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
In 2008, the California Department of Education declared Compton a "program improvement district," which for years had failed to improve academic achievement as defined by federal standards in the No Child Left Behind Act.
A scathing report sent to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell in July by an outside consultant found a "focus, across the district, on adult issues as priority before student needs"; "evidence that adults are not held accountable for their work, nor for their ethical behavior"; "resistance to necessary changes in order to improve student learning and instructional practices"; and a "lack of a sense of urgency related to student achievement."
Austin and his staff surveyed parents at several schools in Compton, asking if they were interested in a transformation. The parents at McKinley, with its embarrassing statewide API score and bottomed-out "similar schools" ranking, gave overwhelmingly positive feedback. "We thought Compton Unified was an important place to go, just because of the need," Austin says.
Austin sees the Parent Trigger as a social movement for parents rather than a new law.
"We see it as a new paradigm," he says, "an entirely new way of thinking about public education. That it isn’t about charters or unions or reformers or defenders of the status quo — it is simply about giving parents power to advocate for the education of their own kids. It is about acknowledging that a 'kids first' agenda is a radical departure from the status quo, and that the only way we're going to get there is to transfer power to the only people who only care about kids: parents."
Parent Revolution is a project of the Los Angeles Parents Union, which was founded by parents and the Green Dot charter schools. That connection to a popular Los Angeles–area charter school group has given critics like CFT's Hittelman the opening to complain that the law is a gimmick to create more charter schools — in which teachers are seldom unionized. UCLA professor John Rogers, an education expert, says labor leaders are worried about their longtime grip on teaching jobs. Unions have fought hard to stop the rapid growth of California’s charter schools.
Since losing the legislative battle, Hittelman has begun to take personal jabs at Austin, saying, "He's not very smart about education at all," and describing Austin, who has been working in education reform for nine years, as somebody who "just doesn't have the experience."
(Hittelman was unaware that a Parent Trigger movement was under way in Compton at the time L.A. Weekly interviewed him. The Weekly interviewed him about general points of the new law. CTA president David Sanchez failed to return phone calls seeking an interview about the new law.)
Rogers believes Hittelman has a point — that the trigger can be used as a "strategy" to create more charter schools, converting an existing facility like McKinley Elementary instead of building from scratch. "Economically," Rogers says, "these are difficult times for charter schools."
But Austin says, "The Parent Trigger is not about charter schools." Hittelman’s views are "strong-arm arguments" that ignore a substantial cultural and community difference between Parent Trigger schools and charter schools: If a charter school is created at a public school site using the Parent Trigger, that school is required to serve all children — it can't pick and choose its students, as charter schools do in California.
USC professor Laila Hasan, an expert on parental involvement in education, sees the Parent Trigger as a new way to get mothers and fathers engaged in schooling and make educators and administrators listen to them. "The Parent Trigger puts another voice at the table," Hasan says. "It’s not taking anything away from the unions. It's giving a voice to the parents, which they should have. Unions can’t speak for parents."
Already waiting in the wings, Celerity Educational Group, which operates charter schools in Glassell Park, Jefferson Park and Eagle Rock, hopes to operate the charter school that today is known as McKinley Elementary School.
Around the same time that Parent Revolution was researching Compton Unified, Celerity was looking to open a school in the stubbornly anti-charter district. The two organizations found each other.
It's a situation that critics might point to as evidence that the Parent Trigger is a sneaky way to put failing public schools out of business. But Austin says the need to turn around McKinley is so great, and Compton Unified's deficits so extensive, that it was necessary to bring in a charter school rather than choosing the option of merely firing the principal.
Celerity president Vielka McFarlane, a former educator and administrator at Los Angeles Unified School District, says parent input will be taken seriously if Celerity becomes the charter school at McKinley, as expected.
"The parents are the ones who triggered it," she says. "They should have a real voice in what the school provides."
In fact, several McKinley parents have already visited Celerity schools, and McFarlane plans to hold one-on-one briefing sessions with parents and their children in the coming months.