School battles fed-up parents 

How bad is McKinley Elementary School in Compton? Bad enough that in late 2010, over half of its students’ parents petitioned the district to transform their inner-city public school into a privately operated, publicly funded charter school.

The Parent Empowerment Act, known colloquially as the “parent trigger” law, was enacted in California in 2010 and provides several ways of making drastic changes to low-performing schools. If the parents or guardians of at least
50 percent of the students sign petitions, they can “trigger” a major change, forcing the school to hire new faculty, hire a new principal, close the school entirely, or convert it into a charter school. McKinley parents were the first to take advantage of the new law. Since filing their petitions in December, however, they have met stiff opposition from the district.

The parents decided they’d had enough. On Dec. 7, parents and guardians representing 61 percent of McKinley students petitioned the district to transfer the operation of the school to Celerity Educational Group, a charter operator highly regarded in the Los Angeles area.

But the district was unwilling to give in without a fight. Two days after the petitions were filed, it hastily convened a “PTA meeting” at McKinley where officials “encouraged” parents to rescind their signatures.

The intimidation didn’t stop there. Parents who had signed petitions reported that some teachers were harassing their children at school. And one teacher posted a message on an Internet forum addressed to one of the parents leading the drive: “Ms. Hernandez, you will regret having supported Celerity when your child is rejected by them.”

Since then, the parents have been locked in a legal battle with the district over the validity of the petitions. The district’s first ploy was to “verify” the signatures — not required by the regulations — by asking every signatory to provide an official photo ID, a conveniently impossible task for many of McKinley’s illegal immigrant parents.

In addition, the district claimed that many of the petitions “did not conform to the official state content standards and requirements,” though the alleged errors were either inconsequential, like the lack of a proper header, or nonexistent (the district incorrectly claimed the petition lacked the required “affirmation” statement). Because of these “insufficiencies,” the school district determined in late March that it could not verify any of the petitions.

So far, though, the parents and their pro bono legal team have been successful in overcoming the obstacles the school district has erected. The ID verification process has been stopped by a temporary restraining order, and an independent third party is expected soon to determine whether or not enough petitions meet statutory standards.

Teachers unions and a hostile district may be the least of the McKinley parents’ problems, though. Gov. Jerry Brown recently replaced most of the state Board of Education with new members, including a former lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, which had fought the parent trigger bill. The law has been operating under “emergency regulations” since it was enacted last year, and the new board has delayed a vote on permanent regulations until late April.

That has school choice advocates worried the board could make the trigger process even more difficult for parents who want to improve their schools. As McKinley shows, the process is already difficult enough.

This article is adapted from The Weekly Standard, where Michael Warren is on the editorial staff.

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