Policy Documents

Compton Parents ‘Trigger’ Failing Elementary School

Ben Boychuk –
December 7, 2010

Parents at a persistently failing elementary school in the Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles on Tuesday became the first to use California’s historic “parent trigger” law.

More than 60 percent of parents at McKinley Elementary School in the south-central Los Angeles community signed petitions demanding school district officials convert the school into a charter school. The parents picked Celerity Educational Group, a nonprofit charter operator with four schools in the Los Angeles area.

Parents rallied at a private home before delivering hundreds of signatures to the Compton Unified central office.

“The parent trigger finally gives parents the opportunity to make real decisions about their children’s education,” said parent organizer Shirley Ford.

If the petitions are certified as expected, Celerity would take over administration of McKinley as early as next summer. About 500 students are enrolled at the school, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade.

‘Under the Radar’
Parents have been organizing since the summer, according to Gabe Rose, assistant executive director of Parent Revolution, a self-described progressive community activist group that was crucial in getting California’s law passed. The effort was mounted “under the radar,” with the idea of surprising district officials, Rose said.

Under California’s parent trigger law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in January, if more than 50 percent of eligible parents at a school sign a petition, the school district must adopt the turnaround strategy parents choose. They can shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter school; or implement the “turnaround” or “transformation” models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

Schwarzenegger hailed McKinley’s parents for their accomplishment Tuesday.

“I am pleased to see parents in Compton using the power given them in the landmark parent trigger legislation that I signed into law,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “Parents at McKinley Elementary have been desperate for change, and today they have come together to ensure that their children have access the effective teachers and quality education they deserve. I encourage other concerned parents throughout the state to use these new tools to improve their children’s schools.”

Union Raises Objections
Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, the state’s teachers union, complained to the Los Angeles Times, that the petition process in Compton was not “transparent.”

“Did they hold forums for parents to discuss what's going on with the school staff?” Wells asked. The union representative also said Celerity should have competed publicly against other possible choices.

In fact, state regulations governing the parent trigger law require organizers to explain to parents what will happen if their petition drive is successful. The rules allow parents to choose the turnaround option they want. Petitions are printed in large type. And the five parent organizers who canvassed the neighborhoods surrounding McKinley discussed the charter option at length, Rose said.

The district has the right to verify the petition signatures, but would have to meet an extraordinarily high standard to block the parents' chosen turnaround model.

“The law says in order to overrule the parents, districts have to prove that they literally cannot implement that option—not that they don’t want to or they think it’s not a great idea,” Rose said.

Auditor: ‘Grave Reservations’
To be eligible for transformation, a school must have failed to make “average yearly progress” goals for four consecutive years. A school with an Academic Performance Index score below 800 is considered failing.

McKinley has only met its AYP goals once since 2003, has been classified as a “program improvement” school since 2008, and is in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state. The school’s API score in 2009-10 was 684. African-American pupils’ scores fell seven points to 635.

Compton Unified was the subject of a state audit earlier in July. A state District Assistance and Intervention Team found school personnel often exhibit a lack of civility and respect for parents, noting, “the focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs.”

“We remain deeply concerned about the commitment to student achievement across the district, and have grave reservations at this time, about the capacity of the District to make significant gains for students,” the intervention team’s report concluded.

Although none of Celerity’s schools have yet scored above 800 API, three of the four have a much better performance record than schools in surrounding areas. (The fourth only recently opened.) One Celerity school scored in the 40th percentile statewide and in the 90th compared to nearby schools.

States Weigh Trigger Improvements
California’s parent trigger law is a good start, a Heartland Institute policy study concluded in August, but could be improved by simplifying the signature-gathering process and substituting a scholarship or voucher proposal for the more bureaucratic federal “turnaround” models.

Several states, including New Jersey, Indiana, West Virginia, Michigan, Georgia and Maryland, are considering their own versions of the law. The American Legislative Exchange Council last week adopted model parent trigger legislation based on Heartland’s input.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of
School Reform News.