Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is the non-parent Parent Trigger backfiring?

The move to hand challenged, high-need McKinley Elementary School in Compton over to a charter operator under California's “Parent Trigger” law was widely reported earlier this month as a resounding triumph for low-income parents demanding a decent school for their children.

To those following the issue closely, that version has rapidly fallen apart, as critics (including this poster) have retorted that an organization founded by charter operators and funded by billionaires ran the show and exploited the parents. As I and many others have said, it's unclear on the concept to portray an action orchestrated by professionals, funded by billionaires and corporate titans, and applauded by the leader of the free world (reportedly), the governor of California and the mayor of Los Angeles as a “revolution of the little people.”

Meanwhile, the school community has predictably dissolved into chaos and conflict.

California's Parent Trigger legislation passed earlier this year and allows 51 percent of voters (the specifics of exactly who can vote appear to be nebulous) to sign petitions to force a school to transform by (choose one) requiring a charter school to take over; bringing in a new staff and giving the parents significant control over staffing and budgeting; closing down the school; or merely replacing the principal.

On Dec. 7, in a polished media event, McKinley parents delivered their signatures (apparently of McKinley parents and not the vague “others” the Parent Trigger law also allows to vote) to officials of the Compton Unified School District.

The move would put the school into the hands of a specific charter operator, Celerity Educational Group. The entire Parent Trigger move actually came not from within the McKinley community but from the organization Parent Revolution, which was founded not by parents but by a group of charter school operators led by the high-profile Green Dot. As the L.A. Weekly puts it, Parent Revolution “has 10 full-time staff members and a $1 million annual operating budget, is funded by blue-chip philanthropic endeavors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation [of Wal-Mart]."

The L.A. Weekly, a conservative “advocacy journalism” alternative paper, provides the most detailed and revealing accounts of the events before and since the signatures were delivered. The degree to which the accounts are revealing is ironic, as the Weekly's advocacy in favor of the Trigger is full-throated — to my eyes as a well-informed California education advocate who holds the opposite position, much of the Weekly's portrayal is jaw-droppingly distorted. But putting that aside, if even a portion of the information is accurate, the L.A. Weekly is definitely the source to follow.

After the signatures were delivered and the national and international press, politicians, commentators et al. leaped on the event to proclaim a victory for the people, the L.A. Times followed up with a Dec. 11 story announcing that some McKinley parents claimed to have been misled and wanted to withdraw their signatures.

And in a detailed blog report posted late last night (Dec. 14), the L.A. Weekly describes an angry and chaotic Compton Unified School District meeting, “packed with press and hundreds of angry parents, many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without knowing its gravity.”

“Above all,” the Weekly post declares, “the air is buzzing with confusion.
“It seems everyone here has a contradicting understanding of what, exactly, the new Celerity Educational Group charter school would mean for their children.”

Further chaos ensues:

Admin, teachers, parents and students from another Los Angeles charter school — the Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists — have showed up in mass (sic) to sing the praises of charter schools. 'The teachers there are great — everybody's great,' says one mother. WAYS grandmother Ethel Nathaniel says, 'The school is really beautiful; it's wonderful.'

'We don't want charter school! We don't want charter school!' some mothers chant.
… More and more, the crowd reveals itself as anti-Parent Trigger. The only speakers that are cheered are the ones defending CUSD.

The conclusion of the current version of the L.A. Weekly blog tells the story.

… There's a new civil war working against the betterment [the wording expresses the Weekly's open view that the move would promote the school's “betterment”] of McKinley Elementary: The Celerity parents versus the CUSD parents. And as long as they're both preaching to their own choirs, this is going to be one long, painful board meeting of a battle for the children.”
It was obvious that this move would rip the community apart. No one who has been part of — or a close observer of — a school community could fail to see that.

The Weekly is once again the best source for a description of how the organizing against McKinley Elementary took place:

"Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. ... [Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben] Austin and his staff surveyed parents at several schools in Compton, asking if they were interested in a transformation. ... field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton, knocking on hundreds of doors, walking its sidewalks and driving its streets, asking people if their children attend McKinley, making contacts."

Needless to say, an organizing drive from within a school community does not require paid organizers to cold-call all over town, asking strangers if their children attend the school.

The Weekly's description of the photo-op surprise delivery of the petition signatures to the school district should make it clear to anyone who's not sound asleep that there's big money behind this move: A "crowd -- including parents, children and reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles times, CNN, local TV channels 2, 4, 7, 11, radio news stations KPCC and others, as well as aides to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- then clambers into two yellow school buses...” After a mother hands the signatures to the acting superintendent (who's waiting outside with a police escort), requests and receives a receipt, the mother “holds the receipt in the air and several parents and their children cheer and begin chanting 'Yes we can! Yes we can!' ”

Not an event created by meek and downtrodden parents unaccustomed to the media spotlight, shall we say.

There's one more little twist to the national press coverage describing McKinley Elementary as a disastrous academic failure: In reality, McKinley outperforms the average Green Dot charter school. Green Dot, again, is the organization behind this move, as the lead founder of Parent Revolution.

California's school accountability system is called the Academic Performance Index, which compiles the student test scores annually into one API number on a scale of 200-1000. 800-plus is considered excellent.

Spring 2010 API for McKinley Elementary in Compton, CA: 684.
Spring 2010 average API for all Green Dot charter schools in California: 657.

(Source: My own research on the California Department of Education database.)

— Caroline Grannan


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