Desert Trails parents won’t let adults’ deceit deny their kids a great school

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The parents of Desert Trails Elementary want what all parents want: a great school for their children. Over the past few years they started a PTA chapter at their school, they joined the official school committees, they volunteered, and they spent extra time helping with homework. They did everything the system tells parents to do, and still, they find themselves today trapped in a school ranked the worst elementary school in their entire district and in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state.

So last June they decided to organize on behalf of their children. They formed their own Parents Union chapter, engaged their community, and organized for seven months to collect historic Parent Trigger signatures representing 70 percent of the parents in an effort to transform their failing school. But with their new power, the parents sought collaboration, not confrontation.

Their first proposal after announcing their supermajority wasn’t an outside charter school operator or an unprecedented departure from the status quo. It was rooted in a modest union contract modification to create a framework for accountability based on reform contracts that National Education Association affiliates have signed in districts across America, including in the LAUSD. Even more recently, parents introduced an innovative new Partnership School model that calls for parents, teachers, and district officials to share power and collaborate on a kids-first agenda.

The Desert Trails Parent Union seeks collaboration because they know we can’t have great schools without great teachers. The parents understand that a kids-first agenda is good for parents and kids, but also good for good teachers. It’s good for kids if teachers are paid a lot more money. It’s even good for kids if we raise taxes to do it, as CTA and CFT are rightly calling for on the November ballot. It’s good for kids if teachers are respected, empowered, and not micromanaged by a bureaucrat who’s never met their kids or set foot in their classroom. It’s even good for kids if teachers are unionized and have basic workplace protections. But it’s also good for kids if teachers – as well as all other grown-ups, including parents – are held accountable for student performance. Parents have strong disagreements with the California Teachers Association about the issue of accountability. But we also broadly agree on a whole host of other critical issues.

Instead of collaboration, harassment

Unfortunately, in its final opportunity to collaborate with parents, the district denied parents their constitutional right to petition based on an illegal “rescission” process riddled with lies, harassment, and forgery. The defenders of the status quo have proven themselves willing to cross moral, ethical, even legal and constitutional boundaries in a desperate attempt to defend an indefensible status quo.

Ultimately, parents got what they expected: adults willing to do whatever it took to retain power at the expense of kids. We have no idea who forged CTA’s “rescission” petitions. That is for the courts to figure out. But we do know for an incontrovertible fact that someone forged the rescission petitions without the parents’ knowledge in a rescission campaign instigated by CTA. We also know that the parents of Desert Trails have been denied their constitutional right to transform their failing school using  the Parent Trigger. .

But the fate of Desert Trails is no longer in the hands of the status quo.

The district last week chose to yet again reject the parents’ offer of partnership, choosing confrontation over collaboration and forcing parents into the courts to defend their rights and fight for their children. On Thursday, parents filed a lawsuit to preserve their constitutional right to petition the government under the Parent Trigger law, and their children’s constitutional right to a decent and equitable education under the California Constitution.

The parents have a high-powered pro bono legal team from Kirkland & Ellis that is committed to representing them entirely for free. The district, on the other hand, has chosen to spend the parents’ own taxpayer dollars that should be invested in children and teachers and instead pay high-priced lawyers to defend an indefensible status quo in a case that they are certain to lose.

Parents support teachers’ right to unionize; they simply want teachers unions to support that same right for them. It will be impossible to form partnerships if parents must endure lies, harassment, forgeries, and violations of their constitutional rights every time they organize on behalf of their children.

Parents will no longer be silenced, because this isn’t about them, it’s about the future of their children. But if CTA and other teachers unions can accept that parents now have the same power as they do to unionize and act collectively, then they will find that parents unions and teachers unions have much in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda.

Ultimately, everyone on all sides of this issue must ask themselves a fundamental question: Would you be satisfied sending your own child to a school where two-thirds of the kids can’t read or do math at grade level? Would you be satisfied sending your own child to the lowest-performing school in your district that is ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state every single year? If the answer is no, how can you ask another parent to send their child instead? If everyone can start from that same simple premise, then wherever we end up on this journey will be the right destination for our children.

Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the nonprofit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.

22 Comments

  1. Ben Austin, you shrieked hysterically about the response to the previous Parent Trigger petition, at Mckinley Elementary in Compton, too — filing charges against teachers right and left, making outraged accusations of criminal wrongdoing. How many times do you think you get to get away with this? I know the press is easily duped, but sooner or later they’ll catch on. (And by the way, what is with the stories about teachers refusing to let the children of parents who sign the petitions go to the bathroom, a charge you’ve made in both Adelanto and Compton? That’s a little farfetched even for you.)
     
    And what happened to the charges you filed against teachers at McKinley  with the USDOE and the SBOE, by the way? I would really like a direct answer to this direct question after being ignored every time I ask it. What were the outcomes of these charges?
    And by the way, just to update readers: At Desert Trails in Adelanto, parents who did sign petitions signed two. One was a list of demands, and it wasn’t just about modifying teachers’ union contracts — that’s yet another in a series of lies by Parent Revolution.
     
    The parents asked for smaller class sizes — something vocally opposed by Bill Gates, Parent Revolution’s chief funder (except for his own kids, of course).
    The parents asked for more enrichments such as music, art, science and P.E. Yet the education “reform” sector that’s behind Parent Revolution endorses ever-increasing high-stakes tests that mean eliminating enrichments (except for their own kids, of course).
     
    The parents asked for more resources such as playground supervision, counselors and school nurses. Yet the education “reform” voices that are allied with Parent Revolution declare that public schools already have too much funding and too many resources and should “do more with less” (Parent Revolution ally Michelle Rhee just made a presentation to TEDx based on that position).
     
    The other petition the parents signed called for turning Desert Trails into a charter school. News reports ever since have contradicted each other confusingly. Do the parents want a charter or don’t they? Do they want to run it themselves or bring in one of the charter operators whose interests Parent Revolution exists to promote? We can’t get a straight story. It’s no wonder there’s chaos, confusion and controversy.
     
     

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  2. Also, the lawyer piece of this commentary really boggles the mind. Parent Revolution, which is funded by several billionaire-backed foundations, has made a big point of noting that its legal representation is pro bono. Obviously, it’s the law firm’s choice to offer its services free to an extremely well-funded client, for whatever reason.
     
    But once your attack catapults a hapless — and underfunded — school district into complex legal proceedings, what’s with then attacking the district for hiring lawyers? What do you expect it to do? Talk about killing your parents and then pleading for mercy on the basis of being an orphan.
     
    This story gets more and more surreal as it goes along.
     
     

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  3. My understanding is similar to Caroline’s; that the Parent Revolution asked parents to sign two different petitions, with one petition calling for progressive positive changes, like smaller classes, that most all parents support but have been denied them, in part because of the disinformation campaigns of corporate reformers like Gates etc., who argues that resources and class size don’t matter  The other petition called for conversion of their children’s school to a charter school.  But the Parent Revolution only submitted the latter petition.  Is this correct or not?  And why use such inherently confusing tactics if you didn’t want to put something over on parents?  As Ben Austin himself has admitted, “parents at most of the schools his organization is working with are not interested in turning their school into a charter school, but rather want to focus on improving their existing schools.”  So why focus on charter school conversion?  Isn’t this bait and switch?

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  4. Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organization backing the parent trigger petition, needs to apply some common sense here. They had parents sign two different petitions and submitted the least favored one to the board. State Senator Gloria Romero, author of the parent trigger law, initially called their two petition strategy a dubious strategic choice. No wonder parents rescinded their signatures. You only need one petition at the ready to threaten a district to negotiate under the parent trigger law – not two. How does having parents sign two different petitions and submit the least favorite choice a strategy to convince district to negotiate? I’m in favor of parent empowerment and that argument sounds dubious to me too.http://educatormusing.blogspot.com/2012/04/state-senator-gloria-romero-addresses.html

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  5. It’s true that the narrative of this story has become confused, but the essential issue can be boiled down thus: did the dissatisfied, majority group of parents at Desert Trails have the right to have their grievances redressed by the legal means they chose (their charter petition, since their first option, to negotiate over a list of demands, did not yield results that satisfied them), and if they did, have their rights been denied? It appears the courts will decide, since the adults involved cannot come to an agreement about how best to serve the children being harmed, which is unfortunate. All of the straw man techniques of putting words into the mouths of poor parents, or attempting to yoke them to the policy positions of distant individuals they are perhaps scarcely aware of, serves no purpose other than to repel people — which serves the interests of the status quo, which always benefits by driving well-meaning reformers away. Even the district has conceded that the prevailing situation at Desert Trails was untenable, which is why they brought in a new administration. It’s unfortunate that children are being victimized by all of this dissent, but getting Americans to compromise for the greater good appears to be an art we have lost.

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  6. To their credit, the vast majority of public school employees I’ve come across speak of collaboration early and often. Also to their credit, they can sustain collaboration very well, particularly when there is much to agree about. Sense the slightest threat to the status quo however, and it’s interesting how quickly some of their leaders can flip to insults and innuendos. Stick to the high road Ben. You may end up having it all to yourself.

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  7. I think Mr. Austin has his pronouns confused. He shouldn’t use “they” when he means “we.”
     
    The two petitions made no sense. If the goal was collaboration, why didn’t the parents band together, meet, and discuss their issues with the school board? If they got no traction, why did they not run new candidates for school board? There is a democratic process for school governance. Irrevocable petitions circulated in stealth with no public discussion are not democratic nor community oriented.
     
    Next time, Mr. Austin, if you want to avoid all this messy confrontation and wasted legal time, why not shell out for free pizza at a public community meeting? If the parents and school board have their chance to communicate, then hash it out and decide to bring in a carefully, community-chosen charter, fine. You’d save a lot of money and you’d get more buy-in.
     
    Of course the downside is that everyone might agree to make the requested changes and come to a student-centered consensus, and they won’t need your parent trigger law after all.

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  8. I believe it’s a little unfair under current conditions to ask the parents of failing schools to raise the $10Ks it takes to overcome the funding from the employee bargaining units, proxies, and friends to the board candidate in each race who will be the most agreeable to employee priorities. Sounds like a recipe for more of the same.

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  9. Does it really cost $10,000 to run for a seat in a small, low-income school district like Adelanto, especially if you had a few hundred dedicated parents in your corner?

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  10. Ben Austin is trying to rewrite the narrative by eliminating the tactical error amd resulting confusion caused by introducing two petitions. Parent Revolutionhas once again divided a community, pitting parent against parent, neighbor against neighbor.
    And now, having created the situation that drive parents to rescind their signatures, they – Parent Revultion, not parents, are forcing a strapped school to spend its limited resources fighting a high powered legal team. That teams’ interests are not the parents of Adelanto, they are the deep pockets that need a successful trigger to happen somewhere in order to justify the spread of thos deeply flawed, misleading and misguided legislation.
     
    The tragedy is that the new principal in place just since October is widely praised and is expected to make great strides with the school – all work that was underway before Austin amd his paid infiltrators parachuted in. That work – the stuff that really impacts kids – is now at risk because the adult interests of Austin, Romero, ALEC, et al, are placed first.
     
    John, do you read these pieces before you post them? I find it offensive that Ben Austin uses this space to attack teachers and their unions, while intentionally omitting the facts regarding the two petitions and PR’s role in creating the reason for parents wishing to rescind their signatures.

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  11. If this is about the kids, why won’t Parent Revolution back off and give the new principal at the school time to make a difference? He seems widely respected, and it seems his time would be better spent investing in the school rather than fighting off Parent Revolution or having to put off useful changes because of the uncertainty they’ve created. Declare victory, and see if things turn around?

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  12. Parent Revolution’s goal is to keep its funders convinced that it’s doing something worth funding. That’s the purpose of turning its big guns against a struggling school and a struggling district, as well as its involvement in efforts to pass Parent Trigger laws elsewhere. As usual, it’s about the money.

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  13. Re-reading this, I am even more astonished that the Silicon Valley Education Foundation allows this piece of deceit to remain on an otherwise respectable education news resource.
     
    Austin repeatedly refers to the Desert Trails parents as a single entity, utterly failing to acknowledge that the majority of these parents did not and do not support Parent Revolution’s strategy or tactics. The majority of Desert Trails parents want their principal to have the time and leverage to continue the work already underway before the trigger process. Work that has been compromised by PR’s shrill histrionics and work that may now be impossible thanks to legal expenses resulting from PR’s botched two-petition strategy that divided this community.
     
    Based on what I’m hearing from family in the area, real parents and community members feel used and cheated by Parent Revolution and deeply regret their involvement. There’s “adult deceit” there for sure. Imported from LA.

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  14. Yes, it does. Have you ever tried to run for a position in a local school board?
    Local unions, which are branches of CTA, are the largest contributors to school board campaigns often outdoing their competitors by tens of thousands of dollars–even in “small” districts like Adelanto.

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  15. Ben, in my county it’s possible to run for school board with no out of pocket costs. A big dollar race would involve a couple of signs and a single mailer. I believe all the districts in my county have strictly volunteer trustees.
     
    What does money buy? Signs, a mailer, and people to spread the message. If you have a hundred volunteers, you don’t need to pay people to make phone calls. School boards tend to be low information races in most districts. In a small district, it can likely be done with word of mouth alone.
     
    Depends on your media market as well. In a large, high stakes, wealthy district, you may need to do more. But (knowing the area) I suspect Adelanto is none of these. I was trying to look up campaign expenditures for the school board race and could not find them. I did find that the newest member was appointed after a vacancy.
     

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  16. Please back that up with some figures from past Adelanto school board campaigns. I challenge the accuracy.

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  17. @Ben, in my county about 2/3 of school board seats are uncontested. When a seat is contested, the campaigns tend to be very grassroots with most of the contributions going toward yard signs.
     
    Of our 13 school districts, not one has a union-sponsored majority. Our largest district has two trustees (of seven) whose campaigns were supported by the local teaching and classified unions.
     
    There’s your anecdotal data from real humans in a real town. Now where is your data?

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  18. What Mr. Austin and Mr. Smith fail to acknowledge is that after many of the Desert Trails parents realized they were deceived by the bait and switch petition campaign, they, without any coercion, rescinded their own signatures. When the final tallies we counted, the so-called “historic” 70 percent was under 50 percent, and hence under the threshold of the privatization law.
    With all of the vicious attacks on CTA or anyone believing in public education, what’s also lost is the brave parents that stood up to the billionaire funded Parent Revolution attack on their school and their community. Many Adelento Parents formed the resistance against Austin’s underhanded tactics from the get go, long before CTA sent a sole representative to the area. Several parents were on to the deception and lies of Mr. Austin and The Walton Family Foundation’s Parent Revolution from the start, since they in fact, represent the real status-quo.
    We like this parent blog, which puts to lie all of Smith and Austin’s perniciousness.

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  19. “The parents asked for smaller class sizes — something vocally opposed by Bill Gates, Parent Revolution’s chief funder (except for his own kids, of course).’

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated billions of dollars to education reform projects, from emphasizing smaller class sizes to researching methods of measuring teacher effectiveness.

    If your going to make up facts just to prove your point, then you won’t be taken seriously.

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