Why the Compton Parent Trigger Lawsuit Is a Good Thing

The suit will set precedent for all future parent trigger attempts in both California and the rest of the nation.

With the filing of a class action lawsuit against Compton Unified School District, the legal battle over the first invocation of California's new "parent trigger" law has officially begun.

In a nutshell, the "parent trigger" allows parents who are tired of their local school's chronic academic failure to band together and petition the school district for the right to take control of the campus. The law first came into being in 2010 when California was attempting to prove it was ready for education reform so the state could qualify for some of the $4 billion in money the Obama administration was doling out as part of its Race to the Top competition.

California didn't win any of the federal dollars, but the law stayed on the books. Last fall it was used for the first time, when the nonprofit parent organizing group Parent Revolution approached parents at Compton's McKinley Avenue Elementary, which has consistently ranked as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. Parent Revolution facilitated the gathering of enough parent signatures, and last December, presented the district with a petition demanding that McKinley Avenue Elementary be turned over to a charter school operator, Celerity Education Group.

Since then, accusations of intimidation and impropriety have flown fast and furious between Compton Unified School District and Parent Revolution. Most recently, Compton Unified demanded verification of the signatures, asking parents to show up to a meeting with photo identification and confirm that they are indeed the petition signees. The lawsuit filed this week alleges that the verification process violated parent's constitutional rights to free speech and equal opportunity. The suit, along with a restraining order against the district, stops the verification attempt completely.

There's no reason a community should sit by year after year as a school district continues to fail its children. But, although Parent Revolution organizers have worked hard to mobilize parents and help them advocate for what their kids deserve, the way the parent trigger went down in Compton does reflect a lack of public transparency. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted

The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents' options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn't understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures.

It's also undeniable that Compton Unified has a long history of administrative corruption and academic failure. In 1993, the district was declared academically and financially bankrupt by the State of California and became the first school district in the nation to be put in "state receivership." Control of the district reverted back to the Compton school board in 2003, but a recent two-year audit shows that the district is struggling. The audit team told the board

...we are still very concerned about the commitment to student achievement. We are concerned also, about your capacity at this point to make gains for the students. It appears to us that the focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs. There's a lack of civility for people in various meetings and throughout the school visits. We have evidence that adults are not being held accountable for their work nor for their ethical behavior.

Given that, it's not unrealistic to assume that Compton Unified may not be capable of making the necessary changes at McKinley.

The lawsuit will require all the players to cut the back and forth drama and put everything on the table, under oath. That's especially needed because California Governor Jerry Brown's newly appointed State Board of Education still has to determine the exact wording of the law's final rules and regulations.

The state board needs to decide whether, for example, it's alright for parents to gather petition signatures in secret, or if a district has the right to verify those signatures with identification. What happens in Compton is sure to set a precedent for all future attempts in California, and will ultimately impact the enactment of similar laws across the country. The hearing for the case is set for February 24.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user NeonTommy

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