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Could parents' screams jolt L.A. Unified into action?

July 22, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

I don't know about you, but I'm doubling the dosage on my blood pressure meds.

We've got a California budget "fix" that kicks thousands of people in the teeth and gives us another three, maybe six months, before we'll need another one.

We had state nursing board members who twiddled their thumbs while nurses accused of gross misconduct stayed on the job for three years or longer, until the dirty secrets were exposed in this newspaper.

And now a slew of talented young teachers are looking for work after being fired for lack of seniority, even as dozens of other teachers keep getting paid despite their removal from classrooms for misconduct allegations.

The world's gone mad, no doubt. But shenanigans of this variety are so common, most people just shrug. That's why I'd like to call attention to some parents who are ticked off about the state of public education, but instead of shrugging, they're screaming.

There's the Lemonade Initiative, started by "three LAUSD moms who are mad as hell about the current state of education in Los Angeles," as their website says. And there's the Parent Revolution, which has more political clout and some financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli Broad foundations, among others.

I haven't yet met with the Lemonade moms, but I have been talking to the latter group, which has had it up to here with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the teachers union. So they're plotting a takeover, one school at a time, and demanding improvements -- or else.

Or else what?

Or else they'll pull out their children and try to shut down the schools, forming charters in their place, with a teacher contract that rewards the good ones and tosses out the bad apples.

"We have to pick some fires to light," said Laura Alice, a soldier in the Parent Revolution.

Two fires are now burning out of control, with no chance for containment. The posse, which you can learn more about at parentrevolution.org, has gotten signed support from a majority of parents at feeder schools for Mark Twain Middle School in Venice and Garfield High in East Los Angeles.

So now Parent Revolution leaders are meeting with officials at the schools their children will one day attend and demanding that they shape up fast. And the parents aren't asking for a few more textbooks and cleaner bathrooms. Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution and a former political aide for both President Clinton and L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, listed the top three demands:

A new labor contract for teachers.

Accountability from all educators.

And a whittled-down bureaucracy.

Well, yeah. Sure. Count me in.

But what are the chances?

"They cannot stop us," Austin said Tuesday morning at the Cow's End in Venice, where we had coffee with two fighting-mad parents. "We're not playing their game anymore."

Although I respect Supt. Ray Cortines and appreciate that teachers union boss A.J. Duffy's job is to fight for his members, I doubt that either institution is capable of the radical changes being demanded here. Trying to get a new contract is particularly daunting.

But if the schools don't respond, it's conceivable that Austin and his group can carry out their threat of forming charters.

Not that charter schools are necessarily better. Sometimes they are; sometimes not. But I like the idea of more options for parents, and Austin used to work for Green Dot Public Schools, which has a pretty good record.

Green Dot is one of four charter outfits lined up by the Parent Revolution to stand ready for combat with schools that don't change their ways.

Raul Fernandez, the principal at Mark Twain, told me he feels parents' frustration but insisted the school is showing gradual improvement in test scores.

Maybe, but the school website shows that fewer than one-third of its students are proficient in core subjects.

"Parents want more, and I understand they want more," Fernandez said. "They have to give Twain a chance."

Parent Revolution isn't opposed to that. Austin said he'd rather use the threat of charters to improve existing schools than to start new ones.

"But we're done playing around at the margins," he said.

Joining us for coffee, along with Laura Alice, was Barbara Einstein, whose three sons grew up in Venice but didn't attend Mark Twain.

"We played the game," Einstein said, meaning she did the LAUSD parent shuffle, mastering the science and politics of getting her kids into better schools through various means.

But now Einstein has four adopted daughters and she'd rather try to reform Twain than play the game again. Same with Alice, whose daughter will be a first-grader this year at a Twain feeder school.

"The power structure defends the status quo and says this is the best we can do," said Austin, whose mantra is that administrators and union bosses are out to protect their own interests before those of the children.

That will end, he said, when enough parents stand up and take charge.

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