Parents and students at 24th Street Elementary celebrate their victory.

Courtesy Parent Revolution

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The Radical School Reform That Just Might Work

Angry about your kid’s crummy school? Take it over! That’s what parents in California are doing.

For years, parents at the troubled 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles protested the plight of its students, 98 percent of whom are Hispanic or black. Test scores were abysmal. Only a third were reading at grade level. And the stench of dead animals rotting in the air ducts was making kids sick.

Parents organized two protests and petitioned to have the principal removed, but according to Amibilia Villeda, parent of a fourth-grader, “nobody ever listened or paid attention.”

Then an organization called Parent Revolution showed up. The Los Angeles nonprofit group helped the parents form a union and transform their failing school through new leadership, new teachers and a unique partnership between a district and a charter school. The parents even negotiated for free universal preschool.

The revamped school opened its doors last August, and parents who fought for change already see the difference on their kids’ faces. “Smiles!” says Esmerelda Chacon, another parent of a fourth-grader. “They want to come to school.”

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How did these parents do it? Emboldened by California’s pioneering Parent Empowerment Act, which passed in 2010, parents at a persistently failing school who gather signatures from 51 percent of the parents now have the right to take over the school, hire a new principal, new staff or convert it into a charter.

The law, informally dubbed the parent trigger, was the brainchild of Ben Austin, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and an ex-member of the California State Board of Education, who founded Parent Revolution in 2009. Since his unlikely success in getting the bill passed, parents have transformed five California schools, while six other states have enacted similar laws and nearly 20 more have considered them. The United States Conference of Mayors passed a unanimous resolution endorsing the concept in 2012.

Parent trigger “gives parents a historic amount of power to sit at the table and bargain with the traditional interests that have power in the education system,” says Austin, who began his career working in the Clinton White House. They can “bargain on behalf of their kids and not be told to go do a bake sale when it’s time for the grown-ups to make the decisions.”

The idea behind the parent trigger law is simple: The rights of kids must come first, and no one has a greater interest in seeing kids receive a quality education than parents. “Everybody cares about kids, but there’s no doubt that parents have a different sense of urgency than everybody else,” Austin says. “Parents can’t sit around and wait for pilot programs or half measures. Their kids need a great education now.”

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Austin, a father of two, ages 4 and 7, has seen firsthand how the quality of public education varies dramatically based on “who you are, what color skin you have and what ZIP code you live in.” He sends his older daughter to one of the best public schools in Los Angeles, where parents have the clout to get kids what they need.

I have the very unique experience of dropping [my daughter] off and then driving to places like 24th Street Elementary, which is in the same school district, the same city, the same type of neighborhood school, same age kids, but it feels like you’re in a different universe,” Austin says. “If there was a dead animal on [my daughter’s] campus, there would be a SWAT team of paramedics surrounding it to resuscitate it before any parent ever noticed. But these parents had been complaining for years, and it took the leverage of the parent trigger to force the district to act.”

 

There is a systemic reason the quality of education is so much worse in poor neighborhoods.

A 2009 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that 98 percent of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)were receiving lifetime tenure with little or no performance review — a situation the current superintendent has worked hard to change, amid fierce opposition from the United Teachers Los Angeles union.

Once teachers in California receive tenure, state laws make it difficult to fire them for any reason. The process is so lengthy, costly and arduous that attempts are rarely made except in egregious cases of misconduct and abuse. Even then, it’s not easy. LAUSD even had a hard time firing former elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence after pleading no contest to felony lewd conduct charges that included blindfolding his students, spoon-feeding them his  semen, putting cockroaches on their faces and photographing these crimes. The district paid Berndt $40,000 to leave, and he’s still receiving his nearly $4,000-per-month pension.  (The school district now removes teachers accused of misconduct from the classroom, sending them to so-called “teacher jail,” where hundreds are paid full salaries totaling $1.4 million a month to sit and do nothing, as the district investigates the claims.)

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LAUSD and other school districts have pushed for changes to state law. However, the California Teachers Association (CTA), arguably the most powerful lobbying group in the state, so tightly guards teacher tenure protections that in 2012 it managed to kill a bill in the state Legislature that would have made it easier to dismiss teachers who abuse students. Lawmakers who sided with the CTA faced backlash, and one was booted out of office.

A CTA spokesman said he agrees that the teacher dismissal process needs to be “streamlined,” and last year CTA backed its own bill. However, district superintendents, education reform groups and the president of the California School Boards Association all complained that the CTA-backed bill made the problem even worse. Gov. Jerry Brown, a strong CTA ally, vetoed it.

On Jan. 27, a historic trial began in California challenging the constitutionality of the state’s teacher tenure and seniority rules. Plaintiffs in Vergara v. California claim that they deprive low-income students of equal access to quality education. There are also several ballot measures in the works to address the issue.

However, the lack of change to date frustrates Austin.

“If after three years, tens of millions of dollars of litigation and two different legislative attempts, we can’t figure out how to fire teachers who feed their own semen to children,” Austin says, “how in the world are we going to figure out how to run an effective system for kids?”

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When ineffective teachers can’t be fired, schools in poor neighborhoods become the dumping grounds for the lemons. (After Berndt’s arrest, a second teacher at the same elementary school — located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city — was also arrested for lewd conduct.)

The parent trigger law upends that dynamic, allowing parents to hire a new staff or convert to a charter that isn’t bound by the same tenure rules. Parent Revolution helps parents unionize, learn their rights and organize petition drives so they can collectively bargain on behalf of their kids or force change.

“The parents are not asking for Olympic-sized pools in their schools,” says Alfonso Flores, Parent Revolution’s district director, who was previously an Army Special Forces soldier, a teacher and principal. “They’re asking for clean restrooms, interactive lessons, science and social studies — basic things that should already be happening.”

Nevertheless, school districts and teachers’ unions have not taken kindly to such a radical power shift. “It would be silly to think that the general public could be educated enough to decide what doctors should and shouldn’t do, but they feel like they can do that in education,” says Marty Hittelman, former president of the California Federation of Teachers, in the documentary film “We the Parents”, released last fall.

The first two parent trigger campaigns met with fierce opposition, legal challenges and allegations of harassment, vandalism and dirty tricks, including threats to deport parents who were undocumented immigrants. Parent Revolution’s first attempt to transform a school in Compton, Calif., ended in failure after a court ruled that the parents’ petitions were invalid because the signatures were undated.

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Austin also has been the target of vicious personal attacks. Education historian Diane Ravitch called him “loathsome” and an “idiot” and said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for his funders after parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts — one of the worst schools Los Angeles — successfully petitioned to replace the principal, during whose tenure the school’s performance had grown radically worse. (Ravitch later apologized.)

“All the parents wanted was new leadership because their principal had a track record of abject failure for their children,” Austin says. “If that is so offensive that people are condemned to hell, I think it exposes opponents of this movement as being not against charters but against parents having power of any kind. If parents can’t exercise power in this situation, I would ask our opponents: When is it that they think it’s okay for parents to have power?”

Critics have charged that Parent Revolutionwhich is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Walton Family Foundation, is attempting to turn public schools into private, for-profit ventures.

However, only one of the five transformed schools has converted to a nonprofit charter after the district refused to negotiate. (Parent Revolution opposes for-profit charters.) The other four schools implemented various forms of in-district reform. In some cases, just the threat of a parent trigger has given parents enough leverage to negotiate for changes before they even finish collecting signatures.

“We’re making public schools more public and responsive to the public that they supposedly exist to serve,” says Austin, who takes the criticism in stride. “I don’t like having people dislike me, but if you’re not running up against entrenched interests, you’re probably not fighting for big social change.”

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Austin is not a guy who crumbles under pressure. When he was 16, his father, an alcoholic author who published five novels before falling on hard times, committed suicide. Then in 2006, Austin fought for and lost a state ballot initiative to tax millionaires to pay for free universal preschool. Two years later, he lost his bid to join the school board.

“I’ve had more epic public failures than most people in life,” Austin says. “But you have to be able to get back up when you fall flat on your face. It is one of the most important skills in life, and it’s a skill my father didn’t have.”

So when Austin’s first attempt to transform a school through parent trigger failed, he didn’t give up. He examined his mistakes and completely revamped Parent Revolution’s organizing model. In Compton, Parent Revolution chose the school’s transformation path and a charter operator to replace the failing school.

“It was too top down for it to be an organic movement,” Austin says. “Instead of doing the work for the parents, we [now] give parents the tools to do it themselves.”

And that means the parents’ interests don’t always align with his. For instance, the parent trigger law is criticized for being “divisive,” but at 24th Street, LAUSD’s reform-minded Superintendent John Deasy welcomed petitioning parents into his office and apologized for what their kids had endured. Instead of fighting the parents in court, LAUSD competed against various charter operators to win back the right to run its own school.

Austin viewed this as a rare opportunity to work collaboratively with a district on reform, and he hoped the parents would choose LAUSD’s proposal.

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Austin’s community organizers thanked him for his opinion but said parents would decide for themselves.

“We at Parent Revolution had lost all control of this process, and the parents were driving it — every step of the way,” Austin says. “This was parent empowerment on steroids.”

LAUSD agreed to meet all the petitioners’ demands, but parents were still distrustful after years of neglect. What they did next was something Austin never envisioned — something that had never been done before. They asked the top two finalists, LAUSD and Crown Preparatory Academy charter, to work together jointly to run the school.

Parents interviewed and approved the new principal and teachers, retaining a few who had reapplied for their jobs. And when 24th Street reopened last August, it had four new grades, with LAUSD running preschool through grade four, and Crown Prep running grades five through eight.

“It took empowered parents telling all of the interests to play well in the sandbox together to force a deal like that,” Austin says. “There isn’t anything in the law that says you can force a district and a charter to work together for the first time in history. They just figured it out.”

Austin expects these newly empowered parents to continue fighting for change on a state and national level. “One of the things no one has gotten their heads around is the unintended ripple effects when whole communities that have been left for dead rise up,” he says. “I think they appreciate the help we’ve given them, but they don’t see me as their hero.  They don’t see me as having done this for them. They feel the power in themselves.” 

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Jenny Hontz is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles who has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. She’s also a yoga teacher, a Krav Maga student and a founding parent

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