If the Parent Trigger battle in Compton gets much uglier, attorneys for Compton Unified School District will face two powerhouse law firms in court: Kirkland & Ellis and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which American Lawyer magazine named 2010 Litigation Department of the Year, jumped into the fray this week, agreeing to work pro bono for Parent Revolution, which organized Compton parents to gather enough signatures to take over McKinley Elementary School under a new California law.
Kirkland & Ellis, one of the largest law firms in the U.S., also is lending its considerable power to the reformers' side, agreeing to work pro bono for McKinley Parents for Change, a group of parents who signed the Parent Trigger petition. Those parents are furious that Compton officials are challenging their signatures and trying to stop them from launching a makeover at substandard McKinley Elementary.
The parents have opted to turn McKinley into a charter school. Compton officials vociferously oppose charters, and no charter has ever been allowed inside Compton.
Jay Lefkowitz, senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis, says the firm decided to represent McKinley Parents for Change because "this is a historic moment in American education reform. ... This is about giving parents the power to fight for their children for a better education."
The two firms join other seasoned political figures who are taking on the Compton school leaders. "We're ready to go all the way to the [California] Supreme Court," says Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton.
The Parent Trigger law was authored by former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero, who fought her own party in Sacramento for months to pass it. The law lets parents demand — and then launch — major changes at chronically failing schools if they can gather signatures from 51 percent of the school's parents.
In Compton, organizers collected 60 percent of McKinley parents' signatures. Compton School Board President Satra D. Zurita, Vice President Margie Garrett, acting superintendent Karen Frison and others reacted by playing political hardball.
They are trying to force McKinley Elementary parents — many of whom are immigrants and may fear deportation — to meet Compton school authorities in person, bringing "photo identification" to prove they signed the petition. The highly unusual demand is being denounced as invasive and unconstitutional.
Attorney Lefkowitz says, "[Compton Unified officials] appear to be inventing a whole new law, something very different from what the elected officials voted on. ... I hope they will back down from these activities because it's incumbent on them to obey the law. It's time for education reform to take a natural route. Unfortunately, Compton Unified may force this into the courts."
On Monday, Romero said Compton officials are making it far harder for parents' signatures to be honored than it is to prove eligibility to vote for the president of the United States. She declared: "It's not about verification! It is purely about disenfranchisement."
Romero joined six Compton Latino and black mothers at a press conference where they attacked Compton Unified leaders, who are being led by Frison and Zurita.
Theresa Theus, a black mother, said, "I'm very angry, upset and frustrated. I don't know what kind of trick this is."
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Lorena Bautista, a Latino mother, added, "What the district is doing is very wrong. They're violating our rights."
Romero warned that California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Board of Education should "honor the spirit and intent of the law."
But Brown's controversial new school board might not agree. Days ago, Brown removed from the California Board of Education several outspoken reformers who strongly backed the Parent Trigger law and charter schools, including Austin.
It's unknown whether Brown's much safer appointees to the state school board will stand up to the California Teachers Association, which nearly stopped the Parent Trigger law from being approved and has fought for years against charter schools.