, the rock quarry?”). The school’s foes have hired a lawyer and traffic engineer. Jonathan Gelbart, Basis’ director of charter school development, says that opponents have been regularly filming traffic at the current campus and even flew a drone overhead.

New building developments almost always increase traffic, but Basis worked with city officials on a plan to reduce the school’s impact. And in Arizona, charter schools are exempted from the Development Review Commission process. This hasn’t stopped opponents, who are now trying to derail the project on a technical point. They have asked the Scottsdale City Council to refuse to abandon an easement on the property, which would stymie construction. The council will vote on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Meanwhile, project opponents are getting an assist from public-school parents and teachers. The Scottsdale Unified School District has said that some public schools may have to close because private and charter schools have reduced their enrollment. In a newsletter this month, the Parent Teacher Organization at nearby Mountainside Middle School warned that the new Basis school would be “dangerous” and could limit residents’ “access to their homes in case of a fire or emergency.”

All politics may be local, but the Scottsdale brouhaha echoes the squabbles over development that commonly occur in affluent California enclaves. Where Californians go, so go their political neuroses.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Free-Market Accountability Could Rescue Our Schools

February 3, 2016 by

 

        The  Wall Street Journal

  • LETTERS
    Updated March 30, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Philip K. Howard’s March 25 op-ed, “Why Freer Schools Are Better Schools,” correctly points to “centralized legal dictates” as the shackles that keep teachers and principals from exercising common sense. However, his solution, “to abandon adversarial legal proceedings and protect against abuses with a local oversight board,” betrays his misunderstanding of the fundamental difference between government accountability and free-market accountability. Local oversight boards already exist. They are called school boards, and they have already demonstrated their inability to provide “common sense” in large urban school districts.

A government accountability system is always a mandate-entitlement system. Government can only exercise its management authority by passing “dictates.” Even if the legislature’s motives were to transcend politics, it suffers from Friedrich Hayek’s “lack of knowledge” problem. The legislature in Austin, Texas can’t possibly know what Johnny in Houston and Mary in El Paso need.

This system is also based on entitlements. Since parents have been stripped of all authority, they also have no responsibility. Their children are “entitled” to an education regardless of how badly the parents or children behave. Hoping to solve Mr. Howard’s complaints within this system is like hoping to put the square peg in the round hole.

In contrast, a free-market accountability system encourages common sense and avoids most “dictates” because it is a voluntary-contract system. A mutually voluntary system is the opposite of a mandate system. The “lack of knowledge” problem is minimized because the great majority of parents know their children better than anyone else.

A contract system provides for mutual responsibility, not entitlement. The parents are responsible to deliver a child who is ready to learn. Tuition or scholarship funds must be paid. The school is responsible to teach the values and academics desired by the parents. If either the school or the parents don’t meet their responsibilities under the contract, it terminates, and the family moves on to establish a contract with another school. The free-enterprise system by its very nature solves Mr. Howard’s complaints.

We are squandering the greatest resource that any nation has, our children. Depriving them of their financial inheritance through Social Security and Medicare is nothing compared to depriving them of the ability to be productive citizens by not educating them.

Bob Schoolfield

President
Texans for Parental Choice in Education
Austin, Texas

Detroit’s Public School Plague

January 23, 2016 by

A teacher walkout highlights the need for radical reform.

Jan. 22, 2016 5:55 p.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal

As if Flint’s water crisis wasn’t bad enough for urban Michigan, on Wednesday 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools shut down, after 800 some teachers called in sick purportedly to protest their abject working conditions. Many Motown schools are a picture of poverty, but the root of the rot is the lack of accountability for failure.

Unions orchestrated Wednesday’s teacher “sick-out,” the latest of more than a half dozen this school year, to coincide with President Obama’s visit touting the White House auto bailout. Their goal is to draw political steam from Flint, flog supposed Republican racial animus—95% of students are black or Latino—and impel a bailout.

Media accounts of Detroit schools have documented rodent infestation, caving ceilings, black mold and putrid air. Emergency manager Darnell Earley, who previously ran Flint until being redeployed this month to Detroit by Governor Rick Snyder, has become a scapegoat. But the collapse of Detroit’s schools has been decades in the making.

Enrollment has fallen by two-thirds since 2000 due to population flight and charter-school expansion. Public schools have lost about 71,000 students in a decade while charters have gained 23,000. About 53% of Detroit students attend charters compared to 20% in 2006.

Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in liabilities including $1.3 billion for pension and retirement health benefits. Since 2009 the public school system has been under the guardianship of a state emergency manager. Although 100 schools have since closed, deficits persist. This year’s $215 million hole is nearly a third of the district’s general fund revenues.

The district has repeatedly borrowed to balance its budget in lieu of making capital repairs and improvements. Legacy costs have diverted money from instruction, while good teachers have left for charters that offer more freedom and class discipline. Seniority-based layoffs force out promising young teachers while tenure protects the worst. Collective bargaining agreements block reforms like longer school days. The union contract also prohibits strikes, so instead teachers call in sick.

No surprise then that Detroit has ranked at the bottom of 21 large urban public school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Last year only 4% of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in math and 7% in reading. A Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcome study last year found that Detroit charter students on average gained 65 days of learning in math and 50 days in reading per year over their public school counterparts.

Mr. Snyder has proposed spinning off Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which would be paid down over time with state aid. A new debt-free district would be created with state funds. Financial engineering and more aid may forestall bankruptcy, but they won’t improve math scores.

Detroit schools need radical reform, and the expiration of the teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement in June gives state guardians an opening. One model is New Orleans, which converted nearly all of its schools to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Strict accountability should require low-performing charters to close. Detroit’s poverty is real, but it doesn’t excuse continuing educational failure.

Carly Fiorina on Education : Mar 24, 2015

November 21, 2015 by

Synthesis of public school system and competitive vouchers

In education, the polarizing debate is about vouchers versus public schools. It’s about “teaching to the test” versus “teaching that nourishes hearts and souls.” It’s about squeezing history and music and philosophy out of the curricula in order to make room for math and science and reading in the quest for test scores and future funding.

Let me tackle just one dimension of the debate: The private versus public school debate–free access for all versus a free-market voucher-driven system. The thesis on the table is: Keep the system the way it is–a vast system of public schools, some with strong performance, but many that are able to achieve only the lowest common denominator. The antithesis: Let competition reign, give all students vouchers, and let the strongest schools prosper–and the weakest ones perish.

Perhaps the synthesis would be far more than just a compromise–it allows us to build on the best of what we have, but instills new responsibility and accountability to the system as well.

Louisiana’s School Voucher Victory

November 21, 2015 by

Bobby Jindal made a name for himself in the GOP by championing school choice. Upstaged by new candidates on the block, the Louisiana Governor this week dropped out of the Republican presidential race. But at least the education reformer can take heart that his private-school voucher legacy has finally been protected.

Last week a 2-1 majority of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling that granted the Justice Department pre-clearance review of Louisiana vouchers. The “burdensome, costly, and endless” process imposed “a vast and intrusive reporting regime on the State without any finding of unconstitutional conduct,” wrote appellate Judge Edith Jones for the majority.

The rebuke punctuates a sordid, two-year case in which the Obama Administration sought to deny poor, black kids better educational opportunities under the pretext of promoting integration. In August 2013 Justice sued to block Louisiana’s vouchers, which the Administration claimed appeared “to impede the desegregation progress” of public schools under federal desegregation orders dating to the 1960s and ’70s.

Only students who come from families below 250% of the poverty and attend schools with a C or lower grade are eligible for the vouchers. In 2013 black students received 85% of 6,800 vouchers awarded. But Justice complained that black voucher recipients might leave their failing public schools more white.

According to a study by Boston University political scientist Christine Rossell—who has analyzed desegregation plans for more than 25 years—Louisiana vouchers “had no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order.” Justice produced no evidence to the contrary.

Switching tactics, Justice in November 2013 asked the court to allow federal oversight of Louisiana’s vouchers under a 1975 desegregation order that banned public funding of discriminatory private schools. Justice demanded that the state, prior to issuing vouchers, hand over racial data for each public school as well as applicants’ names, addresses, race, previous public school and private school preference.

In April 2014, federal Judge Ivan Lemelle imposed a tortuous federal pre-clearance review that allowed Justice to veto voucher awards. Parents of voucher recipients and the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options petitioned to intervene in the case. They argued that the feds didn’t have jurisdiction over a private school voucher program.

The Fifth Circuit agreed. As Judge Jones explains, Justice can’t compel disclosure of state records without alleging illegal public aid of discriminatory private schools, which it didn’t. “DOJ admits that [its] position amounts to a fishing expedition,” writes Judge Jones, and an “attempt—through pre-award ‘back and forth’ with the state on every single voucher—to regulate the program without any legal judgment against the state.” Justice’s argument “represents more than ineffective lawyering.”

The Administration’s dubious prosecution of vouchers in Louisiana reflects its willingness to throw poor kids under the bus to curry favor with the teachers’ unions. Unlike President Obama, Mr. Jindal will leave office on the right side of history.

Clinton Turns Against Charters

November 21, 2015 by

Hillary Clinton has moved to the left of President Obama on trade, energy, immigration, student loans, health care and entitlements. But even we’re surprised by her latest move, which is to turn against charter schools as an engine of education opportunity.

“Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation,” Mrs. Clinton said last weekend in South Carolina. She also acknowledged that “for many years now” she has “supported the idea of charter schools,” though “not as a substitute for the public schools.”

The Center for Education Reform Senior Fellow Jeanne Allen on the presidential hopeful’s embrace of teachers unions. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Well, as Mrs. Clinton used to appreciate, charter schools are public schools—albeit freed from bureaucracy and union work rules. In her 1996 memoir, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote that “I favor promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages.” In 2007 she told a teachers-union conference in New York that “I actually do believe in charter schools.”

Why the sudden change? Her press assistant explained to Politico that “Hillary Clinton looks at the evidence. That’s what she did here.” Sorry, that quote is from Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers that endorsed Mrs. Clinton in July, 16 months before Election Day. The National Education Association followed. Unions loathe charter competition, and Mrs. Clinton is returning the favor of these early endorsements.

If Mrs. Clinton had looked at the evidence, she’d have seen a different story about charters and “the hardest-to-teach kids.” Charters don’t exclude difficult students. Like other public schools, they aren’t allowed to discriminate. Nearly every state requires a random lottery to choose students if there are more applicants than openings. The reason some charters turn away students is that they lack the resources to accommodate every desperate family trapped in a teachers-union compound.

Charters serve some of the most troubled students, including a higher percentage in poverty than all public schools, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. In urban centers in particular, charters serve mostly minority students and include more who are learning English than do public schools as a whole.

Mrs. Clinton knows these basic facts, so she may be tapping into the recent political melodrama over New York City’s Success Academy charter schools. Founder Eva Moskowitz runs tight ships, and students who misbehave can expect the once typical response called discipline. Ms. Weingarten has been running a political and media campaign against Success Academy, though its attrition levels are lower than district averages in the Big Apple. If you want to see public schools that really don’t tolerate disruptive students, go to your average rich suburban school.

Mrs. Clinton’s charter reversal suggests her Education Department would be a wholly owned union subsidiary. The losers will be the poor parents and children who Democrats claim to represent.

The Education Gangs of Los Angeles

September 14, 2015 by

 

Meet the decorated former Green Beret

who is rallying Los Angeles parents to fight

the unions and reform the worst public schools,

one school at a time.

PHOTO: KEN FALLIN

Anaheim, Calif.

When most people think of this quintessential California suburb, the Angels baseball team or Disneyland probably comes to mind. But a five-minute drive from the “happiest place on earth” takes you to Palm Lane Elementary, ground zero in a fight between teachers unions and parents who are trying to fix California’s broken public schools. The conflict—as so often in American education—boils down to unionized teachers trying to stop minority children from attending charter schools.

Ninety percent of Palm Lane students come from low-income families. About 85% are Latino, and more than half aren’t native English speakers. Palm Lane has been on the California Education Department’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. In 2013 a mere 38% of students scored proficient or better in English on state tests. And Palm Lane is hardly an exception in the area: Four other elementary schools in Anaheim rank even lower on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

But Alfonso Flores is leading a grass-roots insurgency against the union-controlled regime at Palm Lane. The former teacher and father of four kids who attend public schools in Hesperia has used the state’s “parent trigger” law, passed in 2010, to force changes at a half-dozen schools in California. The law stipulates that if a majority of parents at a struggling school sign a petition, they can compel changes in school management or personnel. Sometimes, the parents contract with a charter-school operator. In one case, they hired a new principal. Parents have also used the law as a negotiating tool to force the district to make improvements like adding more staff.

As the new school year was getting started, Mr. Flores sat down with me in the park next to Park Lane that has served as a meeting place and training ground for parents in the trigger campaign. The 45-year-old decorated Gulf War veteran has plenty of stories to tell about doing battle with teachers unions that bring heavy artillery to every fight.

“It’s grass-roots,” he says of parent-trigger efforts, “and that’s what scares the teachers unions.”

Mr. Flores, a self-described “anchor baby” of Mexican immigrants, knows firsthand the value of escaping bad schools. As a child in the 1970s, he spent three hours daily on a bus trekking to and from a school in the San Fernando Valley under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s desegregation plan. Busing to achieve racial integration is hardly optimal, but Mr. Flores says it did allow him to avoid the horrendous schools in the Los Angeles inner city.

As a senior in high school, he signed up with the U.S. Army and after graduating served tours in Colombia, the Persian Gulf and Somalia. “I wanted a way to thank my country for allowing my parents to bring me to this great nation,” he explains. In 10 years the Green Beret earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and he lost a kidney after being wounded in the 1993 rescue mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”

During his military service, Mr. Flores says, he was struck by his fellow soldiers’ deficient educations. They had to “redo grammar school” because they “couldn’t write a simple report,” he recalls. “The Pentagon has complained about high-school kids not able to pass the ASVAB”—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

After an honorable discharge in 1998, he got his teaching credential from California State University at Dominguez Hills. His first teaching job was at Normandie Avenue, one of the worst elementary schools in L.A. One teacher, Mr. Flores recalls, would watch television while students filled in coloring sheets. A new principal tried to raise standards, he says, but if she entered a classroom without the teacher’s permission, she would get slapped with a union grievance.

In 2007, after being named a district teacher of the year, Mr. Flores was hired as the founding principal of the Global Education Academy, a charter school in South Los Angeles with an almost entirely black and Latino student population. Although most teachers were young and inexperienced, the charter far outperformed neighboring public schools. In 2008, 88% of its students scored proficient or advanced in math, compared with 37% districtwide.

The key to improving student performance, Mr. Flores says, was engaging parents. At most public schools, “parents are treated with hostility,” but at charters, administrators and teachers tend to “embrace parents as partners.” Teachers unions and their liberal allies blame poverty for bad schools, but Mr. Flores calls that an insult to good teachers who are helping poor children succeed: “Poverty is not an issue.”

In 2011 Mr. Flores joined the nonprofit Parent Revolution, inspired by the group’s role in California’s first parent-trigger campaign, at McKinley Elementary in Compton. McKinley parents wanted a high-performing charter operator to take over the failing school but were stymied by the teachers union, which had joined forces with the school district.

The union tactics at McKinley included requiring parents to show up at the school during the workday with a photo ID—a good way to scare off illegal immigrants—to verify their signatures. The trigger petition failed after a lengthy court battle, but Mr. Flores says the injustice propelled him to enlist as a parent organizer. “Before you begin a petition drive, you have to start a parent organization,” Mr. Flores says. Parents “have to be aware of how the system works and how the system is broken.”

For instance, “parents are unaware that principals don’t have power to dismiss or even hire their own staff. Districts do a really good job of keeping parents away from all of this information,” Mr. Flores notes. “Once they learn, it agitates them even more.”

But the biggest challenge is collecting signatures while being barraged by the unions. In every petition campaign, he says, “they use the same accusations and playbook.” Two standbys are false charges that the petition organizers are bribing parents to sign and that the people gathering the signatures are paid by outside groups.

The unions hit the “outsider” label hard, Mr. Flores says, alleging that petition organizers “have a political agenda—that we’re trying to privatize education.” Another union tactic: Overplay the collateral damage, telling parents that a petition could force the school to close. When all else fails, the unions try to junk the petition signatures. In the parent-trigger drive Mr. Flores helped organize at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto in 2012, the school board invalidated nearly 100 signatures. But a state judge ordered the district to accept the petition and allow the charter conversion.

Compared with fighting unions, Mr. Flores’s encounters with local gang leaders have been a relative breeze.

“In every campaign I’ve been a part of, you have situations where you have to respect the community,” Mr. Flores says. “That means if the local community leader is a minister, you meet with the minister. In Watts, it was a gang leader.” That was three years ago, he says, when Latino parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary were seeking to oust the principal. A black pastor said he had to get permission from a local gang to mobilize parents, and he set up a meeting at the gang leader’s apartment.

“There were all types of weapons throughout the house. I remember opening the door and that distinctive smell of marijuana,” Mr. Flores recalls. “I was afraid because I was aware of the turf battles—the fact that I was Latino and they were African-American.”

But the only triggers that came up in the meeting were of the parental variety. To Mr. Flores’s amazement, the gang members supported the Weigand Avenue takeover. One, he says, “happened to be a former student at the school and said, ‘You need to do this for the future generation of kids, because I am a product of this school.’ He was very self-aware.” While parents gathered signatures, Mr. Flores says, the gang “would egg us on and tell us they were sending parents our way.”

The petition at Weigand succeeded, but Mr. Flores says he grew frustrated by what he perceived as an inefficient use of resources at Parent Revolution. In 2014 he left to launch his own school-reform outfit, Excellent Educational Solutions.

Later that year, he got a call from Gloria Romero—the former Democratic state Senate majority leader, who co-authored the parent-trigger law—about organizing a campaign at Palm Lane in Anaheim.

Palm Lane had cycled through five principals in three years. Mr. Flores says the catalyst for the petition drive at the school was the removal of a principal who had “started making teachers accountable” by taking steps like requiring them to assign homework. Teachers howled, and soon the school board reassigned the principal—to work as a teacher at another school.

Parents went public with their outrage. Ms. Romero proposed that Mr. Flores help mobilize them for a petition drive. When presented with various trigger options, parents chose to go for a charter-school conversion.

Mr. Flores used the park outside the school for daily parent meetings. Some mornings, he says, “we had to be out here at 6:30” to catch parents before they went to work. With a three-member team and $60,000 budget, Mr. Flores gave parents a tutorial in public-school dysfunction.

“Parents don’t know about API”—the state’s Academic Performance Index—“but they know when their kids don’t have homework, it is an issue,” he says.

Once again, the union pulled out its playbook. Signature gatherers were accused of bribing parents with iPads. The Anaheim City School District superintendent wrote a letter warning parents: “It has been reported to us that there are people in our community who have been paid by an organization to gather parent signatures for a petition that could completely change the way some of our schools are run.”

The parents were unmoved. More than 60% signed the petition—but the district threw out 133 of the 488 signatures. The matter moved to the courts, and in July a state superior court judge reprimanded the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair” and ordered the school board to accept the petition.

The school board has appealed and doubled the contract for its legal firm, to $678,000. The fight has garnered plenty of headlines in California, but state leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have been notably silent.

Mr. Flores notes that the Democrat-dominated legislature in Sacramento has made a point of spending big on schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged students, with little to show for it. “You could throw millions of dollars into these schools,” he says, “and if there is no accountability, you have the same situation.”

When it comes to education reform, Mr. Flores says, “parents shouldn’t be leading this, it should be the state.” But given the stakes, he adds, sounding a militant note, sometimes “you have to force change.”

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.


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