By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
According to Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, it started as a "crazy idea." "We wanted to change the game with parent organizing. There were no entry points for parents to get involved, and we wanted to get parents politically involved in their children’s education."
So he and his staff at Parent Revolution came up with the idea of allowing parents to petition for changes at a chronically failing school, essentially giving mothers and fathers political leverage over administrators and teachers unions. Democratic State Senator Gloria Romero, the chair of the Senate Education Committee at the time, introduced the bill in 2009.
Romero, an unusually independent legislator from Los Angeles, who has repeatedly defied the status quo during education-reform battles in Sacramento, immediately met stiff resistance.
"Every adult special interest in education came out to oppose it," says Romero, who describes the ensuing battle as "bruising."
Austin says Romero literally begged her colleagues for one extra vote to get the bill passed by her education committee. "I never witnessed anything like that before," he says. And once the full California senate approved it by a vote of 21-7, Romero says, "It was like a bursting of the dam. It was passed. It was real."
Najera and Ford relentlessly worked the statehouse halls, using Romero's office as a command center and pigeonholing senators and assembly members. "They were a force to be reckoned with," Romero says of the two women.
But when the bill went to the lower house, then–California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass pushed back. So Ford held a protest in front of Bass' highly visible district office on Wilshire Boulevard near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I thought that was a turning point," Ford says.
According to Romero, she and Bass held talks late into several nights, negotiating terms. One of the changes that Bass and others resistant to the Parent Trigger won was that only 75 schools could be transformed. "These days were intense," Romero says. "You could feel the tension in the Capitol."
Teachers union lobbyists prowled the Capitol, trying to fend off a bill that seemed to come out of nowhere. Often, when Ford talked with an elected Democrat, the politician immediately insisted on knowing how the California Teachers Association felt. At one point, literature published by the California Federation of Teachers described the Parent Trigger as a "lynch mob provision" — an ugly choice of words that outraged civil rights activists.
The Parent Trigger war revealed cracks in California's decades-long united Democratic backing for teachers unions. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer, supported the new law. Romero, a friend of labor, was its leading champion. Yolie Flores, a pro-labor liberal on the LAUSD school board, strongly backed it, too. It passed the majority-Democrat, 80-member assembly by 41 votes, the bare minimum required. In January, reform bill SBX5 4, including the Parent Trigger and an Open Enrollment Program that lets students transfer out of California's 1,000 worst schools, was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"People were really surprised we were able to overcome that opposition," Romero says. "But education is the most important civil rights issue. We were able to frame it that way, which helped get it passed."
It was a crushing — in fact, stunning — political defeat for the teachers unions, unlike anything in recent memory. The federation's Hittelman tries to shrug it off: "It didn't surprise me that some Democrats went for it. There are some Democrats who are just politicians and are trying to ride the latest wave."
The victory came with a nasty backlash.
When Romero, the Legislature's leading expert on education reform, ran for state superintendent of public instruction this year, she lost in the primary when the CTA poured millions of dollars into the candidacy of unremarkable state assemblyman Tom Torlakson. Torlakson is a solid teachers-union vote who attacked the Parent Trigger as "abandon[ing] those very schools that are in most need of our help." He was elected state superintendent on Nov. 2.
"I became a public enemy," Romero says, "but good fights are worth fighting for."
Austin, too, now faces a struggle — to be formally confirmed as a member of the California Board of Education by Democratic state legislators who are under intense pressure from angry teachers unions to punish him. Austin has served on the Board of Education for months, but Hittelman airily predicts, "He may not be on the school board in a month or so."
Austin can live with that, however unfortunate he may find it.
If things go better for the Compton children struggling to learn reading and math at McKinley Elementary School over the next year or two, Austin says, the administrators and teachers unions who have often shut out parents will no longer have a monopoly on power. "That's what the Parent Trigger is all about," Austin, says "and that's why Compton is such a historic moment."
Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. Compton Unified, which serves 28,101 students at 40 schools, fit the bill.