Two specific schools that aren’t performing, two different states, and two ways parents are reaching for a solution.

When things go wrong at your kid’s school, you as a parent have very specific rights that vary by state and may be extended by state laws. For example, if your child attends a school that receives No Child Left Behind funding in Illinois, you can participate in Parent Advisory Councils and also have the right to fully participate in Local School Councils under state law.

In California, parents can gather 61% signatures among themselves and petition school districts to let a charter school take over your child’s struggling public school. This is the result of a new January 2010 “trigger” law that’s now being tested in one low-performing Los Angeles elementary school. Let’s take a look at the different approaches.

In Chicago, a grassroots group called Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) filed a lawsuit against the city’s school system. Their grievance lies in a decade-long battle to have the CPS follow a fair retention policy so failing and repeating a grade will stop having a disproportionately large impact on African American and Latino children.

PURE seeks these kinds of changes:

  • use class attendance, grades, a portfolio of classwork, and other work the children have produced throughout the year to assess the student, instead of performance on a single, high-stakes statewide test
  • stop ineffective retention that harms children and is often a reason why they drop out
  • stop relying on costly and ineffective retention and remediation (the policy has been contested for 14 years; for one year, 9,000 children repeating a grade in 2008 cost $11,000/child to educate, or nearly $100 million, not counting another $50+ million for summer school)

PURE asks for Chicago Public Schools to redirect money spent on existing retention/remediation programs to these areas instead:

  • test for learning disabilities and other problems well before 3rd grade
  • develop Student Learning Plans for all children showing signs of difficulty
  • bring back successful, proven Child-Parent Centers that helped low-income families with preparing very young children to enter school
  • make class sizes smaller/bring in more specialists

All these demands are a re-allocation of existing resources to areas that have been productive in the past. PURE is a parent-led grassroots group that started in 1987 and has been helping parents organize and advocate on behalf of their children.

The Los Angeles parents, part of a group called Parents Revolution, pulled the “trigger” on a school where 75 percent of fifth graders lack proficiency in reading or math. School administrators expressed concern that they’d had no forewarning until asked for a response from the media. A representative from the teacher’s union questioned whether the charter school management company they hired had undergone a competitive bidding process (it had not). Some critics of charter schools have even gone on to cast Parents Revolution as an astroturf group funded by companies that run charter schools with mediocre Academic Performance Indexes similar to the schools they’re meant to replace. And there’s additional concern over Parent Revolution staffers’ connections to Green Dot, one of the most prominent charter school management organizations in Los Angeles.

A report from the gathered parents right before they handed over the petition unearthed questions about the collection of signatures from the primarily Spanish-speaking parents in the neighborhood:

[Parent Revolution] provided staff to gather signatures, presented parents with a short list of charter school operators to choose from and facilitated tours of those charters. Parent Revolution also organized and paid for publicists, catering and transportation for the day’s event.

That’s not grassroots transformation, California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittlelman told KPCC’s “AirTalk.” He said he’s watched how the Parent Trigger law is working in Compton Unified. “We hear reports that parents are being harassed at their homes in order to sign petitions, that they’re going after specifically, they’re targeting non-English-speaking parents. They pulled away from the African-American community when people started asking questions.”

McKinley Elementary parent Karla Garcia pulled up as buses readied to drive toward school district headquarters. She said she’d signed the petition, but she changed her mind and hoped to withdraw it, because the signature gatherer asked her if she wanted the school improved.

Garcia said that’s not the same as agreeing for it to become a charter. Besides, she added, the new principal is turning the school around. “The kids have more homework, my daughter is reading more. She is better in math. They have tutoring programs so I see a lot of better changes at McKinley.”

In these two differing approaches lie some of the complexity of the problem and solutions. Are parents “on a different clock” than school district staff, as Parent Revolution organizer Ben Austin likes to say? Or is slower but more authentic organizing by parents looking to improve, and not push the re-set button on their children’s schools, the way to go?

Watch for “trigger” laws in your state–the movement to have state legislatures pass similar laws is growing.

This story originally appeared at on the Education channel.

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  1. […] Chicago, parents whose children attend Title I schools are involved in Parent Advisory Councils. In other states, these might have different names, but all Title I schools that receive federal […]

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