Posts Tagged ‘Parental Rights’

Poor Children Need a New Brown v. Board of Education

August 29, 2016

Students deserve federal protection from the twisted logic of tenure rules that undermine learning.

By THEODORE J. BOUTROUS JR. and JOSHUA S. LIPSHUTZ
Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
285 COMMENTS
The California Supreme Court announced Aug. 22 that it would not hear Vergara v. California, a landmark case fighting for the educational rights of public-school students. The court’s unwillingness even to consider an issue that Justice Goodwin Liu called “one of the most consequential to the future of California” demonstrates why the federal courts must intervene and recognize that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education.

Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. ENLARGE
Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. PHOTO: NANCY PASTOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In Vergara, nine students challenged teacher-tenure and dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for school districts to remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom. We were part of the team, along with our partner former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented the student plaintiffs. After an eight-week bench trial in 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down the statutes under the state constitution because their twisted logic is “unfathomable” and they inflict harm so severe that it “shocks the conscience.”

Judge Treu’s decision attracted national attention. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the decision “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

The state of California and California’s two largest teachers unions appealed. In its decision, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that the laws are a “problem,” agreed that they likely lead to “grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system,” and described the situation as “deplorable.” The court sided with the unions anyway.

The case seemed destined for the California Supreme Court, but on Aug. 22 the court declined to hear the case by a vote of 4-3. Pursuant to its ordinary procedures, the court did not explain why. Yet two justices took the extraordinary step of issuing dissenting opinions decrying the majority’s failure to act. Justice Liu wrote that “[t]he nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar described the laws as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.”
California’s refusal to protect its young citizens has made federal protection essential. Public education meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s fundamental-right test, as articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Laws that impair that right should be subject to strict scrutiny under the Constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses.

Public education has been a fundamental pillar of U.S. society since the nation’s founding, when the Continental Congress set aside public lands “to support a system of schools in a state.” As the Supreme Court put it in 1954’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Two decades after Brown, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) held that education is not a fundamental right in the context of school funding. But it expressly left open the possibility that a right to education might be recognized in another situation. In Papasan v. Allain (1986), the court made clear that whether education is a fundamental right is “not yet definitively settled.”

Such a right would not be an open invitation for federal courts to manage schools or for litigants to bring every education policy question to federal court. Rather, it would protect children across the country against state laws and policies that actively and knowingly deprive them of essential educational opportunities and create egregious inequality, like the California statutes in Vergara.

The day after the denial of review in Vergara, we filed a case in Connecticut federal court, Martinez v. Malloy. We argue for a federal constitutional right to challenge laws that force inner-city children to attend schools that the state knows are failing to provide a minimally acceptable education. These laws are especially cruel because Connecticut has some terrific public schools, including in urban centers.

Magnet schools and public charter schools achieve outstanding results for students. Yet Connecticut has defied reason and imposed a moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools. The state also punishes high-quality public schools that accept transfer students from failing schools. Inner-city kids have to win a lottery to gain access to decent schools.

In Brown, the Supreme Court described education as the “very foundation of good citizenship,” and proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The federal courts should transform these powerful words into a reality and enforce the fundamental right of children to education in this country.

Messrs. Boutrous and Lipshutz, partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.

The Education Gangs of Los Angeles

September 14, 2015

 

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.

School Choice for Special-Needs Students

August 10, 2015

Other children like our son would benefit from having vouchers that increase their options.

The Wall Street Journal

By THOMAS M. CHIAPELAS

My wife, Liz, and I have a 5-year-old son named Sam who, along with his little brother, Pete, is our pride and joy. Sam was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder at age 4. The symptoms of ASD vary but are characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior. His doctor says he is high-functioning, which means that with the right schooling, therapies, teachers and family support Sam could be “mainstreamed” into a regular classroom with his peers in the future.

But getting from here to there is going to take enormous effort, and our local public school has already shown an unwillingness to help. Sam is old enough to attend kindergarten in the fall, but after reading his progress reports and listening to his therapists, Liz and I agreed he was not ready to tackle the added challenges of kindergarten. His language skills are still delayed and he has sensory and social issues that could use another year of work.

Our son was evaluated by the special-education personnel in our public-school district, and we were told he qualified to attend a general education pre-K class for part of the school day and receive therapy in the special-education classroom the other part of the time. We also got him into applied-behavior-analysis (ABA) therapy outside of the school system that was recommended to us by the pediatric neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed him.

So we asked for a meeting with local public-school officials to see if we could keep our son back a year. To our surprise, there were 11 school representatives at the 90-minute meeting, yet not one was qualified to render a decision. We wrote a follow-up letter expressing our disappointment and requested a second meeting.

The second meeting had even more people in attendance and lasted nearly two hours, at the end of which the school administrators said they could not grant Sam an extra year of preschool. Sadly, it was clear to us that pushing him through the system was more important to them than giving him a chance to perform at grade level.

At that point we had no choice but to enroll him in a private, faith-based school where he can repeat his pre-K year and continue an ABA program in the afternoon. We hope this will give Sam the support he needs. This school is aware of his condition and is willing to work with us and our son in conjunction with his ABA therapist to make sure he will be ready for kindergarten.

Thankfully, we could afford to send our son to a nearby private school. But in many families that isn’t an option. For the great majority of children with learning and physical disabilities, the best they can hope for is whatever their local public schools can provide. Too often what is provided is a subpar education that fails to meet the needs of this population. That’s not only unfair, it’s unjust.

That is why, when Americans discuss the need for school choice and vouchers, we should consider students with special needs like our son Sam. Society’s goal should be to give special-needs children their full measure of dignity and opportunity at a school where they can better learn, adapt and thrive. These schools exist, and vouchers can make them more affordable. The schools often are expensive—because it does take more to educate a child with disabilities. But these children, regardless of their parents’ income, deserve a quality education and a chance at life.

A few leaders have pushed back. Jeb Bush is one of them. When he became governor of Florida in the late 1990s he helped to create the state’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Founded in 1999, the statewide program provides “scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice.”

The program is still thriving long after Gov. Bush’s second term ended in 2007, and 28,370 students from 1,248 private schools participated in 2013-14. Students with disabilities ranging from blindness to dyslexia to autism-spectrum disorder received in total more than $180 million in scholarships.

That’s a model that if implemented in more states would help many thousands of kids like our son Sam, and many parents who can’t afford what is often most important in their child’s education: a choice.

Mr. Chiapelas lives in St. Louis.

Parent-Trigger V-Day

July 21, 2015

Alexander Hamilton said an independent judiciary is essential to guard against “serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.” Last week a California judge reaffirmed this wisdom by overruling local school district officials who tried to thwart parents from using the state’s parent-trigger law.

In January parents filed a petition to convert Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim into a charter under California’s 2010 parent-trigger law, which allows a majority of parents in any failing school to force changes. Palm Lane had made the state Department of Education’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. Fewer than 40% of students scored proficient in English in 2013. About 85% are Hispanic, and most are low-income.

School district officials and the teachers union tried to stymie parents at every turn. The union even complained that signature gatherers were bribing parents with free iPads, a false allegation that the district superintendent repeated in a cautionary letter to parents. In February the school district rejected the petition on dubious grounds, which included claims that parents had made paperwork errors, such as failing to “submit a separate document that identifies the lead petitioners.”

Though more than 60% of parents signed the petition, the district threw out dozens of signatures that could not be “verified.” That is, the parents could not be reached between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to confirm that they signed the petition. Maybe that’s because they were working. This left parents 12 signatures short of the 50% threshold, so they sued the district for improperly rejecting the petition.

Last Thursday Orange County Superior Court judge Andrew Banks ruled in favor of the parents on all counts and rebuked the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair.” He also scored district officials for violating their obligation under the trigger law to work in good faith with parents—a responsibility many other districts have disregarded as well.

Judge Banks has ordered the district to accept the petition and allow parents to immediately begin soliciting charter school proposals. Palm Lane will become the second school in California where parents have successfully triggered large-scale reform. There would be more if unions working with district officials hadn’t intimidated parent organizers.

Palm Lane parents were assisted by the trigger law’s author, former state Democratic Senator Gloria Romero, who helped seek outside legal counsel. The case shows how far the union and administrative bureaucracy will go to preserve their monopoly, even breaking the law. Palm Lane’s parents are heroes for fighting back, but the scandal is how hard they had to fight to fulfill a basic legal right.

 

Charter-school parents march in New York to secure a civil right: education.

October 11, 2013

The Brooklyn Bridge

It’s too bad every New Yorker who plans to vote in the city’s mayoral election Nov. 5 couldn’t be at the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday morning. They would have seen the single most important issue in the race between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota. It’s not stop-and-frisk.

Thousands and thousands of charter-school parents with their young children—most looked to be in the first to fourth grades—marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to save their schools.

When Bill de Blasio won the Democratic nomination for mayor, the first question many asked was whether Mr. de Blasio’s intention to heavily regulate the police department’s stop-and-frisk program would put the city’s years of low-crime calm at risk.

But this big Brooklyn Bridge march of mothers, fathers and kids alters the calculus of next month’s vote. The crime issue, though important, is ultimately about self-interest.

By contrast, most New York voters—especially better-off white voters who’ve already made it here—have no direct stake whatsoever in New York City’s charter schools. They do, however, have a stake in the integrity of their political beliefs.

For decades, New York’s inner-city schools sent wave after wave of students into the world without the skills to do much more than achieve a minimal level of lifetime earnings, if that. This failure, repeated in so many large cities, remains the greatest moral catastrophe in the political life of the United States.

In New York, 20,000 parents and children marched on Oct. 8 in support of charter schools.

In 1999, the charter-school movement began in New York City with a handful of schools given independence from years of encrusted union rules and city regulations that made real learning virtually impossible in the city’s chaotic schools. The project flourished. Now nearly 200 charter schools teach some 70,000 students.

When the legislative limit on new charter-school openings arrives, New York’s next mayor will have to lobby the Albany legislature hard for permission to expand these lifeboats for the city’s poorest kids. So let’s put the politics of the mayoral election this way: Some 20,000 black and Hispanic parents and their kids would not have traveled from their neighborhoods—77% of the city’s charters are in Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn—to march across that famous bridge if Bill de Blasio were not running for mayor. They think Mr. de Blasio is going to kill the charter-school movement in New York City. And they think this is a civil-rights issue.

One thing these 20- and 30-something parents have in common with their counterparts who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Manhattan below 96th Street is that they weren’t even born when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. But for them, you couldn’t miss that the dream described 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial was alive on the Brooklyn Bridge.

A lady with a bullhorn: “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!” A sign: “Let my children learn.” And bringing the politics to the present, one sign said simply: “Charters for the 99%.”

Many voters in the parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn that have good public- or private-school options will still vote for Bill de Blasio, either because they don’t spend much time on these out-of-area moral dilemmas or they think: It can’t be that bad, can it? Bill de Blasio won’t actually kill these people’s schools, will he?

Yes, it can be that bad.

In a now-famous statement, Mr. de Blasio recently said of charter-school pioneer Eva Moskowitz: “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?” What this means is that Mr. de Blasio, under pressure from the city’s teachers union, will start demanding rent payments from public charter schools that now operate rent-free in the same buildings occupied by traditional public schools.

If the next mayor makes the charters pay rent in the city’s expensive real-estate market—essentially imposing a regressive tax on them—over time the schools’ budgets will suffocate and they’ll start to die. It will be a slow death, so Mr. de Blasio’s voters won’t notice what’s happening in Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

The city’s charter movement has attracted innovative school operators such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Harlem Village Academies and others. For the parents who win the annual lottery to get their kids into these schools, the result is an educational environment of achievement, discipline and esprit—what any parent wants. Given Mr. de Blasio’s intentions, these innovators will start to leave the city. One of the best things New York City has ever done will go away.

Sounds melodramatic? You bet it is. Why do you think those people were on that bridge?

How Democratic politicians like Bill de Blasio and the unionized teachers’ movement ended up so at odds with the city’s black children will fall to future historians to explain. But that’s where they are. What remains to be seen, and will be seen Nov. 5, is how many New Yorkers are in that same place.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared October 10, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bill de Blasio and Civil Rights.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Save the date!

February 1, 2013

Former California State Senator (and head of California’s Democrats for Education Reform) Gloria Romero will be in the Austin-area on February 27 and would like to talk to parents. Please let us know if you would be interested in attending!

The Suburban Education Gap

November 16, 2012

The U.S. economy could be $1 trillion a year stronger if Americans only performed at Canada’s level in math.

By ARTHUR LEVINE

Parents nationwide are familiar with the wide academic achievement gaps separating American students of different races, family incomes and ZIP Codes. But a second crucial achievement gap receives far less attention. It is the disparity between children in America’s top suburban schools and their peers in the highest-performing school systems elsewhere in the world.

Of the 70 countries tested by the widely used Program for International Student Assessment, the United States falls in the middle of the pack. This is the case even for relatively well-off American students: Of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42% are proficient in math, according to a Harvard University study of the PISA results. That is compared with 75% proficiency for all 15-year-olds in Shanghai and 50% for those in Canada.

Compared with big urban centers, America’s affluent suburbs have roughly four times as many students performing at the academic level of their international peers in math. But when American suburbs are compared with two of the top school systems in the world—in Finland and Singapore—very few, such as Evanston, Ill., and Scarsdale, N.Y., outperform the international competition. Most of the other major suburban areas underperform the international competition. That includes the likes of Grosse Point, Mich., Montgomery County, Md., and Greenwich, Conn. And most underperform substantially, according to the Global Report Card database of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

image

David Gothard

The problem America faces, then, is that its urban school districts perform inadequately compared with their suburban counterparts, and its suburban districts generally perform inadequately compared with their international counterparts. The domestic achievement gap means that the floor for student performance in America is too low, and the international achievement gap signals that the same is true of the ceiling. America’s weakest school districts are failing their students and the nation, and so are many of America’s strongest.

The domestic gap means that too many poor, urban and rural youngsters of color lack the education necessary to obtain jobs that can support a family in an information economy in which low-end jobs are disappearing. This hurts the U.S. economically, exacerbates social divisions, and endangers our democratic society by leaving citizens without the requisite knowledge to participate effectively.

The international gap, meanwhile, hurts the ability of American children to obtain the best jobs in a global economy requiring higher levels of skills and knowledge. This economy prizes expertise in math, science, engineering, technology, language and critical thinking.

The children in America’s suburban schools are competing for these jobs not only against each other and their inner-city and rural neighbors, but against peers in Finland and Singapore, where students are better-prepared. The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada’s level in math.

So what do Americans do? We talk a great deal about the achievement gap. We write books and reports about it. We wring our hands at its existence. We adopt a revolving door of short-term reforms in response. But nearly 30 years after the alarming federal report “A Nation at Risk,” not one major urban district has been turned around. Many of our suburban school districts are losing ground. We have settled on a path of global mediocrity for students attending our most affluent schools and national marginality for those attending failing inner-city schools.

A Hollywood drama released in September, “Won’t Back Down,” offered an alternative. It told the story of two parents (one a teacher) determined to transform their children’s failing school in the face of opposition from administrators, teachers and unions. The protagonists faced apathy and intransigence at every turn.

Hollywood caricatures aside, the movie correctly conveyed that parents are the key. Parents need to say that they won’t stand for these intolerable achievement gaps. The first step is for parents to learn what quality education is and how it is achieved.

This isn’t a game for amateurs. Parents need to use every resource at their disposal—demanding changes in schools and in district offices; using existing tools such as “parent-trigger” laws and charter schools; organizing their communities; cultivating the media and staging newsworthy events; telling politicians and officeholders that their votes will go to candidates who support improvement; even going to the courts. If parents want change, they have the capacity to make it happen, but it isn’t easy.

At the same time, it is critical to recognize that school districts can’t perform miracles. They can’t overcome the tolls of poverty and poor housing, but they can close gaps. They can raise the floor and the ceiling of student academic achievement. Some schools in high-need districts and suburbs are already doing this. There is no excuse not to—and, if we hope to compete globally, there is no time to lose.

Mr. Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

A version of this article appeared November 15, 2012, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Suburban Education Gap

A School Board Defies a Judge’s “Parent-Trigger” Order

August 30, 2012

The Parent-Trigger War Escalates

Updated August 28, 2012, 1:20 p.m. ET

Shades of Faubus: A school board defies a judge’s order.

It has come to this in California’s saga over “parent-trigger” education reform: A local school board is openly defying a judge’s order, with one member declaring “If I’m found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs, take me away.” So now the stalwarts of the status quo will break the law rather than allow parents school choice.

A California Superior Court judge ruled last month that several hundred parents in Adelanto, California had successfully pulled the nation’s first parent trigger to force change at their children’s failing public school. The judge “commanded” the Adelanto school board to let the parents “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting” proposals to transform Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school.

At a recent hearing, the school board unanimously refused. Instead, the board wants to implement what it calls “alternative governance” reforms: a somewhat longer school day, a “technology infusion into the classroom,” better training of teachers, and a “community advisory committee” to oversee such changes. That is, the board wants to keep tinkering around the edges of a school that’s been classified as failing for six years in a row, with 70% of sixth-graders not proficient in English or math.

The board insists that it is following the law—notwithstanding board member Jermaine Wright’s vow to stand in the schoolhouse door in handcuffs. The board’s line is that because the new school year is about to begin, it’s too late for Desert Trails to become a charter school.

But the parents aren’t aiming for this year. They want to solicit charter offers for next year. Naturally, the board says next year is also impossible, because that will be too far removed from when the parents filed their petition in January 2012. So having obstructed the parents for as long as legally possible, the school board turns around and says too much time has passed for the “trigger” to still be relevant.

This is an invented standard that no law or regulation empowers the board to apply. And it follows last month’s court order that slapped down the board for its “abuse of discretion” in trying to disqualify parents’ petition signatures. The parents of Adelanto will now have to return to court to enforce the victory they have already won.

One appropriate response would be for San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Elia Pirozzi to take Mr. Wright up on his offer and jail him and the rest of the board for the contempt they are clearly showing to the court. Another would be to have senior political figures in the state speak up on behalf of the parents against such school-board bullying. Why isn’t Governor Jerry Brown or Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom holding a press conference in front of Desert Trails Elementary?

Education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, and union obstructionists are the equivalent of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas Governor who tried to block school integration after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. They should be treated with the same moral contempt that they apparently hold for the law and for the children of Adelanto.

A version of this article appeared August 28, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Parent-Trigger War Escalates.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

A judge lets parents pull the ‘trigger’ on a failing school

July 27, 2012

A Parent Power Watershed

Summer vacation has just turned sour for some of the mandarins atop America’s sclerotic education system. With a judge’s ruling last week in Southern California, a group of parents has become the first in the country to take over their children’s failing public school after pulling a “parent trigger.”

California enacted this reform as an unprecedented accountability measure in 2010. It allows parents of children in persistently failing schools to force dramatic change through petition drives. If a majority of parents at a school sign a petition, they can close that school, shake up its staff, or convert it to a charter.

At least that’s the idea. But implementing the law requires some minimum cooperation from the local school establishment, which in California has resisted parent trigger from day one. That’s how the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School ended up in court.

With their school classified as failing six years in a row, and 70% of sixth-graders not proficient in English or math, the parents of Desert Trails filed a trigger petition in January with 466 signatures, or 70% support. The local school board then asserted that the trigger drive had only 37% support. Some petitions had errors or omissions, the board said, and nearly 100 were no longer valid because parents had rescinded their signatures.

These rescissions followed an orchestrated campaign of intimidation at Desert Trails and across the community. Parents heard—from strangers who wouldn’t identify themselves—that the trigger would close Desert Trails immediately, or result in their children’s expulsion, or even put their own immigration status at risk. Such untruths had circulated around previous school-choice efforts, and they spread rapidly in a few crucial days—all of which suggested the strong arm of the California Teachers Association and its local allies.

But as we editorialized at the time (“Parent-Trigger Warfare,” March 2), state regulations don’t allow rescissions. Now San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone has agreed, finding that the attempt to undercut the parents’ majority “amounts to an abuse of discretion.” As Judge Malone ruled, school officials can’t disregard a trigger drive simply “because in their judgment, converting the school into a charter school is unwise, inappropriate, or unpopular with District employees or classroom teachers.”

The ruling effectively hands Desert Trails to the parents, ordering the district out of their way as the judge says they can “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals.” This represents a potentially revolutionary power shift. For all the PTA meetings and solemn assurances from superintendents and union leaders that parent input into public schools is sacred, the ability of parents to force change has typically been nil.

For kids in failing schools it’s unfortunate that California’s law took two and a half years to bear first fruit, but such is the reactionary power of unionized bureaucracy. The reform effort will require many more parents to pull their triggers—in California, and in the roughly 20 states considering parent-trigger laws. But this week’s court victory is a welcome precedent.

A version of this article appeared July 24, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Parent Power Watershed.

Alert to Ed Reformers Living Near Austin! Come to the AISD School Board Meeting!

December 17, 2011

This Monday (12/19) at 7 pm.  Come to the AISD School Board meeting.

Come support IDEA Public School, an exemplary charter school, in their bid to operate the perpetually failing Eastside Memorial High School.

Get there early (5pm) to get a seat in the hearing room at 1111 West 6th Street, 2 blocks west of Lamar.

There will be plenty of teacher’s union folks.

We need to show the school board that there are folks on the other side of the issue.


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