Judge to throw out Trigger petitions

Compton parents to open charter nearby
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Parents at Compton Unified who filed the state’s first Parent Trigger petition will get the charter school they’ve demanded. It just won’t be at their school, McKinley Elementary, but in a church down the street instead.

In a major setback to their cause, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge tentatively ruled that he would throw out the petitions signed by 265 parents on a technicality: a failure to have each parent fill in the date when they signed the petition. While stating that he was “aware of the pain, frustration and perhaps educational disadvantages this ruling may cause,” Judge Anthony Mohr wrote that state law compelled him to nullify the petitions.

Mohr released his ruling on Friday, the same week that the Los Angeles County Board of Education approved a separate charter school petition filed on the parents’ behalf. Parent Revolution, organizers for the parents, had assumed that they might need a backup for this fall in case litigation over their Parent Trigger plan to assume control of McKinley Elementary extended past the summer. Now, it seems they will need Plan B, starting a charter school in a nearby church building, sooner than they anticipated. The parents intend to formally announce their new plans tomorrow, Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin said Monday.

The McKinley parents became the first to take advantage of a year-old parent empowerment law that allows parents at a low-performing school to demand structural change if at least a majority of parents petition district trustees. Converting a school into a charter school is one of the options. The Compton parents had chosen Celerity Education Group, a Los Angeles-based charter organization, to run the charter operation.

During months of litigation, Judge Mohr had signaled strong support for the parents and frustration with the district’s tactics to thwart their petition. However, in the latest ruling, he said that state law required that parents or guardians date when they signed the Parent Trigger petition, in order for the district to verify that each child was enrolled and that parents had authority to act on their child’s behalf on a specific date.

Noting that prominent Los Angeles attorneys had written the petition pro bono for the parents, Parent Revolution spokeswoman Linda Serrato said in a statement, “it is deeply troubling that an entire organizing campaign can be thrown out because of such a minuscule typo.”

A decision to start a charter outside the district will end a contentious battle, although one or two other parent groups have said they also are organizing under the Parent Trigger law. The State School Board is now drafting new regulations for the process. One proposed provision would require the state to create a model Parent Trigger petition on a website for groups to copy. Mohr has certainly indicated one feature that should be highlighted: a box for the date next to each parent’s signature.

Mohr will issue his final ruling June 7.

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19 Comments

  1. The Compton parents did not choose Celerity — Parent Revolution pre-selected Celerity before launching the petition-gathering campaign. All the coverage of this issue, including the avidly pro-Parent Revolution coverage, makes that clear.

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  2. ” The Compton parents had chosen Celerity Education Group, a Los Angeles-based charter organization, to run the charter operation.”
     
    Can you please point to the process where the “Compton parents” deliberated the four turn-around options, selected a charter conversion, then evaluated and selected Celerity as the CMO of choice?
     
    If not, please stop perpetuating the myth that the choice to go charter and the selection of Celerity was initiated by the parents of of McKinley Elementary.

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  3. This has been an acrimonious issue, with plenty of unhealthy rhetoric, smear tactics, and guilt by association — hey, this is politics! — but there has also been a lot of healthy debate around the substance of this process.  It’s always a shame when a question of this importance is decided around a silly technicality, instead of the legitimate policy issues that deserve debate.  The Compton District defenders will no doubt celebrate, and the parents will move ahead with their charter.  But there is one more likely outcome:  this case did more to publicize the “parent trigger” option than many expected, and it is quite likely that more conversion petitions will result.  In fact, the parent trigger publicity has also given more attention to the too-often-overlooked “teacher trigger” option for charter conversions, which may, in the end, hold even more potential for increasing School Choice.  The faculty and parents at a high school near me began to explore a teacher trigger conversion after the McKinley episode started to get headlines.  Their petition should be ready next month!

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  4. Hooray for the decision to throw out the signatures gathered by the advocacy organization, Parent Revolution supposedly acting under the Parent Trigger Law.   The rule of law saved by the impulsive community organizing fervor of organizers who forgot that legal petitions need to have signatures accompanied by dates.  Sometimes details can save a day in the beginning.    It brought to mind an endeavor a few years ago in Santa Clara County, when some heavy hitters formed a task force to build support for a county tax for schools.  The task force was headed by the former mayor of San Jose, the County Superintendent of Schools, and the CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.  They spent six months going around putting on their “dog and pony” show to build support for the measure they planned to put on the ballot.   But several months into the crusade, lo and behold, somebody made them aware that they would need to have new state legislation before they could put  the tax on the ballot.  Whoops!!  They made excuses about their failure to do their homework before launching into the project to bring about what would have been an illegal ballot measure.
    It seems to be a pattern for overzealoous promoters of education agendas who don’t seem to think that their pet projects are subject to existing law.

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  5. Jim, I was a teacher who circulated such a triggering petition once upon a time. Alexander Russo, author of “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors”, a book about the conversion of Locke High School, was just interviewed on “The Madeline Brand Show” on NPR this morning about that topic; you may be able to find a podcast. Your teachers should be careful to fully understand what they’re getting into, and to make sure that they have the ability to provide engaging, meaningful input into the design and policies of the new school.
    KSC and Caroline, you’re right, Parent Revolution did initiate the process, to the best of my knowledge. Nonetheless, the parents who signed the petition chose Celerity when they signed a petition designating Celerity as the managers of the school they wanted their children to attend.
     

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  6. Yes, the parents “chose” Celerity with the act of signing a petition that called for turning their school over to Celerity (though of course a number have said they didn’t realize what the petition was about).
     
    They didn’t choose Celerity in the way John’s (and most other media) descriptions have implied, meaning that they were aware of the options and made a decision among them. So that description is misleading.
     
    And, by the way, Parent Revolution created the Parent Empowerment Act, which set out the Parent Trigger process. So why didn’t they know that the law they created required dates on the signatures (for a fairly valid reason, by the way)?
     
    The best account of all this was produced by the Los Angeles Weekly, whose reporters were “embedded” with Parent Revolution’s paid operation throughout the process. The Weekly is a fiery right-libertarian publication; its reporters are avidly (even rabidly) pro-Parent Revolution on this issue, and have been scathing about the evil fiendish teachers and administrators at the targeted school and district. (I’d like to see the reporters try teaching a high-need, low-income public school class for a while, just as I’d like to see the lawmakers, policy types, mainstream press and bloggers do.) Anyway, the Weekly’s account was very revealing, and made all these issues quite clear, including the fact that Parent Revolution targeted the school, set up the process and chose Celerity before it ever collected the first signature on its petitions.
     
     
     

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  7. Grassroots organizations don’t usually have Executive Directors.
    In my mind, the real issue here – in terms of nuts and bolts “what is good and right” versus the legalities – was that the petition was presented as a fait accompli with absolutely no discussion. The petitions were circulated by stealth and there was never an open discussion about whether the charter was the solution to the issues at this school, let alone a discussion about whether this was the right charter operator or structure to choose.
    I would like to see this law amended to force a certain number of open meetings before the petition is circulated to close an existing school. If the parents had signed the petition after those discussions, with school officials and the school board part of the dialog, then I would support it wholeheartedly as “the will of the people.”

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  8. Great observation! Keep watching and you’ll see that it’s more to this than meets the eye. Sad thing is with every defeat they’ll close it the next time but legally. It’s great to empower parents and get them involved in their childrens education. To say “Parent Trigger” suggest that the parents are pulling the trigger be careful that the trigger isn’t being pulled by big bucks and corporate Greed!

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  9. Thank you.  Parents didn’t choose this charter operator, “Parent Revolution” did.  BIG difference.

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  10. Bruce, thanks for the referral to the Alexander Russo interview.  I enjoyed it.  He seems to have reached some realistic conclusions from the experience at Locke (i.e. small, but significant improvements over a previously disasterous traditional school, but still not a place that represents “success” in the eyes of most people).  One of the tragedies of the way School Choice is evolving in this country is that it has focused so much on the most challenged schools in the most challenged neighborhoods, where there are so many factors (beyond an awful district) that are working against the students.  People often seem to forget that between the lowest-achieving schools like Locke, at the bottom, and the Scarsdale/New Trier/Edina districts at the top (where so many of our “thought leaders” live, incidentally) there is a large group of middle-income schools, many of which are also failing their students, if not quite so graphically.  One thing I have noticed visiting schools across the country is that the most pitiful dysfunctions associated with the large low-functioning central city districts seem to be showing up more and more in large middle-income suburban districts.  (The smaller districts tend to have more responsive governance and the more homogenous student populations tend to make it easier for educators to focus on student needs.) 

    The proposed teacher conversion charter near me seems to be representative of schools in the larger-district segment – an ok, but declining suburban high school in a big district that has utterly lost its way.  The student population ranges from Title I and minority (a little under 30%) students to a few students from upper middle-income families.  The bulk of students are from modest blue/white collar families who seem to hold reasonably high expectations for their children.  But throughout the community, there is pronounced dissatisfaction with the school — with the caliber of instruction, the overly “light” curriculum, security on campus, and an unusually indifferent prinicpal.  The teachers, many of whom remember the “better days”, have taken the lead on the charter conversion and appear to be pursuing a deliberate and thorough approach to the petition.  It is thrilling to watch!  As you’d expect, the district is now lobbying and intimidating the teachers to try to reduce support below 50%.  (They’ve already thrown the hapless principal under the bus to thwart the petition.)  The district may stop this conversion, but as is so often the case in community organizing, once the spark ignites, it can be hard to put out the fire.  We may see that in Compton as well, as those parents proceed with their own charter.  I do think, in the wave of demands for more Choice that will hit these middle income schools, it will be harder for districts to intimidate families and much harder for the pundits to claim that the activist parents are just being “misled”.  It may be easy to condescend toward poor people of color who don’t speak English well, but try that out in the middle class burbs, and it won’t be a pretty sight!

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  11. If the conversion effort Jim is describing is the one I’ve been reading about, Clayton Valley High School, it would be interesting to see more in-depth and knowledgeable ongoing coverage than the mainstream press is providing (the Mercury News, or its collection of sibling papers, is over its head here, and the Chronicle doesn’t remotely have the bandwidth). John and Kathryn, what about it?
     
    Just wearily pointing out again that the charter in Compton is not the “parents’ own charter.” They had nothing to do with selecting the operator or planning it. It’s Celerity’s and Parent Revolution’s charter, and Parent Revolution is an organization of, by and for charter operators.

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  12. Hmmm…so even if the parents send their children to the new Compton charter, they still haven’t “chosen” it?  Why, because they didn’t select the operator or write the charter petition?  Once the Celerity charter is in separate premises, and McKinley can go on its merry way, who cares?  It will be like hundreds of other public charter schools (and private schools, for that matter), where parents choose among pre-existing options.  Will parents be under some sort of compulsion to attend the Celerity school (beyond the very real incentive to avoid McKinley)?  No, the parents will be making a choice.  And Celerity, unlike McKinley, will have a strong incentive to meet those students’ needs.  If the Celerity charter is as bad as some have predicted (and worse than McKinley, of course), then families won’t send their kids there, and it will (and should) close down.  That, of course, almost never happens to traditional district-run failing schools, which can operate under various non-reform schemes, year after year like zombies, until the students literally disappear from the attendance area.  That is the key distinction of accountability that some of us (wearily) have to keep explaining.

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  13. With the caveat that I protest and object to the hostility and contempt directed against the teachers and public schools in the above comment – yes, under the apparent future circumstances, if the parents send their kids to the Celerity charter in a situation where they decided between it and McKinley, I agree they’ve chosen it.

    Here’s what I meant in saying the parents hadn’t chosen the charter:  I was referring to the process that has repeatedly been presented as the McKinley parents’ making a decision that their chosen reform under the Parent Trigger process was to turn their school over to the Celerity charter operator. No, the parents did not make that decision in the way that it has been repeatedly presented, and in the way that was supposedly set out in the Parent Empowerment Act. The law is supposedly set up for the parents to decide among different options for “reforming” their school. In this case, they were offered the one choice as a done deal, with Celerity pre-selected as the charter operator.  And that’s despite the fact that Parent Revolution, the charter operator-run organization that orchestrated the McKinley petitioning, wrote the Parent Empowerment Act, so was certainly aware that it wasn’t happening as presented.

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  14. <<If the Celerity charter is as bad as some have predicted (and worse than McKinley, of course), then families won’t send their kids there, and it will (and should) close down. >>
    Jim-
    I’m reminded that some of the persistently lowest achieving schools in California are charter schools yet parents still send their children there. Parents are making choices – and they are not always so well informed.

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  15. I don’t know of any critics of this Parent Trigger fiasco who have predicted that the Celerity charter will be “bad.” We do predict that it will cherry-pick and will shun disabled children, limited English-speakers and other high-need, costlier-to-educate kids.

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  16. TransParent — Yes, some parents will make choices that you feel are “bad”.  Those parents may be sending their children to those “bad” charters (which are bad, premumably because of low test scores) for reasons other than those schools’ test scores.  As I said above, parents choose schools for a variety of reasons, and as we all do at times in other areas of our lives, they may have to optimize among a number of factors — like proximity, the perceived “atmosphere” of the school, discipline, campus security, where friends attend school, the overall instructional approach, and so on.  And above all, they may choose the charter because it is not as bad as their traditional neighborhood schools.  All of those factors ought to be considered, before you assume that parents don’t know what is best for their child.

    Of course, the real argument for parent choice comes from examining the “choices” that many school districts make for their students.  It”s not as if our school districts have represented the paragon of rational decision-making.  The list of idiotic choices that I have seen local district administrators make in just the last year would be far too long for this post.  So we’ll have to agree to disagree.  Evidently, you trust government monopolies to do what is best, more than you trust parents to do what is best for their own children.  And you also seem to believe that because you assert that some parents make bad choices, NO other parents should have a choice.  Without even addressing the “contempt” that shows for parents, I suspect that your position, in the long term, is unlikely to win a big following with the public.  But hey, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say about Richard Nixon, “I guess you’re just going to ride that torpedo to the end.”

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  17. Jim, I have less issue with the creation of a separate charter that parents can choose, if they wish. In that case, yes, if the parents send their kids there, they are choosing it over the local school. But, that’s not what the original process or law was about – it was about forcibly converting the entire McKinley school to Celerity, which would leave the parents with no choices.
     
    To say that McKinley has no incentive to meet students’ needs is incorrect. Whether they are willing and able to do so with the students they have are two separate questions.

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  18. So it sounds like the battle in Compton is on its way to being resolved. It remains to be seen how McKinley Elementary or the district will withstand the new charter school, though the situation doesn’t seem very different from any disadvantaged district where a new charter school is opening.
     
    But there are some remaining questions about this story, and I’m asking John or Kathryn if they will please research them, as they can do this as part of their day jobs (while for me and many others, it would be unpaid volunteer time). For that matter, I know Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution posts here sometimes, so he’s presumably in contact and available to respond, too. Since these items were reported here, it would make sense to follow them up here.
     
    – Acting on behalf of Parent Revolution, both Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state Board of Ed directed the state Attorney General’s office to investigate reports of intimidation in the Parent Trigger signature-gathering process. These reports were directed against teachers and I believe the PTA at McKinley Elementary, though some accounts indicated that the investigation would address all aspects.
     
    What’s the status of that investigation? Against whom is it directed — are there named defendants? What is the process? What defense is required by the targets, and who pays the cost of the defense (are the individual teachers and PTA members required to pay their own legal costs, if any)? What is the trial process and what are the potential ultimate penalties?
     
    – Parent Revolution also filed charges with the U.S. Department of Education accusing parties involved of violating the civil rights of McKinley Elementary parents by making intimidating comments. I believe these charges were also directed against teachers and PTA members. I have the same questions, except with added twists:
     
    What’s the status of that investigation? What kind of investigative mechanism does the USDOE have? Against whom is it directed — are there named defendants? What is the process? What defense is required by the targets, and who pays the cost of the defense (are the individual teachers and PTA members required to pay their own legal costs, if any)? What is the trial process and what are the potential ultimate penalties? How is the charge of violating others’ civil rights different from the charges of alleged intimidation, and how does that affect the whole process?
     
    – Various reports have stated that Parent Revolution is beginning/has begun similar Parent Trigger processes in other districts (one mentioned my own district, San Francisco Unified). Even Parent Revolution seems to have made comments acknowledging that engaging in the process in secrecy, without giving the parents an opportunity to discuss the options or air their issues with the school and district administration, was not really the ideal way to handle it. Will those other Parent Trigger processes be conducted in openness and sunshine? If so, what districts and schools are being targeted?
     
    – What is the current status of the Parent Trigger process at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland-Tujunga, which was overshadowed by the Compton brouhaha?
     
    Thank you.
     
     
     

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