AG to examine ‘trigger’ complaints

Reports of harassment in Compton

State School Board President Ted Mitchell intends to ask the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate charges of harassment and intimidation of Compton Unified parents who have petitioned to turn their low-performing elementary school into a charter school.

“What I have been hearing is there has been rampant abuse and rampant lying, and trying  to intimidate parents,” he said in an interview after Wednesday’s State Board meeting. “There is no place in the parent trigger or in any kind of open democratic process for that level of fear and intimidation. … We need to get to the facts, and the Attorney General’s Office has the capacity and the responsibility to do that.”  (Click here for my interview with Mitchell.)

Last week, parents of students at McKinley Elementary became the first in the state to demand school reform under a “parent trigger” law passed earlier this year. As the law permits, they have specifically requested that the board turn over the school to Celerity Education Group, a Los Angeles-based charter organization.

Organizers said they turned in signatures of parents and guardians representing 62 percent of students in the K-5 school – more than the majority required.

Since then, there have been dueling press conferences and claims of threats and coercion. Opponents claim that 50 to 60 parents have withdrawn their names because they say they were misled about the purpose of the petition; the district has not confirmed that number. One parent said she thought she was  signing a petition to beautify the school.

This week, several parents who signed the petition charged they have been harassed by school staff, threatened with deportation, and wrongly told that the charter school would not take special education children. One mother, Marlene Romero, said her third grade son’s teacher called her into the school to berate her for signing the petition while a district official stood by and took notes. That teacher did make inflammatory comments on the YouTube video that parents posted explaining their campaign. (See comments by vtellez2001)

Mitchell is acting on the suggestion of State Board member Alan Arkatov of Los Angeles, who suggested to the board Wednesday that the disturbing complaints should be investigated as potential civil rights violations.

Neither he nor Mitchell said if he believed one side or the other. But Ben Austin, a board member who is also executive director of Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organizing parents to use the parent trigger, denied after the meeting that his staff misled any of the parents. (Austin recused himself during the board’s parent-trigger discussion.) “Opponents  are making this stuff up, as we knew they would. If  they are not slapped down, there will be open season on parents,” he said. (Click here for part of my interview with him after Wednesday’s State School Board meeting.)

This week, a reporter from LA Weekly, who spent several days observing Parent Revolution organizers and interviewing parents, came to the organization’s defense, saying, “The Weekly was not present the entire time Parent Revolution organizers were working in Compton, but from what we observed, charges of deception and harassment do not seem credible.”

The events in Compton have drawn national attention as several states are considering similar laws, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board is touting the parent trigger as the next big lever to reform public schools.

At its meeting Wednesday, the State Board continued to grapple with proposed regulations that will govern the petition process. Those detailed regulations will spell out time limits for districts to verify signatures (25 days) and respond to the petition (45 days), who is eligible to sign (one signature per child), and the options, besides demanding a charter school, that parents can request. The law limits exercising the parent trigger to 75 schools out of the more than 3,000 potentially eligible schools that have failed to make federal proficiency targets for at least four years straight.

But what’s mystifyingly missing from the proposed regulations is a requirement for an informational hearing at which the parent-trigger options would be objectively explained to parents and charges of misinformation and impropriety, as happened in Compton and are certain to recur elsewhere, would be aired. The state PTA and Public Advocates were among the groups that asked that public hearings be added to the regulations. But the state Department of Education rejected the idea on narrow grounds that the law establishing a parent trigger did not specify hearings.

The parent-trigger law adopts the four school reform options that the Obama administration is requiring that school districts choose for the lowest performing schools nationwide. Parents can request to close their school, restart it as a charter, fire half of the teachers and principal, or, as a less jarring choice, transform it through a longer school day and curriculum and scheduling changes. All four are hopeful but as yet unproven strategies for turning around failing schools. Anticipating that Congress may revise these options when it reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind law, several education groups asked that the parent trigger regulations incorporate other models as they evolve into law. But the State Department rejected that request, saying it was impossible to predict the future.

The board voted to send the latest version out for a 15-day comment period over the protest of a dozen representatives of education groups. They objected that the State Department of Education released its 47-page response to their earlier suggestions for the regulations only that morning and that it’s inappropriate to time the next comment period with the Christmas break.

Board member James Aschwanden agreed, saying that “we have compelling interest to do things right and  should ensure that regulations are developed in a thoughtful and reflective way.” A comment period at the end of December “sets the wrong tone.”

But the majority of board members also hear a clock ticking. Gov.-elect Jerry Brown has the option of appointing seven new board members. Knowing that the January meeting may be their last, they appear to want  to wrap up the regulations before they leave.

At the start of hearing, outgoing Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss and departing Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the parent-trigger bill as part of the state’s Race to the Top legislation last January, urged the board not to weaken the regulations.


  1. To anyone who has been part of or a close observer of a school community, it’s obvious that this process would ignite conflict, divisiveness, most likely intimidation, and more bad things.
    The L.A. Weekly’s detailed coverage makes it obvious that Parent Revolution (an organization founded and run by charter operators, not a parent group) launched and ran the signature-gathering, not McKinley parents.
    “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.”
    Again, anyone familiar with a school community can see that if McKinley parents had even been involved in the signature-gathering, paid organizers would not have to cold-call all over town asking strangers if they had kids at McKinley.
    The professionally orchestrated media event at which the signatures were delivered to Compton district officials further makes it clear that Parent Revolution was running the show, not McKinley parents:
    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!’ ”
    As already noted, it’s unclear on the concept to portray an operation orchestrated by forces funded by billionaires and corporate titans and supported by the leader of the free world (reportedly), the governor of California, the mayor of Los Angeles and the major media (just Google and look at the long, long string of positive items about the McKinley Parent Trigger) as a  revolution of the little people.
    According to the L.A. Weekly, 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 Weekly also live-blogged a Dec. 14 Compton Unified School District board 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 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.
    “…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 Weekly live-blog concludes: “There’s a new civil war working against the betterment [the wording expresses the Weekly's partisan 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.” (Italics in the original.)
    Clearly this is not workable. What are people thinking?
    And by the way, that 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. (Source: My own research in the California Department of Education database.)

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




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  2. The Green Dot/McKinley comparison is crazy on two fronts.
    1. Green Dot operates high schools who have significantly lower API’s than elementary schools.
    2. Crescendo, the proposed operator, has an average API around 800 for its five schools.
    After generations of failure by the system, adults are trying to do something different for the benefit of the kids – a focus never before placed at this school in Compton, one of the most corrupt districts in all of California where only adults matter.

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  3. Here’s a list of current job openings from the California Teachers Association website:

    Field Services Specialist
    Region 3

    Governance Program Specialist
    Governance Department

    Multimedia/Web Support Specialist
    TID Department

    Looks like politics in California requires professional assistance.

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  4. The proposed operator is Celerity.  Celerity’s website lists 4 schools although I can only find API scores on 3 of them: Dyad, Nascent, and Troika.  I don’t know the status of Octavia.  The average API of these three schools is 850, but I think its more interesting to talk about median scores which is 836 (Dyad).  But its also interesting to note that the maximum scores is 932 (Troika) and the minimum score is 782 (Nascent).  These numbers are all based on the 2010 growth scores.  These scores will be very close to the numbers set as the 2010 base, which some may consider the “final” scores for 2010.
    And to add some balance to the numbers, at the highest scoring of the schools – Troika – 34% of parents had a college education or higher.  That number for Nascent is 4% and the number for Dyad is 0%.

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  5. Blogger Robert Skeels is posting about Celerity’s low special education percentages, too. But yes, Celerity’s schools do have high test scores.
    But it’s Green Dot out there calling McKinley’s scores “abysmal” and “dismal” and all that. Robert hairsplits, but the fact remains.
    I think this triumph for the alleged little people is going to be fleeting, however.
    I mean, it would be really nice if we could believe that this were a miracle that would empower parents and transform this challenged school.

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  6. Her poor use of data aside (Robert is not splitting hairs), Caroline raises an interesting point. The Parent Trigger chooses the most contentious route for change. It would have been easier to organize parents to support the creation of a high-performing charter school in the neighborhood and then let parents decide which school to attend. As the declining attendance in LA Unified schools indicates, parents are choosing charters. (You’ll never admit it, Caroline, but if you lived in the McKinley neighborhood, in such a dysfunctional district that has produced generations of  simply awful schools, I think I know which side of the battle line you’d be on.) The teachers and the district, with their jobs immediately threatened, will do whatever it takes to ward off the takeover of McKinley Elementary. There will be lawsuits over the Parent Trigger and nasty efforts within the district to sabotage it. There is one skill Compton adults are good at: infighting.

    Parent Revolution says it’s not about charters but parent empowerment, but most parents will organize for the charter school option. Two of the other choices they are limited to — closing the school and firing the principal and staff — won’t change the education for their kids. The transformation option, with a longer day, more teacher training and collaboration, might work — and be worth pursuing — if there is money to go with it. There isn’t.

    It will take years and multiple petition efforts before we can see whether Parent Trigger will lead to a wave of parent involvement and better schools. Praise the parents who signed the first petition; it takes guts.  And I don’t condemn the use of paid organizers to help them.

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  7. I predict that the Parent Trigger will vanish and become one of those Edison Schools-like embarrassments that reformistas will pretend they never heard of — it’s so obviously unworkable.
    In general I don’t share the view that you express, John, indicating that the school and its teachers are in a war against — enemies of — the parents and children. Why would the teachers remain there if they are hostile to the children and families? OK, maybe I don’t get Compton. (I’ll be in L.A. over winter break, and I think I’ll at least go over and look at the school and neighborhood, though of course it’ll be closed.)
    I do know people in the communities of San Francisco’s most challenged schools. The school faculties and administrators view themselves as supporters of the students and families, and I don’t think the students and families see them as hostile (except in certain circumstances — those situations where the school wants the kid evaluated for learning or other disabilities and the family takes offense and resists; situations where the kid is disciplined and the family is angry — and most people could see two sides to those scenarios.) Of minor interest is that Parent Revolution told the L.A. Weekly that it is getting calls from parents in places including San Francisco, so we’ll see what shakes out.
    I wouldn’t inherently condemn the use of paid organizers to help. In this case I don’t believe the McKinley parent community was involved or committed. Parent Revolution targeted the school, launched the effort and approached the parents. Again, if the McKinley parents had gotten involved and taken anything resembling a lead or even significant role, Parent Revolution’s staff wouldn’t have needed to make those cold calls.
    My experience is in school communities. Commentators who spend more time schmoozing with reformistas and politicos than engaging with school communities truly don’t have a clear or accurate picture, in my opinion. That’s why it’s so easy for them to believe that teachers and schools are the enemy of children and families, which is not what you see in real life.
    The outcome remains to be seen. But in my view, this is not an effective way to provide a better school for a challenged community. If I’m wrong, it will be a good thing for the families of Compton.

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  8. Following up on my comment on whether families see the teachers and school as their enemy: One of the McKinley parents who supported the petition complained that the teacher wouldn’t let her child go on a field trip as a consequence of not doing homework.
    That’s famously a KIPP practice — Jay Mathews describes it extensively in “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Why is that a bad thing to be deplored when a public school teacher does it, and an admirable thing to be cheered when a KIPP school does it?

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  9. I don’t know the specific history of the CTA, but other unions had the benefit of union organizers that weren’t necessarily from the workers being unionized.  So at least the parent revolution is not breaking ground in following this approach.  Unionizing efforts are never clean and simple.  I’ve heard enough teachers call CTA representatives disconnected and pointless to know that thinking of the CTA as one unified whole doesn’t make sense.  And just to be clear the criticism was coming from teachers who strongly support unionization.

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  10. What follows are my comments on the proposed parent empowerment regs. I submitted these on Nov. 17, prior to yesterday’s State Board meeting.

    <<I have been before the State Board of Education on numerous occasions to discuss
    this matter. At a prior meeting in March, 2010, I asked to be included in an advisory group
    which was to take on the responsibility of considering the language to be used in the regulations.
    I was not alerted about any advisory group meetings and some months later, I wrote to the State
    Board to inquire about the advisory group. I was told that some meetings had taken place but
    that the group would not meet further. I am using this opportunity to register my dissatisfaction
    with the procedure used and my concern that a situation was allowed to exist in which some
    parties may have exerted undue influence while others were precluded from taking part.

    Nonetheless, my opinion on Parent Empowerment has not materially changed: while there is
    certainly merit to a legal procedure empowering parents to demand change at public schools,
    there has been so little authentic interest in having parents involved at schools (beyond bake
    sales, field trips, yard duty and the like) that it will prove tricky to create reliable outcomes for
    children under this law, particularly inasmuch as there is no existing infrastructure nor resources
    to train parents in what they need to know to make decisions about how to know what is working
    at their schools – and the culture that exists in many of our schools has little to no interest in seeing
    such expertise develop any time soon.

    As a founding family member of an independent charter middle school in Los Angeles, I believe that this
    law may be more about getting some organizations a better foothold in public schools without the need to build the expertise among parents in a school community to recognize how to create and maintain conditions for success, recognize what good teaching and learning look like, how to understand and analyze data and school plans, monitor and evaluate progress and continuously improve. If we really want families involved, we ought to be helping them to understand what it means to have a seat at the table; having a seat without knowing what is being decided upon is… worthless.

    Charter schools hold much promise yet they are not a panacea; in the case of the regulations being considered here, I wonder how many parents have already pulled the trigger by choosing to enroll their children in charters, some of which are failing kids miserably? What about those parents? 

    If we are going to give this law better odds of success, then I think that we must lift the cap on the limit of strategies parents may choose. The ones identified in the proposed regulations are consistent with federal law, which may change and may limit parent empowerment in the future if this law is tied too closely to current options in federal law.

    Petition gatherers who are paid – or otherwise compensated – should be required to be identified as such – frankly, the notion that individuals or organizations would pay signature gatherers for a parent petition is inconsistent with the spirit of this law, in my opinion.

    Every effort must be made to ensure that this process is thoroughly transparent at each and every school and everything is available to the public easily. Let’s not see allegations of “robo-signing” such as those currently plaguing the mortgage industry. >>

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  11. What I have been hearing is there has been rampant abuse and rampant lying, and trying  to intimidate parents,”

    Interesting that I have been hearing the same reports as Ted Mitchell. Of course, I’ve heard it was the paid petition signature gatherers that were engaged in most of the abuse.

    The whole “Parent Trigger’” has more going for it as a weapons/military based metaphor than the author, Sen Romero (now of the neo-liberal Democrats for Education Reform) ,and her Broad/Hastings puppet-masters had in mind.

     I’ve always been disturbed by the classic American catch-phrase: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” In this case it’s destroy the school in order to save it. Well, the village wasn’t saved and neither will the school(s). Parent trigger just ignites controvery and passions in neighborhoods that need to conserve energies to support their children. Grenade throwers like the Broad funded, astro-turf, Parent Revolution do not add to these communities, they just set them up for commerical exploitation by private sector predators. (Parent Revolution: yet another violent, militaristic metaphor.  Must be telling us something.)

    I do want to see the results of that investigation though.

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  12. Bruno Behrend of the Heartland Institute (who I believe posts here sometimes) has commented in several forums that the use of the Parent Trigger will help accelerate the process of eliminating public education.
    I agree with him that the use of the Parent Trigger would help accelerate the process of eliminating public education. (Though I’m pretty convinced the Parent Trigger will fizzle due to the fact that it’s so inherently divisive to school communities that it will never go smoothly.)
    Mr. Behrend and I differ on our opinions about eliminating public education. He’s in favor of eliminating public education; I’m not.
    It would be interesting and instructive to solicit a guest commentary from Mr. Behrend on how the Parent Trigger will help accelerate the process of eliminating public education.

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  13. The law may cause a lot of problems. School districts must seriously consider why parents are sometimes forced to take such actions. The schools must respond to parents complaints. I know some schools are the problem.  Their responses especially in poor neighborhoods are very unsatsfactory.

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