Strengthen and straighten out state’s parent empowerment process

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Recent events at McKinley Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District have brought to light flaws in the state’s new parent empowerment or “trigger” law. This law must be fixed immediately so that the actual process for empowering parents is as worthy as the goal.

Using the new “trigger” provision, parents at McKinley were asked to sign a petition to turn their low-performing school into a charter school to be run by an outside organization. Unfortunately, this first real-world application of the new trigger provision has deeply divided the school’s community and pitted well-meaning parents against each other.

The most empowering part of the new law: It allows a petition to be circulated among parents at chronically low-performing schools that calls for a specific turnaround strategy, thereby intensifying the pressure for positive change.

Let’s be clear. Persistently underperforming schools cannot and should not be tolerated. Wherever there is a clear pattern of a public school repeatedly not providing students with access to a quality education, rapid change must happen.

The California State PTA believes all parents must be empowered to make changes at schools that result in dramatic and sustained improvements in student achievement. But for these changes to occur, the process of selecting and implementing a school turnaround strategy should be thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive of all parents, and should ensure accountability to the community.

  • Public hearings and transparency. The current law does not require that accurate, independent information and analysis be provided to all parents at a school prior to making crucial decisions about the school’s future. We believe that before a petition is circulated, parents should submit an intent to file a petition to the school district. This important step would then set in motion one or more required public meetings at which information about the school’s performance and the options for turning it around could be communicated to everyone concerned.

  • Independent analysis. In addition to public hearings, an independent report should be required. This report should be developed by a committee that includes parents or by an outside group with no direct stake in the outcome. It would describe and assess the various alternatives for turning around the school.
  • More disclosure. Another weakness of the current law is that it allows for a petition regarding a school to be circulated by anyone, including an organization that seeks to operate a charter school at that very school site. In addition, there is no mandatory review or analysis of any promises or claims made by those circulating the petition, nor is the petition required to include information about the group or groups sponsoring it. To increase transparency we believe any affiliation must be disclosed, including whether the petitioners are associated with a parent group, union, school district, specific charter school operator, or education-management organization. The current law is also silent on whether paid signature gatherers can be used to qualify these local petitions. We believe they should not.

Here’s the bottom line: Parents must have access to as much information as possible about all options before they are asked to sign a document that could fundamentally affect the education their children receive.

We know from research and experience that the most meaningful parent-engagement strategies are those that are thoughtfully implemented and that focus on building the knowledge and capacity of parents to be full partners in education. This includes helping parents and community members build stronger working relationships with their schools and district staff and leaders through a collaborative process.

One of PTA’s fundamental, longstanding purposes is “to bring into closer relation the home and school, that  parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the education of children and youth.” By focusing equal attention on planning for what happens after the so-called trigger is pulled, we increase the chances that, whichever turnaround solution is implemented, the parents and school community can work together to achieve real results for students.

Jo A.S. Loss is president of the California State PTA, which has nearly 1 million members throughout the state, including more than 250,000 in the Los Angeles area. Loss lives in Castro Valley and serves on the Castro Valley Unified School District Board of Education. For more information about the California State PTA, visit www.capta.org.

20 Comments

  1. Thank you.
    One alarming aspect from the Compton debacle was the positioning by Parent Revolution of the PTA as the enemy of the parents. Every school dynamic is different, but the “trigger” process must be blind, fair and above all, exhaustively informative.

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  2. This is so disheartening. Parents at this school have to keep waiting for groups like the PTA to get on board to get a good education for their children? that’s not right. majority of the parents signed the petition and want a change. the district has had years and years and years to change and its only gotten worse (even though some scores are getting better they are STILL  worse than other schools like them!)
     
    Unless Jo A.S. Loss plans to move her children to McKinley Elementary, I suggest she lets these McKinley parents have their say in their children’s education.

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  3. Informed dialog is important, and the bottom line (that parents should base their decisions on good information) is the essence of democracy.   But these proposed rules sound immoderate.
    If implemented as sketched, these rules would seem to put significant conditions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.  They would create an uneven standards for speech in supporting or opposing the proposal.  They could trump parents’ intent with a tangle of requirements about what constitutes an “independent” evaluation and create an unequal obligation to communicate accurate information.  This would seem to tip the balance in a way that could thwart the right of petition created in the parent trigger law.
    In particular I do not understand the logic of trying to prevent charter organizers from asking parents to sign the petition.  Similarly, school districts should be permitted to make their case to parents that the petition is not in their children’s interest.  If an organization is proposing to make significant changes to the governance of a school, isn’t such communication essential?
    Restraint in addressing unintended consequences can avoid compounding them.

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  4. So, the CA State PTA says ”all parents must be empowered to make changes at schools that result in dramatic and sustained improvements in student achievement.  But for these changes to occur, the process of selecting and implementing a school turnaround strategy should be thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive of all parents, and should ensure accountability to the communjity.”

    Such high minded sounding rhetoric to try to rationalize a bad law with a wrong premise.
    1.   In this document the PTA has just removed the T  from the PTA.   “P” empowerment is the mantra but where is the “T” factor even mentioned in the policy statement?  
    2.  Where are the interests of non parent citizen taxpayers in the Trigger Law as is, or as the PTA
    envisions embellishing it?
    3.  The repetitive call for any efforts to be “inclusive of all parents” is cognizant dissonance relative to the call for “ensuring accountability to the community”.  Accountability must be to the citizen voters and taxpayers, whether they have children in the schools or not, and if the concept of taxation with ELECTED  representation is still the framework for a democratic representative government,  ELECTED REPRESENTATION needs to be observed and respected.  Parent Trigger laws, are experiments in “Communitarianism” which is quite a different form of governance from representative government.
    4.  Re:  the idea that parents should act only when informed, and information they receive is transparent is a noble endeavor.  But that also implies that parents, taxpayers, teachers, and 
    all stakeholders, be informed that an agenda for education has been framed by the Federal Department of Education in colusion with international influence which has been transmitted
    down through regional, state, and county venues ever since Federal $$ began to implement so-called in0novations with the passage of ESEA in the mid 1960′s.   There really was some semblance of local control before that which cannot be reclaimed by parents or any other interest group with that huge apparatus still in place.   Parents would need to be informed that the very apparatus which “broke” the schools in more ways than one, is the very same chain of influence orchestrating the parent rebellion
    now with Parent Trigger legislation and “school choice” including charter schools as the next
    step to eliminate the concept of ELECTED REPRESENTATION and accountability to taxpayers, as well as enfranchised parents.   

    PTA, thinking parents, teachers on the front lines of the system, elected school boards, and especially misguided political conservatives need to  take a really in depth view of what is being done unto them when they embrace, the concept of “school choice”, “vouchers”, charter schools, parent trigger law, race to the top, etc, etc, etc. which are all part of an agenda to blur the lines of representative governance.

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  5. The best way to improve the “Parent Trigger” is to give parents even more power to change the schools, not less.  While the ideas above sound seemingly innocuous, the fact is they would dramatically empower the defenders of the status quo (district bureaucrats, union officials, and the people who profit of the education industry)…thus dis-empowering parents.
    Let’s look at one obvious example from this piece.  Loss writes ” Persistently underperforming schools cannot and should not be tolerated. Wherever there is a clear pattern of a public school repeatedly not providing students with access to a quality education, rapid change must happen.”  Sounds great, but how does it square with the endless public hearings, the “independent analysis,” and the one-sided demands of “disclosure” from school bureaucracies known for their legendary powers of stonewalling?  How long should a child wait before paper-pushing grown ups get around to item 7.2a-5 on the board’s agenda.  I say “not one minute more.”
    Let’s be even more clear.  The time for rearranging the deck chairs on the “District Titanic” is over.  These are schools that are proven failures, based on measurements, and in the eyes of the parents.  Any and all changes to the trigger should expand parental rights and powers, not bog them down in the endless log-rolling of American “school governance.”
    For an analysis of what is needed to improve the Trigger, click the link on my name.

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  6. The author speaks of building working relationships via a collaborative process.
    Before we can collaborate, we must trust one another and respect one another. That won’t ever happen in a system that marginalizes parents and more often than not treats those of us who want to be actively involved as if we’re pariahs; it isn’t just parents, either – school districts treat their own employees like interchangeable parts, more so during times of budget crises. I would argue – and have – that the parent trigger will not be successful unless and until there is a process to do more than petition for a change of governance. Show me a commitment and a pathway to build the capacity of parents to authentically participate in planning, policy and shared decision-making. There are already plenty of parents who have effectively pulled the trigger in California: their kids are enrolled in charter schools – and some of those schools are persistently failing….

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  7. While I believe that the Parent Trigger is too fatally flawed a concept to be fixed, thank you for the commentary, Jo.
     
    I wrote a blog commentary summing up and updating the McKinley Parent Trigger fiasco:
     
    http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2011/02/grannan-powerful-parent-trigger.html

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  8. These seem like reasonable suggestions for two reasons.  First, the traditional public school system has to recover from any failure made by a charter operator and hence steps to reduce the chance of failure seem warranted.  Second, the parent trigger law in practice enfranchises people who would otherwise not be able to vote so making the process more rigorous to ensure its integrity also seems warranted.  However, I would suggest that schools be required to notify all parents once an intent to file a petition is made along with any contact information provided by the petitioner.  Just like the state notifies registered voters of an election. This seems rather appropriate given my second point above.  Requiring a lesser number of signatures to proceed with the process may also be needed.

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  9. It’s kind of amusing to suggest that schools be required to notify all parents, because the current law doesn’t require the signature-gatherers to notify the school. Currently, there is no requirement that the school (or, apparently, anyone) be notified of any intent to file a petition. So there’s a link missing there.
     
    In the current fiasco, McKinley school’s administration and Compton district officials were unaware of the professionally orchestrated, billionaire-funded, stealth signature-gathering campaign as it was happening.
     
    By the way, the Los Angeles Weekly’s reporting on a Compton Unified School District Board of Ed meeting made it clear that a large number of parents wanted to withdraw their signatures. It has never been reported whether that was allowed, or whether the current situation is just “gotcha! You signed and you’re stuck now.”
     
    Here is the excerpt from the Weekly, with the extremely important note that the Weekly — a right/libertarian advocacy newspaper — is a vigorous supporter of the Parent Trigger:
     
    We’re reporting live from the CUSD board meeting, packed with press and hundreds of angry parents — many of whom say they were tricked into signing the Parent Trigger petition without understanding its gravity.
    Above all, the air is buzzing with confusion. …

    More and more, the crowd reveals itself as anti-Parent Trigger. The only speakers who get a positive reaction are the ones defending CUSD. …

    Another man rouses parents: “How dare they come here and say not the whole truth? If we look at charter schools, we know what they are about. They are about the dollar.”

    … the crowd chants, “COMPTON! COMPTON! COMPTON!” Someone waves an “I [Heart] Compton” shirt above his head.

    It seems the concept of a charter school has now become the antithesis of hometown pride. … One mother, who rushes out the side door before we can ask her name, says she was approached at her job twice and forced to sign the petition, y “yo no quise fimar” (I didn’t want to sign). Parent Kirk Douglas Brown says he signed the petition, but now wants to publicly revoke his signature.

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  10. But that was one of Jo’s suggestions to which I was responding.

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  11. I wasn’t criticizing you, but the goofball (albeit harmful as well) nature of the Parent Trigger fiasco.

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  12. By all means, let’s introduce more transparency into the Parent Trigger process, but if the author’s suggestions are to be implemented, the devil will be in the details:

    “This important step would then set in motion one or more required public meetings at which information about the school’s performance and the options for turning it around could be communicated to everyone concerned.”  — OK, but how long would these meetings go on?  It’s not as if the poor performance is a secret.   My own district has had “school improvement programs” going on for years at some failing schools, and there has been no discernible improvements in outcomes.  (And national research confirms that failing schools rarely — less than 2% of the time — ever make significant sustained improvements.)  Entire classes of students have moved through those schools without the instruction that they deserve.  I would hope that any precursory meetings would be viewed as an urgent matter and move along within weeks, not years.

    “…an independent report should be required. This report should be developed by a committee that includes parents or by an outside group with no direct stake in the outcome. It would describe and assess the various alternatives for turning around the school.”  — I agree that parents must be in that group, but I wonder who else it would include — who whould have “no direct stake in the outcome”?  If by that she means no representatives from proposed charter operators, fine.  But this committee can’t be packed with the types of hacks in the educational establishment who see “school reform” as a consultant-filled, multi-year (multi-generational?) endeavor that should end up with public school monopolies still in control.

    Voters certainly have an interest in how their schools are run (supposedly, although you wouldn’t know if from election turnout), but since they no longer fund their schools with local tax dollars unless they have approved a bond or parcel tax, the money trail from Sacramento is too attenuated for many residents to see the connections.  In the end, NO ONE has a greater interest in a school’s success than the parents of the students.  (Yes, some parents don’t care, and those examples will be trotted out ad nauseum by the educrats to justify continued control by the status quo ”experts”.)  If Parent Trigger is amended, parents must continue to have a major voice in it, because experience has shown that few others seem to have their children’s best interests at heart.

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  13. Parents never had a voice in it at all. The PTA is the most visible and effective voice of parents on education issues, and its advocacy for transparency and other key issues was batted away when the bill was being debated. The Parent Trigger was created by and for the charter school industry, not by and for parents.
     
    “The devil is in the details” applies to the original bill as well, as we can see from the disaster unfolding in Compton.

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  14. I agree that the decision should be left in the hands of the parents of McKinley students on THEIR childrens education.  However, it should be equal for ALL McKinley parents.  How is it ok to argue that the District and politics should stay out yet only some of the parents should have a voice or say so???  What about the other side of the story???   Or has joe public already made a decision based  on the media and its chosen articles???

    I have yet to see any media give as much weight to opponents or undecided parents, as they are providing the highly profitable Parent Revolution group and the same 6-10 parents.  How many of these people making statements, blogs, or articles on Compton have spent time in Compton?   And I dont mean just McKinley for a story….actually in Compton??? 

    And we teach our children not to be prejudice, but some dont lead by example.  Stop reporting on our city, our schools, and what our children need.  The media and co-signers are only dividing what was once a very prideful city.

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  15. Mary – I was thinking the same thing before I read your comment. Leaving a decision of this magnitude to just one constituency — the parents of children currently attending a given school — seems to be a populist move, but in reality, it is anti-democratic. The public school system is responsible not only to parents, but also to non-parent voters and taxpayers. (Jeff and Bruno’s comment suggests a somewhat narrower concept of democracy. Jim acknowledges but dismisses wider democratic interests.)
    Bruno – One risk to consider is the possibility that the educational establishment is already providing the best service possible in these underperforming schools. Replacing a principal and a teaching staff doesn’t change the student population. Converting to a charter school doesn’t increase available state funding. And so on. There is no system solution to problems like poverty, bad parenting, drug and alcohol abuse among parents and students, weak language skills, and exclusion (whether voluntary or not) from mainstream culture. There are reasons why these schools perform poorly.

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