Last fall, Maria Alvarado was ready to give up.
The mother of three girls in Lynwood, a working-class city in sprawling Los Angeles county, she was a natural activist. She had worked hard to bring change to her daughters’ schools and to the low-performing Lynwood Unified School District (LUSD) itself.
But, after seeing “Waiting For Superman,” she realized the problems she faced in her own school district were endemic across the country too.
“I thought ‘Oh my God, this is a big problem, I don’t think I’m going to be able to solve it,” Alvarado said.
Then, in December she heard a news report about a group of parents who had pulled the parent trigger - a new California law that says a majority of parents at a school can force significant changes on the school, to the extent of deciding to convert it to a charter.
“I was like ‘Oh no, I have to do research regarding this law,’” Alvarado said. “And that changed my life.”
Her research led her to a group called Parent Revolution, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the groundbreaking legislation. Now, she works on their next endeavor: helping parents form unions.
Bolstered by the parent trigger law and backed by Parent Revolution, parents in Los Angeles are beginning to organize in the hopes of winning better educations for their kids. But, with the first parent trigger petition still in legal limbo and the ability of parents to actually unionize called into question, the nascent movement is being tested early.
The Right to Organize
"Everybody else has unions – teachers union, janitors union - and now it’s time we can present something for the children,” said David Contreras, a 47-year-old father of two students in LUSD.
Contreras and other frustrated parents tell stories of being shut out of their children’s educations through threats of lawsuits, threats of deportations, and the intimidation of their kids. They tell stories of inadequate teachers, incompetent administrators and jam-packed classrooms.
Washington Elementary, where Contreras’s sons are in second grade, had 939 students during the 2009 – 2010 school year, for example, for an average classroom size of 25 students to one teacher. LUSD statistics are striking: 80 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced meals, approximately ninety percent are Latino, and 40 percent are English Language Learners.
In the 2009-2010 school year, only 33 percent of Lynwood schools made their state growth targets. In 2009, the superintendent was removed from his position by the school board a year before his contract was up, under accusations of mismanaged funds, nepotism and favoritism. (The District Attorney dropped its investigation of him earlier this month.)
“When I came to this city, regardless of how pretty it was, there was a high crime rate,” Goya Gonzalez, a 43-year-old mother of two at Washington Elementary, said through a translator. “My dream is to show our kids that they have potential to be different. I look forward to describing Lynwood as a city where there exists a writer, a poet, a scientist - but unfortunately, the education is very poor.”
Parent Revolution began its organizing efforts in March, focusing on some of the 1,334 California schools that are eligible for the parent trigger law. Washington Elementary is not, but the parents wanted to get involved regardless.
The first meeting of Washington parents had 17 attendees, according to Alvarado. At the second meeting, the original group was there with six more.
“Our goal isn’t to fight,” Gonzalez said. “It is to work together to improve education for our kids.”
Experts agree that parental engagement is paramount to the success of students and schools. Dr. Laila Hasan, assistant professor of clinical education at USC’s Rossier School of Education, supports both the formation of parent unions and the parent trigger law.
“I think that [the parent trigger] is a desperate strategy with parents that have no other way to express their hopelessness,” Hasan said.
The trigger gives parents “potential” power, according to Pat DeTemple, organizing director at Parent Revolution. He likens the right to pull the trigger to unionized laborers’ right to strike.
But the comparison is not perfect and the goal of a parent union is not entirely clear.
“Frankly, I just don’t know what it is. At best, it’s a metaphor, and it’s one that doesn’t work very well,” said John Rogers, associate professor of urban schooling at UCLA.
Unions represent the rights of workers to their employers. But parents, Rogers explained, are not employed by schools, so the dynamic between the two parties is entirely different. And, he added, once parents pull the parent trigger, they’ve used all their power – especially if they decide to convert their school to a charter.
“You get one shot and that’s it, because once that charter is formed, that charter dictates how it will operate,” Rogers said. “[Parents] have fewer rights in the context of a charter than they would at a public school.”
Pulling the Parent Trigger
The people Alvarado saw on the news last December were parents of students at McKinley Elementary School in Compton. After the law was passed in January 2010, Parent Revolution did a review of the eligible schools and set their sights on McKinley, which is among the bottom 10 percent of California schools, according to the L.A. Times.
Multiple attempts to talk to McKinley’s principal were unsuccessful.
Parents using the trigger can decide to fire the principal, fire the entire staff, close the school, or convert it to a charter. Unsurprisingly, the law is not popular with the California Federation of Teachers, whose president has called it a “lynch mob provision.”
By December 2010, 62 percent of McKinley parents had signed the petition, choosing to turn the school into a charter run by Celerity Educational Group.
The decision was cause for criticism by some claiming that Parent Revolution’s stake in the law is to seed charter schools. The group originated as part of the Green Dot network of charter schools, though it is now independent, and has a $1 million operating budget funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, according to L.A. Weekly. (The Gates Foundation is also a sponsor of this blog.)
Christina Sanchez, lead organizer at Parent Revolution, says she understands the concern, but she’s confident their work will prove detractors wrong.
“We are not driven by an ideology that charters are the best solution,” she said. Instead, their goal is to “have parents at a point where they are organized and empowered and able to make demands on their school.”
Oralia Velasquez, whose daughter Amie is a fifth grader at McKinley, has been unhappy with her teachers and administration for the last three years. She tried attending PTA meetings, but stopped when she realized they weren’t going to discuss ways to improve the school.
By the time Parent Revolution organizers knocked on her door last fall, she was ready for a change. She visited a Celerity charter school and was convinced.
“Everything I’ve wanted to see in McKinley, that I have never seen, I saw it there,” Velasquez, 28, said.
But McKinley’s future remains in purgatory. The Compton school board rejected the parents’ petition in February on various technicalities, which were later thrown out by a court - except for one. The petition did not include dates next to each signature.
(Read the decision here, courtesy of L.A. Weekly.)
In May, L.A. Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr ruled that this seemingly minor detail was in fact “fatal.” The signatures could have been collected before the law was passed, after legal guardianship of a student had changed, or while the child wasn’t enrolled at the school. He will hear more arguments on June 7.
But Parent Revolution has a backup plan. Celerity will open a school down the street from McKinley in a church - the Church of the Redeemer - to give parents another option if their petition is thrown out. Like the parent trigger itself, it’s an imperfect solution to a complex problem.
“We’re really in uncharted territory,” Rogers said of the law. “No one’s ever tried this before.”
Still, parents like Maria Alvarado have high expectations that this solution will work.
“We need a change, a big change. It’s not just Lynwood or Compton or California, it’s all the states,” she said. “We have to make big changes so the children can get a high quality education and they could have those jobs, I mean those big jobs out there - right out there - waiting for them.”
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.