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Los Angeles Unified School District bid to dodge Parent Trigger Law fails

The California Senate Legislative Counsel issued last week a sweeping opinion, concluding a controversy as to whether a school district – Los Angeles Unified, in this case – can proclaim itself exempt from California’s historic Parent Trigger law, which enables parents of kids in chronically underperforming schools to transform it if a majority of parents petition for change. It’s an empowering law, allowing parents to become the architects of their children’s educational futures.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, requested the ruling from the nonpartisan Senate legal office. It concluded that LAUSD – or any district – could not exempt itself from the law.

“The legislative intent in enacting [the law] … was to allow parents or guardians of pupils enrolled in schools that have been underperforming … to request specified interventions. It would be inconsistent with that legislative intent to conclude that … [they] … are deprived of the remedy set forth … on the basis that a school district has received a federal waiver whose purpose is to relieve that district solely from compliance with federal performance requirements. t is our opinion that the … waiver … does not exempt that school district from compliance with the [law].”

The controversy began when LAUSD in August declared itself exempt from the Parent Trigger law after it was granted an unrelated waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for participating in an innovative reform coalition. Adding to the outrage was revelation that LAUSD failed to reveal its decision to California legislators who wrote the law. It remained secret for almost a year until I discovered the self-proclaimed exemption.

Correspondence between an LAUSD official and the head of an education reform group, Parent Revolution, indicated the district had taken the position no later than November 2013 that it was exempt from the Parent Trigger law. The Parent Revolution official referenced a phone call with the LAUSD official in which the district official said LAUSD would not go public with its position on exemption, but would cite the exemption in denying any parent petition for changes at an underperforming school.

Once this was discovered, a demand for an investigation was made by the California Center for Parent Empowerment on Oct. 21, followed by Huff’s request for a ruling from the Senate’s legal office on whether LAUSD was exempt from the Parent Trigger law.

In the interim, John Deasy resigned as LAUSD superintendent, and his replacement, Ramon Cortines, reversed the declared exemption.

While LAUSD was the only district immediately impacted by the controversy, the public challenge to its effort to dodge the Parent Trigger law was important in reinforcing the need for sunshine in government and refuting the notion that any taxpayer-supported entity can arbitrarily suspend laws and regulations it perceives as cumbersome or unneeded.

This is particularly important as California parents continue to mobilize to use a law, which I wrote while in the Senate, to empower parents to become agents of change when school officials fail to transform chronically underperforming schools. For example, parents at Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim are mobilizing to turn around their school. Already they have faced obstacles imposed on them by some hostile school board members and school officials, but the parents have surmounted each obstacle and could become the first parents in Orange County to succeed in using the Parent Trigger law on behalf of their children.

At a time when too many people complain about the lack of parent involvement in their kids’ educations, these parents should be celebrated as everyday heroes.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

Teachers Unions’ Election Day Thumping

“Teachers Unions Take a Beating in Midterm Races”

“Teachers Unions Take a Shellacking”

“Teachers Unions Get Schooled in 2014 Election”

The above is just a small sampling of post-election headlines which flooded the media after last Tuesday’s historic election, which generated a major political shakeup in the nation’s capital as well as state houses from coast to coast. While it was a bad day for Democrats in general, perhaps the biggest losers were the nation’s teachers unions.

Unions, especially the teacher’s variety, had a lot on the line, and except for two wins, the rest of the key contests were nothing short of disastrous. Perhaps their number one target was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who had minimized teachers’ collective bargaining “rights.” Michigan governor Rick Snyder wasn’t far behind Walker on the union hit list for the same reasons, but both incumbents won handily. The unions went after Florida governor Rick Scott for expanding school choice in the Sunshine State, but he prevailed over challenger Charlie Crist. Especially galling for organized labor was the victory in Illinois (Illinois!) where Republican pro-voucher businessman Bruce Rauner ran against incumbent governor Pat Quinn. Rauner clearly expressed disdain for union bosses on several occasions, accusing them of “bribing politicians to give them unaffordable pensions, free healthcare, outrageous pay and benefits and they’re bankrupting our state government, they’re raising our taxes and they’re forcing businesses out of the state, and as a result we’ve got brutally high unemployment.” Apparently, Rauner’s blunt message resonated with voters; he won by five points.

Many other Republicans were victorious in gubernatorial races in traditional blue states, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine. It got so bad for the unions that the one Republican they backed – Allen Fung for governor of Rhode Island – lost to Democrat Gina Raimondo who, as treasurer, worked to rein in out-of-control public employee pension spending. That, of course, incurred the wrath of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Education reformers were thrilled with the results. “I’d call it a mandate for change sent boldly from voters,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said in a statement. “Governors-elect in these states have proven themselves to be champions of reforms during their tenure as incumbent state executives, or have run on platforms that don’t shy away from being really vocal, putting students and parents first.”

“A bunch of these guys did stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do. They tackled pensions in purple states. They modified collective bargaining. They fought expansively for school choice,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “What that says to me is the unions need to rethink some of their assumptions about what the world’s going to look like going forward.”

The union response to the thumping was varied. Randi Weingarten essentially blamed it on President Obama in a press release. “It’s clear that many believe this country is on the wrong track and voted for change. Republicans successfully made this a referendum on President Obama’s record and won resoundingly, but where the election was about everyday concerns—education, minimum wage, paid sick leave—working families prevailed.” She then pointed to the two needle-in-a-haystack union victories to crow about – the ouster of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Tom Torlakson’s narrow victory over challenger Marshall Tuck in the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, whose “heart was heavy” was a bit more realistic. “We knew this was going to be an uphill battle. But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”

Eskelsen Garcia’s heart may have been heavy, but the teachers unions’ political coffers are a whole lot lighter. The final tallies won’t be known for a while, but it is estimated that the two unions spent at least $70 million in this election cycle – more than in any other year ever.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris writes,

The NEA was the second-largest Super PAC donor of the 2014 cycle, spending more than $22 million to aid Democratic candidates for federal office. The federal spending was on top of an estimated $28 million push at the state and local level….

The AFT had said it planned on spending $20 million during the 2014 cycle, a ten-fold increase from the $2 million it spent on 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s worth noting these lofty numbers don’t include any money that was spent by the unions’ state and local affiliates. The California Teachers Association spent $11 million alone to fend off Tuck’s challenge to Torlakson for the Superintendent of Public Instruction position. Speaking of which….

Usually this scenario – union-backed-incumbent vs. guy-no-one-has-heard-of is a real snooze-fest and the former wins easily. But not this time. Tuck matched his rival Democrat in spending and did well in many parts of the state, winning the more conservative counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Kern. He got clobbered, however, in the gentrified areas – Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Mendocino and Marin – where many parents opt to avoid the public schools.

Low voter turnout also played a role. EdSource’s John Fensterwald reports,

Torlakson beat Tuck with 2,266,000 to 2,085,000 votes – a difference of 181,000 votes – with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The total vote of 4.35 million was 900,000 fewer than the 5.2 million votes cast for governor and about 700,000 fewer – 14 percent – than for secretary of state, the only other closely contested statewide contest on the ballot, despite the tens of millions of dollars spend on ads and mailers by both sides in the superintendent race.  

One important thing Torlakson had working for him was that Tuck was an unknown. As John Fensterwald explains, “For most voters, he was a blank canvas that Torlakson and his allies painted darkly. In ads, they attacked him as a Wall Street banker – a reference to a banking job he had right out of college – working with billionaires to privatize and dismantle public schools.”

But the biggest factor in Torlakson’s reelection – in addition to the $11 million gift from CTA – was the fabled teacher union ground game. The low voting numbers gave the unions and their get-out-the-vote messaging a huge advantage that is very difficult to overcome. In fact, U-T San Diego’s Steve Greenhut quotes founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment and former CA State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero “… You can’t buy this seat and that was Tuck’s and his donors’ mistake. There is a political machine that CTA controls, which would never show up in those stupid polls …. It’s money after money. Below that great green wall is an army.”

Then there was also the voter ignorance factor. Tuck, unlike Torlakson, strongly favored the Vergara decision – where a judge ruled the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes needed to be eliminated from the state education code – and made it an important part of his campaign. But as City Journal’s Ben Boychuk points out “… polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” seniority protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.

So we had Tuck, a no-name candidate, without a ground game, whose messaging failed to reach a low-information populace and who suffered a poor voter turnout, fighting against a man backed by the most powerful state teachers union in the country – and Tuck still lost by only four percentage points. I would call this something of a moral victory, and reformers should not despair; they are a few tweaks away from winning. But they must develop more of a grassroots approach to campaigning – as victorious Republicans did in other states – if the unacceptable educational status quo is to be upended. Tuck acknowledged the sad reality in his concession speech,

Today, one day after this election, there are still 2.5 million children in California public schools who can’t read and write at grade level.  Those children are counting on all of us to take every action necessary to give them a better education and a chance at a better future.

I look forward to continuing to do my part in the collective effort to ensure that each child gets the education they need to achieve their dreams.

So while the rest of the country took a bold step and almost universally denied teachers union candidates, we in California still have work to do.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Parent Trigger Law Empowers Parents to Stand Up to Teachers Union

The names Doreen Diaz and Bartola Del Villar appear nowhere in the text of the Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the Parent Trigger, that I wrote in 2010. The law empowers parents to bypass the political paralysis of our education bureaucracy that is responsible for perpetuating the status quo failure of our schools.

Today, Doreen and Bartola personify why the law was written: they were leaders in using it to become the first parents in California to successfully transform their neighborhood school – which had been state-identified as failing for years, having the lowest academic performance record in the entire Adelanto School District.

Now, with a motto of “be the change we want to see,” the two have become a Thelma and Louise of the election cycle, taking their fight for reform “from the outside” to seeking reform of the beast itself by seeking seats on the five-member elected Adelanto school board that is still dominated by the status quo interests they battled.

Undoubtedly, the law has given credence to the view that parents should be the true architects of their children’s educational futures.

Increasingly, parents are mobilizing to “trigger” change at failing schools. Most recently, parents in Anaheim challenged their own school board members to transform a school languishing in “Program Improvement” need for 10 years. They understand it is no fairytale to want quality schools and are willing to fight for it.

Doreen and Bartola made national headlines when they and other Adelanto parents became the first to trigger the change at their school. Today, they are satisfied with initial academic performance results of the newly established Desert Trails charter school which is showing increased performance for students. Previously, three out of four students at the school weren’t even reading at their grade level.

I joined them last Friday to walk precincts on their behalf under a hot Adelanto sun, talking to voters we encountered about why they now want to bring the message – and reality – of parent empowerment to the entire board. A victory for Bartola and Doreen would ensure that a new reform majority prevails.

“Enough is enough,” said Doreen. “Parents are tired of the same old, same old. We don’t just want to sit on the board, we want to mobilize parents to take back their school district – establish a new culture of leadership and a belief that every school can succeed.”

Not surprisingly, the teachers’ union has endorsed a slate of union-friendly candidates, hoping to defeat Doreen and Bartola and their questioning of a proposed sweetheart contract granting teachers a 5 percent retroactive pay increase and 8 percent pay increases for the next several years.

“Adelanto is bankrupt,” explained Doreen. “Most teachers don’t even live here, yet want pay compatible with high cost-of-living regions. But it will be Adelanto parents – mostly working class – who will pay the bill. Teachers are even refusing to consider working 60 minutes more in exchange for substantive pay increases. No reforms are tied to the demands.”

What will boost achievement is a restructuring of the board in its entirety so that parent voices – not the interests of special groups demanding pay increases despite anemic student outcomes – predominate. Doreen and Bartola recognize that transforming one school is not enough: Districts need systemic change to ensure they serve students first.

“When that happens, the spirit of Parent Trigger and the legacy of our Desert Trails school will be truly understood,” Doreen said.

Few Californians will ever read the California Education Code. But many more will meet Doreen and Bartola – mothers who give life to the law I wrote. Their win will be a win for us all.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

Anaheim Teachers Union Intimidates Their Members

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network, summarized it succinctly: “Ah, the commissar has spoken from on high!”

The “commissar” is none other than the president of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association, Kristen Fisher, who dispatched an email to dues-paying union members on Oct. 6.

It seems that Fisher is more than a bit peeved that members are rejecting the union leader’s endorsements made significantly prior to the close of election filing periods. Some members are taking to the streets to walk precincts for the candidate of their choice, former principal Roberto Baeza, who was not even invited to a screening interview by the union’s Political Action Committee charged with making recommendations for endorsement. Further exacerbating Fisher’s frustration was that these members had the audacity to wear their own union T-shirts while talking to voters about why they believed Baeza would be the better representative for students – as well as teachers.

Apparently, the wearing of T-shirts emblazoned with the union logo was just too much bucking of union status quo interests, causing Fisher to issue her directive – from on high – in a mass email blast to all members.

On Oct. 6 she issued the strident reprimand, writing in part:

“AEEA officially endorse(d) the candidates our high school counterpart (ASTA) endorsed. Please cease and desist engaging in activities that weaken our union – specifically, wearing AEEA T-shirts while walking for nonendorsed candidate(s). This is not about your freedom to support candidates of your choice. This is about our association, our union.”

It didn’t take long for members to challenge the reprimand, favoring the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment rights over Fisher’s order to stand down.

When asked about her reprimand, Fisher responded that she had “no concerns” about violating First Amendment rights. “This is about misrepresenting AEEA,” she argued. However, she admitted that AEEA has no policy on the rights of members to wear T-shirts with a union logo when campaigning for candidates other than those chosen by their own PAC.

Indeed, Frank Wells, California Teachers Association’s communications representative in Southern California also verified that CTA, with whom AEEA is affiliated, has no policy on the matter, even candidly expressing his view that Fisher’s email was a bit “extreme.” Nonetheless, he shared Fisher’s concern over the possibility of “misrepresentation” of the union when members campaign for nonendorsed candidates wearing the union T-shirt.

The leaked email, while pertaining to a local Anaheim school board race, raises implications of the rights of union members who in states like California are mandated by law to pay an annual membership assessment to the union to fund collective bargaining.

First Amendment rights have become a closely watched political and legal issue when funds are used for political candidates and causes which the members do not support. In fact, 10 California teachers, including lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs of Orange County, have sued CTA over this issue. If victorious, Friedrichs will ensure that individual members will have the right to opt in to the union, rather than being forced to find a way to opt out – facing the wrath and recriminations of leaders like Fisher along the way.

Friedrichs’ case is currently before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with expectations that it will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next year. Justice Samuel Alito has opined in other cases that “no person in the country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support,” giving hope to the Friedrichs plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, AEEA members continue talking to voters about Baeza and their willingness to fight – as union members – to be respected, T-shirts and all.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

Shine Light On Low-Performing Schools

What do Barack Obama, William Jefferson Clinton, George Washington, Sonia Sotomayor, Cesar Chavez, Carlos Santana and John Muir have in common?

Each has a chronically underperforming California school named for him or her. Sadly, following the celebratory ribbon-cuttings, these schools have been left to languish on state-identified “watch lists.”

Disturbed by these lists and the seemingly little action to transform the schools on them, I wrote what’s been dubbed the “Romero” Open Enrollment Act in 2010, which provides unprecedented school-choice options for parents of kids trapped in failing schools solely due to default geographic assignment: ZIP code.

The act requires the identification and public release of the bottom decile – 1,000 schools – that have been chronically underperforming. The act gives parents the right to be informed of their school’s standing so they can choose to remain there (hoping that the school eventually gets transformed) or to transfer to a higher performing school. Los Angeles Unified has 99 schools on the 2015-16 list, Orange County has 52, Riverside County has 50, and San Bernardino County has 58. (See a full list at www.ParentEmpower.org).

Not surprisingly, schools identified as “underperforming” are often found in ZIP codes with higher minority and poverty levels. But what is particularly shameful is that many schools have remained on these lists for up to 13 years. Officials have failed to utilize school transformation tools available to them under federal law – such as staff reconstitution or transforming into a charter. Due to school assignment by ZIP code practices, these kids are simply trapped.

Where else in American life do we restrict an individual’s opportunities based on ZIP code? Restriction by ZIP code practices has largely eroded. A system to make our community colleges geographically restricted ended over two decades ago amid arguments that these restrictions were imperative. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now.

Sadly, the list of 1,000 schools has been largely buried in the California Department of Education’s website. Few parents even know about the law.

This fall, the newly established California Center for Parent Empowerment, which I founded, is launching efforts to teach parents about the law. Already, Orange County Office of Education trustees have discussed strategies to help their districts notify eligible parents. Other districts should follow their leadership.

Los Angeles Unified makes it difficult for parents to even access transfer applications by making them available only online or delaying release of the application until November even though the list is public now. These barriers should be removed, and ongoing meetings with their legal counsel offer hope. All districts should sponsor fall workshops so parents can file applications by Dec. 31.

The law is imperfect, and the formula utilized can be improved. But in writing the law, I didn’t just want to name names in order to shame schools. But absent a spotlight on failing schools, too many have simply been abandoned. The list forces us to commit to transforming “repeat offenders” or to allow kids to choose their own best educational opportunity – irrespective of five numbers that have restrained too many of them far too long. Is your kid’s school on the list? Find out – take action.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.