California State Schools Chief Proposes Parent Empowerment ‘Clean Up’

Published February 11, 2011

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and his staff say the state’s groundbreaking parent empowerment law may be too vague for the state department of education to write clear regulations.

Torlakson announced at the state board’s February meeting he was forming a working group with Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) to draft “cleanup” legislation that the superintendent claims would simplify the job of writing permanent regulations for the year-old statute.

The state board, which includes seven new members appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in January, took no action on permanent regulations or the temporary rules that expire in March.

Law Is ‘Difficult’
Torlakson and his chief deputy, Richard Zeiger, told board members the draft permanent rules under consideration since September may not align with state law.

“The law is difficult,” Zeiger said. “It’s vague where you want specificity, and specific where you would want a little more flexibility.”

Under the Parent Trigger law, if at least half of eligible parents at a failing school sign a petition, the school district must shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter; or implement the “turnaround” or “transformation” models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

The permanent regulations would specify how petitions must be formatted, who’s qualified to sign, how quickly a school district must act on a valid petition, and how parents may appeal hostile district decisions.

‘Clean Up’ or ‘Clean Out’?
Brownley, who chairs the state Assembly’s education committee, quietly introduced her bill in January. As currently written, AB 203 would make what the legislative counsel’s bill summary calls “technical, non-substantive changes” to the parent empowerment law. The state superintendent’s office could offer no details about when the working group would meet or which stakeholders would be invited to attend.

Gabe Rose, assistant executive director of the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, said Torlakson’s announcement and the board’s inaction threaten the parent trigger’s viability in California. He noted Brownley’s “cleanup” bill contains only “intent” language and few specifics.

“The legislation would roll back or repeal the law entirely,” Rose predicted, citing Brownley’s opposition to the original parent trigger and her effort to dilute an early version of the first bill in her committee. Torlakson also voted against the bill as a state senator.

Torlakson’s office disputed Rose’s characterization.

“The word ‘repeal’ was never spoken,” said Tina Jung, a state Department of Education spokeswoman. “‘Clean-up’ doesn’t mean ‘clean out,’ and it doesn’t mean repeal. It simply means the board needs the law to be clearer so the regulatory process can work more smoothly.”

“The parent empowerment law is here to stay,” Jung added.

But Rose says Parent Revolution stands by its statements. “You don’t have to call it repeal for it to be repeal,” Rose said. “You could write a [parent empowerment] bill that does nothing but trigger a meaningless hearing with no actual school transformation for parents, which Brownley proposed in 2009.”

Compton Parents Sue, Testify
Although Rose and state education officials disagree about the scope and intent of AB 203, both factions agree clear rules would help avert controversies such as the one playing out in the south-central Los Angeles city of Compton.

Parents from McKinley Elementary School on Feb. 3 sued Compton Unified School District officials in Los Angeles County Superior Court for trying to block their petition to convert that failing school into an independent charter.

In December, more than 62 percent of parents at Compton’s McKinley Elementary School delivered petitions to district officials, requesting the failing elementary school be handed over to Celerity Education Group, a charter school operator.

Compton district officials in January announced parents who signed the trigger petition had to verify their names in person with a picture ID, as well as submit to a five-minute interview at the district office. Parents allege the district’s demands violate state and federal laws.

About 65 parents from Compton and surrounding communities on Feb. 10 chartered a bus to Sacramento to urge state officials to approve the permanent regulations.

“We have never acted dishonestly,” a Spanish-speaking Compton mother told the board through a translator. “We knew what we were signing,” when parents signed the petition, she added.

“The school district is saying we’ve been lied to,” another parent said. “Nobody lied to us.”

Rules Could Clarify Process
Colin Miller, vice president of policy at the California Charter Schools Association, also spoke before the board in support of permanent regulations. Miller said afterward he did not expect the board to take action but he was surprised the draft permanent regulations were not placed on the agenda for March.

“Regulations can help clarify the petition process,” Miller said. “That’s what you really want regulations to do. Rules can place clear limits on what districts may or may not do to verify signatures, and [can] prevent districts from going overboard.”

California’s 1992 charter school law allows parents to petition to start a new charter school, but not to convert an existing school as the parent trigger allows.

“Because [charters] are mostly locally approved, the parent petition hasn’t been defined clearly in state regulations,” Miller explained. “In general, for start-up charters, as long as you can verify the signer has children who can attend the school, that’s enough.”

‘Steps Backward’
Former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored California’s parent trigger law and now directs the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, says she has little confidence in the rulemaking process under Torlakson and the new state school board.

“The rest of the nation is racing ahead,” she said, pointing to at least a half-dozen other states that have introduced parent trigger bills in 2011. “We’re busy burrowing ourselves in the past. These are steps backward.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.