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In California, Public School Parents Stage a Coup


Chrissy Alvarado opposes the takeover of Desert Trails

Photograph by Geordie Wood for Bloomberg Businessweek

Chrissy Alvarado opposes the takeover of Desert Trails

In Spanish, adelanto means “progress.” That’s exactly what Doreen Diaz and her family hoped for when they moved the 17 miles to Adelanto, Calif., from nearby Hesperia in 2007. The Diazes bought one of Adelanto’s new, affordable tract homes and admired the tidy-looking elementary school, Desert Trails, two blocks away. It was nestled between a park and playing field—a tiny green oasis amid the Mojave Desert’s omnivorous brown.

Once inside Desert Trails, things looked very different. “We really liked the look of the community,” says Diaz, a stay-at-home mother of three. “I had absolutely no idea how terrible the schools are.”

Twelve of the district’s 13 schools are failing, and Desert Trails Elementary, with around 650 students, is the worst. Last year, 68 percent of graduating sixth graders failed proficiency tests in math and English-language arts. That’s despite the school’s exclusive focus on those subjects in an effort to comply with No Child Left Behind, which mandates annual testing to assess students and teachers. Diaz worried constantly about her daughter, Vanessa. In third grade, the girl started crying daily before school. She’d been placed in an overcrowded special needs classroom with kids of all ages. Bullying went unchecked, Diaz says. By the fifth grade, Vanessa was still at a second grade reading level.

Diaz says that when she approached the school’s teachers, one told her, “We teach to the kids that get it, and too bad for the ones who don’t.” Another told her that Desert Trails students don’t learn because of the school’s “socioeconomic demographics.” When she complained to district administrators, she says she was told that if she didn’t like the school, she should find another. Desert Trails principal David Mobley says he’s unsure what the district told Diaz. District administrators didn’t make anyone available for comment.

Diaz tried to improve Desert Trails by leading the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for two years and talking regularly with school administrators. It didn’t help. In 2010 she moved her daughter into a regular fifth grade classroom, where she became eligible for a program that offers an hour of one-on-one help each day. Within three months her daughter’s reading rose two grade levels. Instead of feeling better about the school, Diaz only became more disillusioned. “It made me wonder what they’d been teaching her for all those years,” she says. “Just because we live out in the desert, out in Boonyland, doesn’t mean that our kids don’t deserve the same quality education as someone who lives down the hill.”

Fed up, Diaz joined forces with a small group of other frustrated moms and dads and decided there was only one way for parents to improve Desert Trails: Take it over. Under California’s so-called parent trigger law, passed in 2010, if at least 50 percent of parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition to wrest control, they can pursue one of four options: (1) force the school district to bring in new staff; (2) force the school district to replace the school’s principal and make other changes, such as modifying teacher contracts or creating smaller classes; (3) convert the school into a charter; or (4) close the school entirely. The law applies at both public and charter schools.

As of September three states have adopted versions of California’s legislation: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Another 12 are considering whether to follow suit. In June the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed trigger laws. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, now grappling with the city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years, has said he plans to introduce the legislation there. Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark’s Cory Booker have also praised the parent trigger concept. On the Republican side, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are supporters.

The idea is just as appealing in fiction. Won’t Back Down, a movie inspired by California’s law, is set to be released on Sept. 28. The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as an embattled mom-and-teacher duo who take on bullying union bosses, corrupt school officials, and inept teachers to turn around a deplorable urban school.

For all the fervor, there has yet to be a parent coup carried to completion. Critics, including teachers unions, administrators, and some parent groups warn that pulling the trigger is no guarantee of a better school. Some even call the law a stalking horse for big corporations set on privatizing education and weakening unions.

The struggle for control of Desert Trails Elementary is shaping up as a test of how far parental empowerment can go toward improving the state of U.S. public schools. Doreen Diaz and her allies, who’ve formed the Desert Trails Parent Union (DTPU), are receiving assistance from Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that conceived the parent trigger and helps parents use it. In July, after a heated six-month battle, a superior court judge upheld the Desert Trails parent petition, giving them the go-ahead to turn Desert Trails into a charter school. It seemed like a clear victory for the parents, until district officials in August announced they would not relinquish control. One board member, Jermaine Wright, proclaimed he had no choice but to stand up against the pro-trigger parents, whom he accused of lying and using strong-arm tactics to gather parental signatures. “There’s a lot of things I’m willing to do,” he said. “And if I’m found in contempt of court, I brought my own handcuffs—take me away today.”
 
 
The nerve center for the parent trigger movement is the downtown Los Angeles headquarters of Parent Revolution. The office is littered with brightly colored beanbag chairs, a Ping-Pong table, and a hammock. It looks like a tech startup. A giant “51%” graffiti mural covers one wall, and a poster for Waiting for ‘Superman,’ the controversial pro-charter, anti-union documentary, hangs in the entrance foyer.

Ben Austin, Parent Revolution’s executive director, sits cross-legged on a chair and explains how his idea for a parent-trigger law developed over the course of a career in progressive Democratic politics. After pushing for reforms as deputy mayor of L.A., he became frustrated that policy discussions were overly focused on the needs of educators, and thought outcomes would look very different if parents were involved. “Parents don’t care how many lobbyists you have,” says the father of two girls. “They just care what’s good for kids.”

Austin doesn’t think parents should run schools, but he wants them to have a seat at the table, along with teachers unions and district administrators. “Low income moms, people of color, and even undocumented parents, they have that same right to be empowered over the education of their own kids,” he says.

Austin launched Parent Revolution in January 2009, with funding from Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit charter-school operator. One year later, he persuaded politicians to include the parent trigger in an education reform bill. In January 2010 the law passed by one vote in both California’s Assembly and State Senate. Loud protests from unions ensued; one California Federation of Teachers newsletter referred to the parent trigger as a “lynch mob provision.”

Soon the funding from Green Dot ran out, and Austin began raising money. The first contribution, $500,000, came from California philanthropist and media executive Casey Wasserman. Later, Austin obtained funding from more big donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundation. Today, the nonprofit brings in about $1 million annually.

Before regulations were even firmly in place, Austin and his team identified a failing school—McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif.—and with collaboration from parents attempted for the first time to pull the trigger. Despite high-powered help from lawyer Mark Holscher, who offered pro bono work from his firm, Kirkland & Ellis, McKinley’s pro-trigger parents ultimately lost their bid because Parent Revolution had omitted a date box on the petition forms. “We’re building the airplane while it’s in the air,” says Austin.

Despite the loss, Parent Revolution kept growing—expanding from 20 to 32 employees this summer to assist parents at about a dozen more California schools, as well as pro-trigger groups around the country. The staff includes a former labor organizer under Cesar Chavez, a one-time teachers union spokesman, a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret-turned-charter school principal, as well as several former teachers. In June 2011, the same month they lost in Compton, Parent Revolution got the call from Doreen Diaz’s Desert Trails moms. They wanted help.
 
 
The involvement of Parent Revolution has turned Adelanto, a dusty town of about 32,000 northwest of Los Angeles, into an unlikely battleground in the country’s long-running conflict over the future of public school reform. “Why should 51 percent of the parents be able to take ownership of something that belongs to the public?” asks education historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch, who says parent triggers are part of a national push by the Right and corporations to privatize education. “Should 51 percent of people in a public park be able to decide that they want to take control and hand it over to a private developer who can then build apartment buildings?”

Caroline Grannan, a founding member of Parents Across America, one of several parent groups that helped shut down an attempt to introduce parent trigger legislation in Florida, says, “the idea that busy parents can simply take over and run a school in their spare time is obviously magical thinking.” She points out that charters overall don’t outperform public schools and suggests that instead of pulling the trigger, parents should assert their voices by voting in good school board members, getting to know administrators, and getting involved in schools. “Handing over public schools to privatizers doesn’t benefit students, improve education, or empower parents,” she says.

Amy Wilkins, vice president of the research and advocacy group The Education Trust, warns that the law is incomplete, but thinks that “the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water.” Clear safeguards and regulations must be added to the legislation, she says. “It’s a very powerful way for parents to say no—not only no, but ‘hell no’—but what are they saying yes to? These are kids who need to go to school, so we need to be saying yes to something.”

The parent trigger crowd also has plenty of opponents in Adelanto. Chrissy Alvarado is a Desert Trails mom fighting the takeover with the help of the local teachers union. She says her kids have good teachers and are on track to go to college. She blames the school’s low ranking on a lack of leadership in previous years and questions Parent Revolution’s motives. “They’re all just a bunch of rich people who want to get richer,” Alvarado says. “When someone has money over you, they can tell you what to do.”

Desert Trails principal Mobley says he’ll “be the first to say that we need to make changes.” As of this school year, Mobley says he’s introduced a full curriculum that includes arts, social studies, and sciences. In his opinion, Desert Trails ran into trouble partly because of a breakdown in communication between parents, the school, and the district—something he hopes to remedy. La Nita Dominique, president of the Adelanto District Teachers’ Association points out that, because of the school’s transient population, “students that teachers start with in August … are rarely the students they end the year with.” Dominique believes the parent trigger law could be effective if regulations were rewritten to make implementation more transparent and less contentious. “Parents’ voices are integral when it comes to their child’s education,” she says, but adds, “the two times the trigger has been pulled, it has been very divisive, it has destroyed communities.”
 
 
Diaz and her parent union make no apologies for enlisting the help of Parent Revolution or their goal of bringing in a nonprofit charter operator. They say they’ve tried to work with the district to no avail. In January, after several months of knocking on doors, the DTPU had signatures from the parents of 466 Desert Trails students—roughly 70 percent of the student body. Yet at a hearing in February, the district’s superintendent invalidated almost 100 signatures, pointing to errors and a counterpetition that some parents had signed to withdraw their support. The loss of those signatures left the group with less than 50 percent support. The DTPU cried foul. “It was an insult to us,” says Cynthia Ramirez, a mom who has been working with Diaz and the parent union. “We stood up as a group and walked out.”

Each side accuses the other of using harassment, misinformation, and even intimidation to get their signatures. Alvarado says the DTPU tricked parents by telling them the petition was only to get new computers and clean bathrooms for Desert Trails, and that there would be no charter school. DTPU parents counter that they made sure everyone knew exactly what they were signing, and claim the opposition used tactics such as blocking traffic at the school, only allowing parents to exit after signing counterpetitions.

In April, Diaz filed suit against the Adelanto School District to defend the DTPU’s original petition, and with the help of Kirkland & Ellis won the case. In the town, civility deteriorated. Members from both parent factions have called the police on each other, claiming harassment, and the DTPU alleges that intimidation tactics are being used against parents who are undocumented immigrants. “Some of our members have had poop left on their doorstep,” says Diaz.

In late July, Diaz’s group became the first public school parents in history to solicit takeover proposals from nonprofit charter operators. They also asked Adelanto’s school district to apply to run their own school. They received three lengthy submissions from charters, detailing their qualifications and ideas for reform—and, at the very last minute, a two-sentence “letter of interest” from the school’s then-superintendent, Darin Brawley, which was disqualified for not meeting proposal requirements. Two weeks later, Brawley stood up at a board meeting and announced that the district would not cede power to the DTPU, nor to any charter operator. The board’s reasoning, explained Brawley, was that the parents’ efforts had been invalidated by the fact that the group was not prepared to implement a restart for the 2012-13 school year. He also claimed that a charter would not attract enough students.

Kirkland & Ellis has filed a motion to compel the Adelanto School District, which Holscher says “knowingly and flagrantly” defied the superior court judge’s ruling from 30 days earlier, to relinquish control. The district has opposed the motion. As of late August, the school district had spent roughly $140,000 on litigation costs, according to Brawley. He resigned his post on Sept. 7. The school year is now under way in Adelanto, and the children of Diaz, Ramirez, and Alvarado are back in the classroom while their parents prepare for another court battle.

In the Hollywood version of the story, Gyllenhaal and Davis succeed in taking over their school, and even manage to win over a dyed-in-the-wool union leader played by Holly Hunter. The movie, which is not affiliated with Parent Revolution or anyone in Adelanto, tackles America’s complex struggle between parents and the status quo. But it doesn’t lay out a clear path for making schools work once parents take them over. Though not out yet, Won’t Back Down is already pushing buttons: Ravitch, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and others have dismissed it as a film backed by big corporations that misrepresents the issues.

The film made Diaz cry. “I hope that more people see it and are inspired to stand up and fight.” Of course, she says, it also “makes the process look a lot easier than it really is.”

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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