The parent role in triggering school reform

Well, this is interesting. In August, the board of behemoth Los Angeles Unified approved a motion directing Superintendent Ramon Cortines to come up with a plan that would allow parents and other stakeholders to trigger significant reforms–reforms that could culminate with the conversion of low-performing district schools into charter schools. Yesterday, that plan was unveiled at a LAUSD board meeting.

The plan designates certain sites as “Focus Schools” that would be eligible for significant reorganization, and possibly dependent or independent charter status. In addition, schools in Program Improvement Year 3 or higher could become Focus Schools if 50 percent plus one of parents whose children are currently enrolled or enrolled in a feeder school sign a petition asking for Focus status. (The plan would also allow staff at a particular school to trigger Focus status).

According to the Los Angeles Times, the authors of the original motion had originally envisioned that any parent — even those with children not yet enrolled in the public schools — could sign a petition asking for Focus status for a particular school. But in the end, Superintendent Cortines (who led our district for six years during the late 1980s and early 1990s) pushed back:

[Cortines] said he didn’t want the views of parents currently attending a school trumped by those of parents not enrolled, especially those who might be ill- informed. He stuck to that position Tuesday.

“Those same parents . . . won’t even go and visit the middle school,” Cortines said. “What they’re doing is making judgments based on rumor or what they’ve heard.”

There is a war going on in LAUSD over the role of charters, and charter operator Green Dot Public Schools has been a major player. Among their more effective tactics has been to engage parents in the fight to take over failing schools, a strategy described in a recent New Yorker article about Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot (I wrote about the article in a post last May). Green Dot is closely aligned with a group called Parent Revolution (formerly the Los Angeles Parent Union), which is doing the work of organizing parents at failing schools to fight for change.

I love the idea of parents in underserved communities organizing for change,  but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that charter schools always represent something better. As one retired LAUSD teacher pointed out in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Daily news,

Charters are not in themselves either better or worse than public schools. They are what the operators, staff, parents and students make them. So it would seem to behoove those in Los Angeles with a stake in education to make sure that the charters are better than the public school they are replacing.

Exactly. One of the hot button issues in the LAUSD-charter war is whether charter operators should be required to accept any student who lives in a school’s attendance area. From the charter schools’ perspective, the charter movement is all about parent choice – so parents who choose a particular charter school should be able to attend, no matter where they live. But as our own experience demonstrates, the most troubled and educationally-deprived families sometimes fail to take advantage of options because doing so requires resources (transportation, for example, or time during the day to tour schools) that are beyond their reach. If the charter operators are truly committed to turning around dysfunctional schools, wouldn’t they want to welcome any student from the school’s surrounding neighborhood?

Still, I think it’s a revolutionary idea for parents to be given the power to trigger significant reforms at troubled schools, even if I disagree with aspects of LAUSD’s current reform formula.

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3 responses to “The parent role in triggering school reform

  1. Board members themselves are elected by people who don’t know much about schools so why shouldn’t those same people by a able to sign a petition to get focus status?

    You can’t have change without a little chaos. Some of the schools in LA are so bad that temporary dislocations are to be expected on the road to reform. Getting parents involved is key. If parents took more interest in education we wouldn’t have as many drop outs and low performers and if focus status helps than I say GO FOR IT!

    The chaos is already upon us. The question is what to do about it? I’m for trying something new and I don’t expect it to be perfect from the get go.

  2. Well, it is a lot more complex than that if you read the presentation I posted. There are a number of conditions for schools to even be eligible to be a Focus School, and then there is a whole process groups have to go through in order to identify needed reforms. But yes, your information about the real backers of the Parent Revolution is troubling.

    I do like the idea of allowing parents/staff in very low-performing schools some trigger to get attention and support for persistent problems, and to have a seat at the table in ushering in reforms. It’s too bad that great idea has been somewhat hijacked by people with another agenda.

  3. Aside from the issue of a fake-grassroots “astroturf” alleged revolution funded by billionaire edu-philanthropists, it sounds to me like the new rules allow anyone who gets a majority of signatures on petitions to take over a school — it could be anyone, like a group of parents who have no idea what running a school entails. You can imagine the chaos that might result. There’s also videotaped testimony that Green Dot is paying people to sign the petitions.