AG to examine ‘trigger’ complaintsReports 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 Opponents claim that 50 to 60 parents have withdrawn their names because they say they were misled about the purpose of the petition; the district has not confirmed that number.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.