Posts Tagged ‘School Choice’

Los Angeles Charter Uprising

May 22, 2017

Voters elect a pro-reform majority on the local school board.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

One reason public schools in big cities are so lousy is union control of local school boards. This has long been true in Los Angeles, but last week charter-school advocates dealt a major blow to the failing status quo by winning a majority on the district’s Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the country’s lowest-performing public schools. In 2015 only one in five fourth-graders rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Los Angeles boasts more charter schools than any district in the country, they still account for merely 16% of enrollment. Two years ago the Great Public Schools Now initiative, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, set a goal of enrolling 50% of the district’s students in charters. The unions naturally went nuts.

As union schools lose students (and thus taxpayer funds) to charters, the school board has become even more reactionary. Last month the board voted to support three bills before the state legislature in Sacramento that aim to limit autonomy for charter schools. One would prevent charters from appealing rejections by local school boards to county and state boards. The appeals process is one reason charters in Los Angeles have been able to expand despite school-board resistance.

Anti-charter board members have tried to convince parents that rising graduation rates show that traditional public schools are improving. But the real explanation is that the board dumbed down graduation requirements and allowed students to pass courses with a D grade. Half of last year’s graduating seniors were ineligible for state public universities, according to the education nonprofit The 74.

School board president Steve Zimmer, who was ousted last week, declared that “teachers are not failing. Students are not failing. Schools are not failing.” Parents who voted in the local elections believe otherwise.

Unions tried to vilify pro-charter candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez by portraying them as tools of Donald Trump, though both were endorsed by President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s progressive former Senator Barbara Boxer. There’s nothing progressive about failing low-income minority kids.

Appeared in the May. 22, 2017, print edition.

The Anti-School Choice Coalition

April 13, 2017

Democrats in Maryland and the GOP in Texas punish poor kids.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, stands with Maryland Democrats on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Annapolis, Md.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, stands with Maryland Democrats on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Annapolis, Md. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Teachers unions portray vouchers as a nefarious Republican scheme though support for—and opposition to—private school choice is often bipartisan. Witness how Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in Texas have stymied efforts to improve educational options for poor kids.

Last week Maryland’s Democratic General Assembly overrode GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that restricts his ability to enact school reforms. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must develop plans to identify and rehabilitate low-performing public schools. In Maryland this job falls to the 12-member Board of Education appointed by the governor.

Democrats have passed legislation limiting objective measures of academic performance (e.g., student achievement, growth, graduation rates) to 65% of a school’s score. So schools in which the vast majority of kids fail state tests could still get a passing grade if, say, they score high on teacher satisfaction or attendance.

The legislation also prohibits the board from issuing letter grades to schools and converting failing ones to charters or appointing new management—interventions backed by the Obama Administration. Nor can the board offer vouchers to students who attend chronically low-performing schools. In other words, Democrats want to keep poor kids trapped in failing schools while concealing the evidence.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools this year ranked Maryland’s charter-school law the weakest in the country, and a lack of high-quality options may be driving parents from Baltimore. The U.S. Census Bureau says Baltimore’s population decreased by 7,000 between 2015 and 2016, the third largest decline among county-sized jurisdictions after Cook County (Chicago) and Wayne County (Detroit).

Ironically, many of Maryland’s black parents fled Washington, D.C. two decades ago amid the capital’s fiscal crisis and deteriorating public schools. But over the last 15 years Washington has been at the forefront of school reform. Former chancellor Michelle Rhee imposed rigorous teacher evaluations, eliminated tenure, introduced merit pay and expanded school choice. Nearly half of students attend charters while about 1,200 receive federally funded private-school scholarships.

The results speak for themselves: In 2015 Washington, D.C. ranked as the fastest improving urban school district on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth-grade reading. On the other hand, Baltimore’s fourth-grade math and reading test scores dropped more than any other school district. Unyielding Democratic opposition to reform in Maryland may propel more parents in Baltimore to leave, undercutting tax revenues and public schools.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Texas House have deep-sixed legislation passed by the state Senate creating tax-credit scholarships and education-savings accounts for low-income kids. After rural lawmakers complained that vouchers would harm their local schools, Senate Republicans restricted scholarship eligibility to the state’s 17 largest counties and capped tax credits at $25 million.

House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty says the bill is dead on arrival, and more than two-thirds of House lawmakers voted last week to ban state funds from flowing to private schools. In February Mr. Huberty called vouchers “a solution in search of a problem.” Would he like to defend the status quo in Houston where a mere one in five eighth-graders score proficient in reading?

In selecting Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, Donald Trump picked a school-choice warrior who’s fought for years on the barricades. The setbacks in Texas and Maryland show why her experience and tenacity are needed.

Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition.

American Teachers Unions Oppose Innovative Schools—in Africa

March 10, 2017

Bridge Academies show promising results in Kenya and Uganda, but unions see them only as a threat.

 

Shannon May from Bridge International Academies with pupils in Monrovia, Liberia, May 25, 2016.

Shannon May from Bridge International Academies with pupils in Monrovia, Liberia, May 25, 2016. PHOTO: ZOOM DOSSO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

No longer content to oppose educational innovation at home, the unions representing America’s teachers have gone abroad in search of monsters to slay.

For nearly a decade, Bridge International Academies has run a chain of successful private schools in the slums of Kenya and Uganda. A for-profit company, Bridge has shown that it’s possible to provide high-quality, low-cost primary education to poor children in the developing world. Naturally, the teachers unions are outraged.

“Bridge’s for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education and depriving them of their natural curiosity to imagine and learn,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García in October. “This is morally wrong, and professionally reprehensible.”

According to Unesco, the literacy rate among second- and third-graders in Kenya is 32%; in Uganda it’s 27%. The teachers unions blame poverty. Only students who are free from want, they say, can be free to learn.

An alternative explanation is that poor-performing schools in Africa—and India, where Bridge expanded in 2017—are simply not geared for learning. In parts of the developing world, a rigid curriculum leaves many students hopelessly behind. No real attempts are made to monitor school performance. Teachers often lack appropriate skills and frequently fail even to show up to work.

In 2013 the World Bank determined that teachers in Kenya’s government schools were absent 47% of the time, teaching an average of only two hours, 19 minutes a day. A government audit showed that 80% of the primary-school teachers certified by Uganda last year could not themselves reliably perform at the primary-school level in reading and mathematics.

African and Indian parents are no different from American parents. They know that poor-performing government schools are letting their children down. Even the desperately poor in slums and rural areas are willing to pay for a better option.

Bridge is a Silicon Valley-style startup. Its founders hope to revolutionize education, taking inspiration from the way Tesla and Uber disrupted their industries. With more than $100 million in support from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. and Learn Capital, Bridge has developed a new model of private education.

Bridge school teachers are provided with lesson plans and teaching scripts. They work eight-hour days. Their attendance is monitored; absences are rare. Student-performance data are collected, analyzed and used to improve outcomes.

In Kenya, progress has been notable. After two years in Bridge schools, 59% of students pass the national primary school exam. That’s 15 percentage points higher than the estimated public-school pass-rate. In 56 communities from 23 rural and urban counties, Bridge had a 100% pass rate among pupils who attended their schools for at least two years.

These unprecedented gains led World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015 to single out Bridge for helping lift students in the developing world into the modern age. His words of praise enraged Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The World Bank’s promotion of the fee-charging, for-profit Bridge International Academies in Kenya and Uganda is not an appropriate role for the institution,” she said.

In late 2016, Education International, a global consortium of teachers unions, issued detailed reports attacking Bridge’s work in Kenya and Uganda. While never mentioning the improvement in student learning, the reports maligned Bridge’s use of teaching scripts, claiming that they hindered teacher flexibility and creativity. Not surprisingly, a main concern was that teacher salaries are lower at Bridge schools than they are at government schools. But it seems educational innovation anywhere is a threat to union control everywhere.

Mr. Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a special adviser to Learn Capital, which supports the expansion of Bridge International Academies.

Will Unions Cripple Kentucky’s Belated Charter-School Effort?

March 2, 2017

Opponents of reform are pushing a weak bill that maintains the local school boards’ monopoly.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Kentucky is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow charter schools, making it something of an educational backwater. Republicans have been trying to pass charter-school legislation since 2009, only to be stymied by Democrats, who had a lock on the governorship and state House.

But charters’ time in the Bluegrass State may have finally arrived. In 2015 Republican Matt Bevin, a charter-school champion, was elected governor. Then last year Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921 and unseated Speaker Greg Stumbo, a staunch opponent of school choice. Republicans now hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly—64 of 100 seats in the House and 27 of 38 in the Senate.

Even teachers unions and local school boards seem resigned to the inevitability of allowing charter schools. To limit the damage to their interests, they’re trying to exploit divisions among Republicans to keep charters tightly contained by conceding regulatory authority to the local boards.

Kentucky schools rank about average nationwide, though large disparities exist among districts. Last year 77% of middle-school students in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas scored “proficient” on state math tests. Four miles away in Newport, only 30% did. For Jefferson County (Louisville), the figure was 39%.

“We have a great city, a beautiful downtown, trails,” says Lynn Schaber, a Newport mom whose second-grade son attends a Montessori school. “But people aren’t happy with the school system. As they say around here, it’s trikes, no bikes. People move out of the city once their kids get older than 3 because of the poor schools.”

Like many suburban and rural districts in Kentucky, Newport has only one elementary, middle and high school. Parents in low-performing districts who can afford it send their kids to private schools or move to districts with better schools like Fort Thomas, where the median home price is about twice that of Newport. Thus, public schools and cities become segregated along socioeconomic, and in some cases racial, lines. Nearly 90% of Newport students qualify for free or discounted lunches, compared with about 15% in Fort Thomas.

Such gaping inequities are driving support for charter-school legislation that would bring Kentucky’s education system into the 21st century. Last month state Rep. Phil Moffett introduced a bill that would allow local school districts, college governing boards, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Louisville and Lexington mayors, and the state Board of Education to authorize charters.

Multiple authorizers would enable students to travel outside their home districts to attend a charter. By contrast, district authorizers could limit enrollment to students within their bounds. This would be a huge impediment to charter growth in rural and suburban areas where there are fewer students. Newport’s system-wide enrollment is just 1,600 students—fewer than in some big-city high schools.

Mrs. Schaber has joined five other parents to devise plans for a charter school that will enroll students from six small cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. She notes that parents frequently move between the cities, depending on their job and housing. So it makes sense to form a regional charter.

Charter opponents are pushing a weaker bill that would vest local school boards with the sole power to authorize and regulate charters. That would let those boards, typically controlled by the unions, throw up roadblocks. While charters could appeal district decisions to the state Board of Education, the process would be cumbersome and costly. Only charters backed by well-heeled donors would have the resources to navigate and battle the education bureaucracy.

The experience of other states is instructive. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia don’t allow multiple authorizers and have few charter schools. Arizona, Minnesota and New York do, and have an abundance. Charters in the latter group of states are among the highest-performing nationwide.

The weaker bill would also require charters to participate in and contribute to the state’s insolvent public pension system, among the worst funded in the country. So they could be forced to pick up the retirement tab for union teachers in traditional public schools.

Local school boards have lobbied Republicans to reject legislation with multiple authorizers and instead back the diluted bill, which they say will hold charters more accountable. “People love their local school board,” says Mrs. Schaber. “They want to support it.”

That may be, but allowing local school boards to regulate their competition is fundamentally unfair. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year that a law allowing Amtrak to regulate freight trains that compete for track time could not be sustained under the Fifth Amendment: “Giving a self-interested entity regulatory authority over its competitors violates due process.” The same principle should apply when children’s futures are at stake.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Trump’s School-Choice Fight

September 19, 2016

His plan to let money follow the child is a moral and political winner.

 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17.ENLARGE
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

If Donald Trump knew that promoting school choice would cause such a ruckus on the left, maybe he’d have weighed in sooner. The Republican nominee has found a winning issue by pitching a plan to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” Amen.

During a visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Mr. Trump proposed a $20 billion block grant for states by redirecting federal education money to support charter schools and vouchers. He also endorsed merit pay for teachers and said he’d support local candidates who champion school choice.

Most of the $50 billion or so that the federal government spends on K-12 education is targeted to particular programs like teacher training, and rural and STEM education. About $14 billion in Title I funds are earmarked for disadvantaged students. However, this money doesn’t follow kids to private schools, and states often shortchange charter schools.

Mr. Trump wants to let states use federal funds to boost voucher awards, so parents rather than governments get to choose where the money goes. As he noted in Cleveland, “there is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.” Judging by the panicky reaction on the left, you’d think he’d proposed eliminating public education.

Hillary Clinton said his block-grant plan would “decimate public schools across America.” Yet $20 billion is merely 3% of what states spend on K-12 education each year and less than the increase in school spending in California since 2012. By the way, charters are public schools—freed of union control.

Mrs. Clinton is showing how far left she has moved on education. President Obama has been hostile to vouchers; recall former Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program that principally benefits poor black kids. But at least Mr. Obama supported charters, while Mrs. Clinton is now openly hostile to these reform public schools.

Unions and their friends are trying to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s speech and minority outreach by saying the charter school where he announced his plan received a failing grade on Ohio’s school-progress report card last year. But the charter flunked due to a switch in state tests last year that caused student scores to slump nearly everywhere in the state.

In 2014 about 71% of third graders at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy were proficient in reading. On the new test 55% rated as proficient. Yet the share of students at Cleveland Arts who scored proficient was still more than twice as high as at Harvey Rice Elementary (which has a similar demographic makeup) down the block. That school got an A on student growth.

It’s ironic that progressives are howling about the charter’s performance on standardized tests, which they usually insist are a poor indicator of school and teacher quality. Why is it that the only schools that unions believe should be held accountable for student performance are those run by their competition? That’s a question Mr. Trump should ask from here to November.

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.

 

All Arne’s Children

July 14, 2015

Arne Duncan has had his good moments supporting charter schools, but the Education Secretary continues to fight vouchers for private schools. So it’s worth noting that he has decided to send his own children to a private school in Chicago.

During his time in Washington, Mr. Duncan’s two children have been attending public schools in suburban Virginia. But his wife has now moved back to Chicago, and come fall their children will study at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools—which he attended and where tuition runs about $30,000 a year. That’s also where Barack and Michelle Obama sent their children before moving to Washington and sending Sasha and Malia to the tony Sidwell Friends.

Mr. Duncan’s choice is all the more striking since he used to run the Chicago public schools. He also stood aside in 2009 when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin managed to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington until Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Congress revived it.

The Education Secretary was also a muted voice when the Obama Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at scuttling Louisiana’s innovative voucher program. And he was silent again when the Colorado Supreme Court recently invoked a leftover of 19th-century bigotry—its anti-Catholic Blaine amendment—to stop students from receiving vouchers for private schools.

We wish Arne Duncan’s children every success. Too bad he didn’t fight for similar options for families not as fortunate as his.