CA State Board of Education Investigates McKinley Elementary "Trigger" Parent Petitions

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As I reported elsewhere, questions surrounding Parent Revolution’s assistance in helping parents gather signatures to pull the “trigger” on a failing Los Angeles elementary school have instead triggered an investigation into the self-described grassroots, pro-charter group.

The California State Board of Education has asked the State Attorney General to see if petition signature gatherers misrepresented the petition’s goal–to overhaul or replace the low-performing school’s teachers and administration with staff from Celerity Charter Schools.

According to the law signed into effect in January 2010, 51% of the parents needed to sign their agreement with the plan; 61% did. At a crowded meeting of the Compton Unified School District on Tuesday, December 14, 2010, over 200 parents and teachers appeared to testify on behalf of troubled, but improving, McKinley Elementary:

…many opponents lined up to voice complaints about the petition process. One parent said she thought she was signing a petition to beautify the school while PTA President Cynthia Martinez complained she was not allowed access to all Parent Revolution gatherings. Last week, for instance, Parent Revolution moved a news conference featuring Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from public space outside McKinley to a private residence. Some anti-petition parents said they were denied entry.

Karen Frison, Compton’s acting superintendent, said Wednesday that the district would launch a new “parent empowerment initiative” of its own that will include a “robust community conversation” about the new law and the petition process in Compton. Test scores at McKinley have increased by 77 points in the last two years but the school remains in the lowest 10% of all California elementary schools.

Parent Revolution organizers and pro-charter conversion parents didn’t appear at the Compton Unified School District meeting, but did appear to make their case in front of the State Board of Education in Sacramento at a separate meeting. They allege that teachers retaliated against the threat of a charter management organization takeover by supplying parents with misinformation, such as claiming that a charter would have the capacity to turn away children with special needs. (By law the charter-run school must accept all children in the same geographic boundaries as the public school it replaces.) Other parents mentioned teachers threatening deportation if they didn’t “take back” their signatures.

Currently the California State Board of Education has eleven members in all, one of whom is Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. (Five out of the ten adult members of the SBE either run charter schools or have business dealings that are charter-affiliated in some way. The eleventh is a student member.) Austin recuses himself from SBE matters dealing with the group; in this instance, as lobbyist for CA State Senator Gloria Romero’s “parent trigger” bill, organizer who helped McKinley Elementary parents gather the requisite number of signatures via Parent Revolution, and now the object of investigation by the State Board of Education of which he is a member, it would seem he’s crossed too many competing lines of conflicting interest.

For now, no action will be taken on McKinley Elementary’s personnel or operations until the State Board of Education investigation is complete and numerous community town halls have been held to clarify the process. Meanwhile, the State Board of Education will announce a 15-day period for public comment on regulations ensuring transparent and above-board use of the “parent trigger” process.

Too bad Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s op-ed in the Washington Post today crowing about the law he advocated and signed sounds a day late, and a dollar short, as if he hasn’t read newspaper stories on McKinley Elementary from his home state. At the very least there needs to be clarity in how canvassers obtain signatures and hold meetings in the community, especially among the bilingual parents of McKinley’s students.

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