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Anaheim City Elementary School District Should Stop Thwarting Parents

It didn’t take long for Anaheim City School District’s trustees to snub Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks’ July 16 ruling that the district had unlawfully rejected the reform effort, supported by almost 67 percent of Palm Lane Elementary School’s parents, to restart the chronically underperforming school.

Not only had Judge Banks issued the decisive ruling finding the district had engaged in arbitrary, unfair and capricious actions obstructing parents’ rights under the Parent Empowerment Act, he expressed “astonishment” with the extent of the district’s actions. In upholding parents’ rights, Judge Banks ordered the district to reverse its erroneous rejection in February of parents’ Parent Trigger petition and commence the parents’ process of soliciting proposals to operate their envisioned independent charter school.

It was nothing less than a smackdown of a California school district’s obstructionist actions against its own parents.

Judge Banks ordered the parties to return to court July 23, but on the eve of the court hearing, trustees assembled in a closed session and unanimously voted to appeal the ruling. They then removed public discussion of the ruling from the board’s agenda, thus denying the public the right to hear any discussion of why Judge Banks ruled against the Anaheim City School District.

The district has resorted to bullying tactics. Score one for secrecy in government and the trustees, who sued their own parents to prevent them from using the law.

“They are fighting us, but in reality, they are fighting our children,” commented Cecilia Ochoa, one of the parent leaders.

In the same meeting in which they prevented public discussion of the Palm Lane ruling, trusties preserved agenda approval of boosting the contract of the law firm they retained to fight parents from $305,000 annually to $678,000 annually – a $373,000 increase.

How many new teachers could that have hired? How many new computers or tutoring services for students might it have generated? Shamefully, while the district hastily dispatched taxpayer-funded lawyers to fight not only its own parents, but now the judge as well, not one of the trustees actually bothered to attend one day of the trial.

Trustees, beholden to teachers and other employee unions opposed to the parent reform efforts, never agendized a public discussion with the Palm Lane parents to learn why they launched the school reform movement. Instead, robocalls derisively labeling parents as “outsiders” were made by the district the morning after Judge Banks’ ruling.

Undoubtedly, the district prefers doing business behind closed doors and letting its generously compensated administrators do the dirty work.

Anaheim City Superintendent Linda Karen Wagner’s salary and benefits were not immediately available on Transparent California, a statewide database that tracks compensation packages. However, she collected a total of $250,887.16 a year in compensations at her previous position in Monrovia Unified, and likely received a raise when recruited to Anaheim. Assistant Superintendent Mary Grace, who along with the superintendent helped oversee the obstructionist actions against parents, collected a total of $181,121 in 2014.

Anaheim City School District has not demonstrated good government. The trustees need to stop conducting business in secret. They should immediately abandon their appeal of Judge Banks’ ruling and show respect for their own constituents, who dared to act on behalf of their children.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, is an education reformer who 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.

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.

Race for California Governor Should Emphasize Education Reform

On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will face off against Republican challenger Neel Kashkari in their only scheduled debate. Although Kashkari asked for 10 debates, Brown chose to do just one.

Undoubtedly, a slew of issues will be discussed, from economic policy, including taxation and tax credits, to border security and immigration, earthquake preparedness, California’s death penalty and even the ethical lapses of legislators.

Somewhere in that one-hour debate the candidates also will be asked about their views on education policies and practices in the Golden State. After all, education consumes almost half the state budget, and a new funding formula has recently been enacted. The Legislature has also suspended its testing of students as California prepares to adopt the Common Core curriculum, amid some public souring on its implementation.

The perennial debate over the quality and expansion of independent public charter schools continues to dominate discussion. An increasing number of local education agencies are tying to curtail their availability, even though at least 50,000 children remain on waiting lists to get into a quality charter school.

Like many other Californians, I will, most likely, watch the debate on television. Not all questions can be asked – much less thoughtfully discussed – in the scant allocated time of 60 minutes. Nonetheless, let me suggest a few questions:

(1) Nationally, we’ve seen a parent empowerment movement demanding greater parental rights in school choice options. Do you support ending school assignment by ZIP code, enabling parents to bypass their “local” school, particularly if it is chronically underperforming?

(2) In 2010 the Legislature enacted the Parent Empowerment Act, which allows parents to turn around chronically underperforming schools if 50 percent of the parents sign a petition choosing a transformation option, such as converting to a charter school. Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District shocked many when it claimed “exemption” from the law due to a federal Department of Education waiver combined with suspension of state testing. Do you concur that these “reform” districts are exempt from the law, and can any district self-proclaim exemption from state laws?

(3) In a school near Disneyland, a group of mostly Latino mothers are using the Parent Trigger law to transform their school, which has chronically underperformed for 10 years. They are being met with resistance from the teachers union and some elected officials. If you could meet with them, what would you say you could do to help realize their educational dreams for their children?

(4) Nine students sued the state of California, claiming that teacher employment and dismissal laws, including tenure and seniority, deprive students of equality of educational opportunities. L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with the kids, ruling the statues unconstitutional, and the decision is being hailed nationally as a significant education and civil rights victory. What is your position on the Vergara ruling, and do you support an appeal of the decision or settling it and calling the Legislature into special session to rewrite these laws?

Many more questions could be asked of the candidates. But these are worth posing to Brown and Kashkari, for one of them will govern California’s 6 million public school kids, impacting their parents and utilizing half the state budget for the next four years.

Of course, one hour to debate all the issues is not enough time. Another debate is needed. Democracy thrives when the citizenry is educated. Californians deserve to know.

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.

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.

California's "Open Enrollment Act" Empowers Students to Transfer Out of Underperforming Schools

Have you ever wanted to know if your child is attending a chronically underperforming school?

Well, start spreading the word: the list is out. Due to a law I wrote while serving in the California Senate, the 2010 Open Enrollment Act identifies the 1,000 chronically underperforming schools in California and empowers parents of kids enrolled in these to be able to seek enrollment in any higher performing California public school. The Act is particularly important for the hundreds of thousands of students who are trapped in chronically failing schools – yet their own school officials fail to exert turnaround efforts.

I wrote the bill because year after year I continued to see unpublicized lists of schools identified as underperforming. Yet, nothing was ever done. Even worse, parents of kids attending these schools had no knowledge of their school’s status. Unless a parent is wealthy and can send their child to a private school, most parents are forced to stay in their government assigned school – even when state officials have identified it as a chronically underperforming school.

But what happens when some schools are nothing more than dropout factories and school officials dare not restructure the contracts of the adults employed in them? Where else do we use geographic assignment – ZIP code – in vital aspects of American life?

Racial restricted housing covenants were barred long ago, freeing us to buy homes in any neighborhood. It’s unthinkable that a “local” health department official would assign your child to a “local” dentist based on your address. Have you ever driven across town to worship at the church or temple of your choice – imagine if your ZIP code was checked at the entrance? As families, we can pack up the car or get on the bus and go to any park we choose for a Sunday outing. Imagine the controversy if officials barricaded the entrance, telling you that this was not your “local” park: admission denied!

Yet in our American education system, a government bureaucrat who does not know you or your child, each school year designates your child to a school based on five digits – your ZIP code – regardless if it’s been failing for years. Even when school bureaucrats know that a school to which a student is assigned is failing, kids, and unknowing parents, keep being assigned to them. Indeed, ZIP code is the new five degrees of separation that can influence whether a child today will be one of tomorrow’s doctors or drop outs, inventors or illiterates.

The just released “Romero” Open Enrollment List for the 2014-15 school year can be viewed at 1000schools.org. The new Foundation for Parent Empowerment will work with parents to teach them about the law. The current list identifies schools from 515 school districts – some with an Academic Performance Index as low as 374 (the state targeted goal is 800). Almost every Orange County school district has schools listed. Some schools, due to formulaic pressures, should be excluded; many are “repeat offenders” necessitating radical transformation.

Romero-2HOct2013

In writing the law, I didn’t just want to “name names.” But absent a spotlight on failing schools, too many have simply been abandoned. Compilation of the list is a revealing opportunity for Californians to begin to publicly identify chronically underperforming schools and finally exert pressure to use existing state and federal laws to transform them.

Automatic assignment by ZIP code is the complete absence of parental choice. Parents now have the choice: keep waiting for change, like the fictional characters Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly and in vain for the mythical Godot, or they can empower themselves and begin to vote with their feet and enroll their child in a school of their choice. That’s parent power – and it’s now the law.

Gloria Romero is an education reformer from Los Angeles. Romero 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.