Marlene Romero watched with growing anxiety as her 8-year-old son suffered through third grade at McKinley Elementary School in Compton. She was unhappy with his progress and felt trapped at a failing school. Then, taking advantage of a state law that allows parents to band together and demand change, she signed a petition: "I did it for a better education for my son."
Theresa Theus' daughter had liked preschool, but soon after enrolling at McKinley, she began saying she was bored. She complained about dirty restrooms and started asking to stay home. Theus signed the petition too.
Behind its cheerful beige-and-turquoise exterior, McKinley is a failed school. Its state API scores earn it a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10. It ranks 22nd out of 24 schools in Compton, and Compton is not a model of educational excellence.
To their credit, the McKinley parents refused to accept that things had to be this way. Under a year-old state law known as the "parent trigger," when half or more of the parents at a failing school sign petitions demanding change, they can force the staff to be replaced, the principal to be ousted and the school closed or replaced by a charter. A strong majority of McKinley parents, guided by the organizing efforts of a reform group known as Parent Revolution, filed their petitions on Dec. 7, 2010, asking for charter operator Celerity Educational Group to take over the school.
In theory, the Compton school district and its teachers union could have welcomed that outburst of parent involvement and appreciated the opportunity it offered for the school's suffering children. But no such luck. That would have required a bureaucracy devoted to educating children rather than one bent on preserving its authority.
Rather than accept the petitions, Compton dawdled and then imposed appalling demands: To verify the petitions, the district ordered parents who had signed to present photo IDs and verify their signatures at locations and times chosen by the district. That is more proof than is needed to vote for president of the United States. In a community where many residents are undocumented, it was a naked act of intimidation.
It's worth pausing for a moment to consider the paradoxes of this. Parents at McKinley engaged in an act very much like the union-organizing technique of card check — they circulated cards, filed them and demanded recognition. On the other side, the district and its teachers union engaged in exactly the kind of tactics companies have used to thwart union-organizing drives — they rejected card check and forced an election under adverse conditions. (And here's a curiosity: Parent Revolution's lead organizer once worked for the United Farm Workers, while the law firm representing Compton once represented growers of table grapes.)
Parents filed suit, alleging that the district's tactics violated both their rights to free speech, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and to an education, promised by the California Constitution. A Superior Court judge granted their request for a temporary restraining order. Compton was ordered to halt its signature verification process.
At Parent Revolution's downtown headquarters, its director, Ben Austin, sat cross-legged in his chair last week as he reflected on the oddity of his quite liberal group leading an organizing effort that has pitted it against unions. "Our theory of change is not to get rid of unions," he said. "We're progressive Democrats. But they don't see this as about change. They see it as about power."
Pat DeTemple, who once worked for the UFW and now organizes for Parent Revolution, has never crossed a picket line. He holds out hope that teachers and their unions will see the value in what Parent Revolution is doing. "We're dying to work with them," he said. So far, however, the signs have not been encouraging.
The parent trigger is a blunt instrument, and the McKinley effort is subject to some legitimate criticism. It's not ideal for parents to put together petitions in secret, or for parents at a school to learn out of the blue that a takeover has been mounted with the intent of converting a school to a charter. That process could be misused — by a self-interested charter operator, for instance.
But that's not what's happening at McKinley. The drive there came in response to a crisis caused by the sustained indifference of an educational bureaucracy to the welfare of those it is assigned to educate. Confronted with the waste of their children, parents in a poor community are doing what parents in wealthy communities have done for decades: They are fighting back — within the law and despite formidable opposition.