Waiting for Superparents?

Does the collection of 267 parent signatures at McKinley Elementary in Compton, CA mark the start of a parent revolution?

Passed by just one vote in both the California Assembly and Senate in January 2010, the landmark Parent Trigger provision empowers parents at any of the 1,334 failing schools in California to transform a school and hold it accountable through community organizing. Under the legislation, schools can become targets of a petition if their Academic Performance Index (API) score is lower than 800 on a 1,000-point scale and if they have been considered “program improvement” schools for at least three years for having failed to raise test scores enough under the No Child Left Behind Act. The Parent Trigger law features the following four intervention models that a school can implement: 1) Convert the school into a charter school; 2) Bring in new staff and increase the role of the community in determining school operations; 3) Maintain the school, but fire the principal; or 4) Shut the school down and send the students to nearby higher achieving schools. If 51% of the parents at an eligible school sign a petition calling for change, the school district is required to transform the school using one of the four models selected by the parents. Also, charter schools that open as a result of this law must accept all students from the original school. The Parent Trigger Law is truly game changing.

However, in a sprint to secure Race to the Top funding and push through education reforms, California policymakers did not comprehensively address how difficult it would be to foster collective action among parents with disparate levels of school engagement, awareness, and English language ability. The majority of failing schools are located in low-income communities of color and recent immigrants. For the first time in our nation’s history, these disenfranchised parents have been given unprecedented power and choice, but without a clear support system and framework of how to access and use this power.

The first visionary group of parents to utilize the Parent Trigger Law hail from one of California’s poorest cities where Latinos make up two-thirds of the population---Compton. McKinley Elementary School in Compton has ranked in the bottom 10% of all elementary schools in California for over 10 years with an API score of 658. What was once a predominantly African American student population, McKinley Elementary students now reflect our nation’s fastest-growing student population as Latinos comprise 60% of the student body.

December 7, 2010 marks a historical day in the trajectory of parental empowerment, particularly Latino parents. With 62% of parents at the 438-student school signing and submitting the Parent Trigger petition to free the school from district control and install a charter school operator, Compton parents united for change with the help of an education advocacy organization, Parent Revolution. The charter school operator Celerity Educational Group was selected to transform McKinley; however, it is unclear how this charter was selected and by whom. Yet, ever since the parent petition was filed on December 7, there have been even bigger problems.

Compton Unified School District has been accused of bullying parents into removing their petition signatures. Interestingly, Compton Unified is not the only entity facing accusations. Parent Revolution has been criticized for not adequately informing parents about the petition process. Some parents report that teachers and district officials told them that immigrant parents would be deported and the new charter school would not accept undocumented students. Even further, parents claim that they were mislead by community organizers into believing that the petition was to simply beautify the school, not to close it temporarily for a charter to run the show. However, the main contention remains between parents and the school district.

Instead of validating the parent petition as the district was supposed to do, Compton Unified assumed all signatures were false unless parents verified their petition signatures with photo identification during limited timeframes. In turn, parents sued district officials for attempting to block their petition and violating their constitutional rights. Yet, even after five months of negative press coverage, a Temporary Restraining Order, and a Preliminary Injunction ruling, Compton Unified has taken the position that they still cannot verify any trigger petition from the parents of McKinley Elementary School.

Despite the ongoing and uncertain legal battle, the power of the Parent Trigger Law is undeniable. Parents in states such as New York, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut have expressed support for the law and await its introduction by state legislators. However, it is clear that there is a long way to go in the fight to overcome one of the biggest hurdles obstructing the path for education reform and parent engagement: equitable access to information. The Parent Trigger Law and the seemingly simple act of signing a petition is a revolutionary step forward, but once the trigger has been pulled many questions relevant to our community remain. How can Latino parents have a sustained role in shaping their child’s school? Can the Parent Trigger actually create a more equitable education? Is conversion to a charter school a silver bullet for Latino and English Language Learner student success?

Clearly, the petition process must be transparent and accessible to all with a post-petition mechanism for continued engagement. Implementation of the Parent Trigger Law should not have to require hyper-involved superparents OR organizers stepping in and building a culture of access and engagement. If the McKinley parents succeed in court, it will set an empowering precedent, uplifting parents to mandate school change. This is the first major pull of the parent trigger, which has the potential to hit a bull’s eye with one of California’s lowest performing schools and transform a generation of students and their parents.

Jeanette Acosta, current Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former Fulbright Research Scholar in Zacatecas, Mexico and AmeriCorps VISTA Director/Founder of the César Chávez Foundation – Sí, Se Puede! Learning Center After School Program in Hollister, CA.