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The Battle Over Charter Schools

Meet the parents behind the nation's first "parent-trigger" school experiment in Compton.

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
McKinley Elementary School parent, Oralia Velasquez.

Like all the houses on this block of southern Los Angeles, education reformer Oralia Velasquez's bungalow has bars on the windows and doors. I ring her doorbell one night as her neighbors—men in blue uniform shirts, kids carrying soccer balls—enter a few of the pastel houses that line the street, greeted by barking dogs and the wafting smell of dinner. We sit near family photos and statues of the Virgin de Guadalupe and discuss the complex national education debate playing out now at her daughter's elementary school.

Until the nation's first "parent trigger" law passed in California, news coverage of Compton was often reduced to gang violence and drive-by shootings. But the flatlands are also dotted with graceful, dilapidated homes: reminders of a golden era when Compton held middle-class union jobs in the auto, steel, and rubber industries. Like Detroit, the death of industry left blight in its wake, and today there are more liquor, party-supply, and 99-cent stores here than parks, playgrounds, or libraries. Fewer than 1 in 10 residents have college degrees. School dropout rates are high. School test scores are among the lowest in California.

So when someone from a nonprofit called Parent Revolution knocked on Velasquez's door last fall to talk about "the possibility of change" and how California's newly-passed "Parent Empowerment" law could help Amie, her fifth-grade daughter, learn to read better at McKinley Elementary School, she was sold. She's been hearing about "change" from the school district since she was a teenager; why not try a charter school run by the Celerity Group, the operator Parent Revolution suggested, instead? "Whenever I tried talking to previous [McKinley] teachers about Amie's struggles, they'd say, 'She is fine. She is well behaved.' But I'm not worried about her behavior. I want her to get high grades and go to college," she tells me. Aware that only one in five charters succeed, she visited one in person. "The atmosphere at Celerity is totally different. Everyone said good morning to me. There are more staff supervising the kids, and children are really concentrating." Velasquez is now among 15 parent leaders in a group called McKinley Parents for Change, which helped Parent Revolution's paid canvassers gather parent signatures to turn McKinley into a Celerity school. The group claims they gathered more than 60 percent of parents' signatures and delivered them to the Compton Unified School District in December, but the transition is now in legal limbo. Despite court orders, the district has been stalling the verification process for months, and the controversial methods used to gather parent signatures have fractured the school community. 

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Like Compton itself, McKinley is a test case for the "parent trigger" law, which essentially boils down to 480 hastily approved words that give parents the option of turning low-performing public schools like McKinley into charter schools of various stripes. The bill, backed by Parent Revolution and other charter school believers, squeaked through the state legislature last year and was opposed fiercely by teacher unions. (California Teachers Association's Frank Wells argues that it was an ill-considered, last-minute attempt to qualify California for federal Race to the Top funding, which the Golden State didn't win.) Similar legislation is now popping up in at least five other states, and it's no exaggeration to say that what happens here could someday be mirrored across the country. So how exactly did Amie's school get tapped for the role of guinea pig?

Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin tells me that when the paid canvassers of Parent Revolution and 15 Compton parent volunteers went door-to-door telling parents about the new law and asking them which schools needed the most improvements, McKinley came up most often. Opponents of Parent Revolution refer to the Los Angeles based nonprofit as an "astroturf" organization fronting for outsiders who want to privatize public education, and McKinley as a school chosen because it's already improving. Robert Skeels, who writes for the Daily Censored online news site, demonizes the nonprofit as "a poverty pimp and privatization pusher collecting a check from plutocrat foundations." 

Austin rejects these accusations. "This law is about giving parents collective bargaining rights, that sense of entitlement that middle class parents take for granted," he tells me. During his stints at the White House, the California State Board of Education, and as deputy mayor of Los Angeles, he says he realized that parents and students didn't have real political power in negotiations around schools. Besides, he adds, the parent trigger law is unpopular among charter operators. If a charter school is created in a public school site, it has to take all of its students; it can't cherry-pick the high-performers as some charters do in California.

Parent Revolution operates on a $1 million budget, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that the Gates, Walton Family, and the Broad Foundation combined invest far more funding in education reform than any foundations before them, with unchecked power to expand charters, vouchers, and other business-inspired reforms.

Austin notes that Parent Revolution went to funders asking for support in giving parents collective bargaining rights, not charters. Charters are difficult to scale up—and there aren't that many good ones, he says. As a state Board of Education member, Austin even led an effort to close the worst performing charter schools in California. "Going forward, only a very small sliver of transformations will involve charters. Eighty percent of parents will probably organize to bargain collectively around reforms within their own schools."

The organization is working on school reform campaigns with parents in dozens of schools, at their request, says Parent Revolution's communications director, Linda Serrato. It is not yet clear how many of these parents may end up using the "parent trigger" law to implement change.*

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