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Op-Ed

Education battle at Compton Unified school

The school board has moved against a parent trigger law at McKinley Elementary, using bullying tactics and legal technicalities to reject petitions for a charter and deprive poor students of a better future.

April 18, 2011|Jim Newton

The struggle for equal educational opportunity is the great civil rights imperative of our time. It pits those who demand a decent education against an educational establishment that often blithely ignores them. The victims are overwhelmingly poor minorities, and the clash is nowhere more important than here in Los Angeles. Next week, I look forward to profiling some of the heroes of this struggle, the inspiring young women and men brought together by Teach for America; first, however, a look at the defenders of a corrupt status quo and the lengths to which they will resort to defend their position at the expense of poor children, most of them black or Latino.

This particular band of obstructionists is, in one sense, an unlikely group of civil rights villains: They are the members of the Compton Unified School District board, every one of whom is black. But they are rogues nonetheless, as witnessed by their stunning unwillingness to heed the call of parents who want nothing more than to improve the lives of their children.

The clash in Compton is between the board and the parents of McKinley Elementary School, a tragically underperforming school just off Rosecrans Avenue. At McKinley, parents, guided by the pro-charter reform group known as Parent Revolution, took advantage of the state's so-called parent trigger law to try to help their children. Under that law, when a majority of parents at a school defined as "failing" sign a petition, a district is required to replace staff or teachers, close the school or give it over to a charter operator. In this case, the parents of 275 of McKinley's 442 students signed petitions asking for a charter.

The Compton school board could have acknowledged the aspirations of those families and heeded their pleas, or it could have defensively retrenched. Guess which it did?

First, the board tried bullying. It announced that it would only acknowledge the signatures if parents presented themselves in person — with photo identification — in order to verify their petitions. In a community where many are undocumented, that was predictably intimidating. That tactic was taken to court, and Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr enjoined Compton from going forward.

So the school board examined the petitions. Ten of the students whose parents signed were found to be "inactive" and another four signatures were duplicates. Some of the petitions lacked dates; some had a typo that misstated the applicable state education code (citing Section 53020 instead of 53202). When all was said and done, Compton found that of the 275 petitions, precisely zero were valid. It rejected every single one.

Mind you, these petitions were drafted pro bono by lawyers from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, but the law is meant to be used by anyone. If missing dates and typos disqualify the effort in Compton, it's hard to imagine how any effort could ever be successful.

More important, though, is the effect of the Compton board's action. It has resorted to legal technicalities to thwart and delay the parents and their children. Indeed, it only raised these kinds of objections to the petitions months after they were filed, endangering the chances of opening a charter school to replace McKinley this fall. A year's delay may not sound like much, but to the parent of a stifled child, it is a lifetime.

Those with long memories will recall the work of nefarious election officials in the South who charged poll taxes and administered quizzes to would-be black voters. When those trying to register invariably failed (one question: "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?"), they were denied the right to vote. In today's iteration, leaving off a date costs a child the chance to read.

Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District's new superintendent, the much-admired John Deasy, told a group of young people that he saw the parent trigger law as a sad commentary about the desperation of parents who turn to it. "It's a big shame on us," he said of school administrators who allow schools to fail. "On the other hand, if we're not going to do it [improve schools], they have to do it."

In contrast to that compassion and clarity comes this response from Compton. "The district," its spokesperson told me, "is not conducting interviews regarding the parent trigger law."

jim.newton@latimes.com

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