Jerry Brown announced his California Board of Education appointments yesterday -- and they're sure to throw a wrench in the spokes of the Parent Trigger movement.
For a group of parents in Compton, this will change everything.
Parent Trigger is a new law, barely passed through the state Legislature under former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in January, that allows 51 percent of any failing public school's parents to take over the school in one of four ways. The non-profit organization Parent Revolution, currently attempting one such coup at McKinley Elementary in Compton, chose the most extreme option: seize the campus from the district and turn it into a charter school.
Schwarzenegger's appointments to the state board --
including Ben Austin, one of the Parent Revolution directors, and board president Ted Mitchell -- were all famously pro-charter and pro-Parent Trigger. Brown chooses to eliminate both from the board, and the rest of his picks are quite opposite-minded.
Recent UCLA grad Gabe Rose, another of the Parent Revolution directors (alongside ex-State Board member Ben Austin), is crushed, of course. "We were hoping [Brown's] reform instincts would trump politics as usual," he says. "But I guess not." Brown created two charter schools during his term as mayor of Oakland.
Of the seven educational experts taking a seat, there are no blatant charter-school allies. In fact, most have roots on the anti-charter side of the reform spectrum. Here are their names and hometowns:
Carl Anthony Cohn, Palm Springs
Louis "Bill" Honig, Marin
Dr. Michael Kirst, Stanford
Aida Molina, Bakersfield
James Ramos, San Bernardino
Patricia Ann Rucker, Elk Grove
Trish Boyd Williams, San Jose
The average age of the Big Seven is not much smaller than Brown's -- and he's our oldest governor to date. His nominations favor education officials who have been through the ringer once or thrice: They've fucked up, learned from their mistakes (we hope) and lived to tell about it.
At stake right now are the official regulations for the Parent Trigger law. Their final language and passage will now fall under the responsibilities of the fresh (if you could call them that) set of board members. And if the officials' existing political allegiances are any indication, the Compton Unified School District might find a way around converting McKinley Elementary into a charter school by the February deadline set in the interim "emergency" regulations.
Honig and Kirst (rumored to be replacing pro-Trigger Ted Mitchell as board president) previously served on the board during Brown's first run as governor, when he was still strongly pro-union. Cohn and Molina are linked to the Association of California School Administrators, another group with a long history of protecting public-school employees -- one that loudly opposed Schwarzenegger's pro-charter nominations the last four years.
Most extremely, Rucker is currently Legislative Advocate for the California Teachers Association, as anti-charter as a group can get.
In his time as state superintendant, Honig was a major contributor to the "whole language" teaching trend that almost ruined a generation of readers. But -- bucking the typical politician's state of denial -- he admitted all wrongdoing in the 1996 LA Weekly article "Blackboard Bungle":
The situation has deteriorated so far that former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who oversaw the creation of the reading framework, has distanced himself from it, calling the framework "fatally flawed" particularly for its failure to anticipate the whole language overreaction. Indeed, he is now at the forefront of an opposition movement that is trying to reintroduce intensive teaching of rudimentary reading skills to grade schoolers.
Says Honig today: "Things got out of hand. School administrators and principals thought they were following the framework when they latched onto whole language, and our greatest mistake was in failing to say, 'Look out for the crazy stuff, look out for the overreactions and the religiously anti-skills fanatics.' We totally misjudged which voices would take charge of the schools. We never dreamed it would be driven to this bizarre edge. When I tell people that we never even say the phrase 'whole language' anywhere in the document, they look at me like I'm mad."
Honig is also infamous for directing $340,000 in taxpayer dollars to his wife's nonprofit Quality Education Project, in exchange for its services at California schools. His felony charges were later reduced to misdemeanors.
Ramos is the most surprising choice. His only experience in education is as a member of the San Bernardino Community College Board of Trustees. The bulk of his connections are with American Indian and pro-gaming groups. By mid-October, Brown had collected $715,000 in campaign contributions from California tribes, according to the Press Democrat.
Schwarzenegger openly supported the takeover of McKinley Elementary by a charter school, along with his top education officials; Brown has not commented on that issue in particular, but his appointees will no doubt do the talking.
Marion Joseph, a five-year State Board member often criticized for being so outspoken about bilingual teaching methods and other radical reforms, tells the Weekly that this is an "experienced, capable and serious group of people."
"From what I know of them," she says, "their position on charters would be thoughtful, as they would be on all other things. ... They will judge charters the same way as all other educational issues."
Though new board member Rucker is essentially a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, she's always steered clear of absolute union protection for a clear and firm stance on the responsibility of teachers.
Then there's Williams, who works for EdSource.org, an informative -- and refreshingly neutral -- database of statistics and studies. Kirst worked with EdSource on one such study: the extensive "What Works in Middle Schools."
Cohn served as superintendant for the Long Beach Unified School District from 1992 to 2002. It became one of the best districts in the nation under his highly involved jurisdiction.
Ted Mitchell and fellow board member David Lopez would have had a chance to stay on the board if the State Senate chose to "confirm" their appointments by Schwarzenegger. However, Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, tells the Sacramento Bee that they'll stick with Brown's judgment:
"From our perspective we have a new governor and it's up to the governor to establish his own administration," Barankin said. "That includes selecting the leaders of key policy areas, and that certainly includes education."
Though Mitchell was a likable and generally popular education-board president, he received a lot of flack for his heavy involvement in the charter movement (he's on the board of directors for the Green Dot charter-school organization). Mitchell recently demanded an investigation into McKinley staff who were telling Parent Trigger signers that their kids would not be accepted into a new charter school. It's no secret: He was a Parent Trigger supporter in high places.
Will Kirst provide the same support for the charter takeover? We couldn't get him on the phone to ask him ourselves yesterday, but one look at his track record shows he's skeptical, to say the least. He published the 417-page Political Dynamics of American Education last year, and didn't go easy on charters.
Cohn has also focused on improving the existing district system instead of funneling all energy/funds into private operations.
From a 2005 San Diego Union-Tribune piece:
[Cohn] wants to dispel the notion that charter schools are the only venues for innovation. His philosophy mirrors the prevailing sentiment on the school board, which is far more skeptical of those publicly funded, autonomous campuses than was the Bersin administration.
"There is a just a lot of buzz around charters here - it's as if charters are the only option for change," Cohn said. "Other ways could be explored."
At Compton Unified School District, where 2 percent of students end up going to college, time is running out.
The freshly ousted Ben Austin wrote on the Parent Revolution blog yesterday:
"Just one month ago, California Federation of Teachers President Marty Hittleman - the same man who called the Parent Trigger the "lynch mob provision" - confidently predicted to the media that Governor Brown would immediately remove me from the State Board because I had used my position to advocate for radical kids-first change, ominously stating that I would not be serving on the State Board "in a month or so." It turns out he was right. Unfortunately, in the Governor's first full day in office, he chose to stand with the state's most powerful interest group that spent millions to elect him, rather than the parents and children of California."
He argued that his actions on the board have been indicative of a quality-over-special-interest stance, saying, "On individual votes, I supported good charter schools and voted against bad ones, even when sometimes under immense political pressure to do the opposite."
Gloria Romero, the state senator who authored the Parent Trigger law, is not happy either. In the article "Compton Parent Trigger Fued," she told the Weekly that Compton Unified has had plenty of time to improve -- the California Board of Education has consistently demanded the "chronically underperforming" district make some major changes.
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"The district has kept this quiet for two years," Romero says.
However, California Teachers Association spokesman Frank Wells maintains that so far, Parent Revolution tactics have been fishy: "The Parent Trigger law was meant to be a vehicle for a local grassroots movement, as opposed to a vehicle for outside charter groups to sell their organization."
Charter issue aside, many ground-level veterans in the field have expressed admiration for Brown's selection. Ex-LAUSD school board member David Tokofsky put his glee gracefully to the LA Daily News:
"[The former] board had some well-intentioned and passionate advocates, but they tackled political issues, not curriculum and instruction," Tokofsky said. "This new group, which is in many ways an older group, knows what should be taught. ... They are not revolutionaries."