COMPTON, Calif. — By Marlene Romero’s count, her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at McKinley Elementary School here. Most of the time, she said, he has merely shuffled through classrooms, struggling in math without ever getting extra help.
So when an organizer came knocking at her door promising that if she signed a petition, her son’s school could radically improve, Ms. Romero immediately pledged her support.
Now, she is one of more than 250 parents in Compton who are using a new state law to force the failing school to be taken over by a charter school operator, the first such move in the country.
Voicing enormous frustration with the existing school, the parents handed over the petition on Tuesday to district officials. “We are completely fed up,” Ms. Romero said. “We’ve been told to wait every year and nothing changes.”
When Ms. Romero attended Compton schools in the 1990s, she said, nobody seemed to notice or care when she skipped school for days at a time. She dropped out at the age of 16. “I want my children to be able to have what I didn’t,” she said.
For the last several months, Ms. Romero has helped gather petitions for the school takeover, which is expected to face legal challenges from the school board and teachers’ union, which strongly opposed the new law.
Under the law, if 51 percent of parents at a school sign a petition, it “triggers” one of four actions, including takeover by a charter school. In this case, 61 percent of the parents signed the petition. When the State Legislature approved the measure in January, union officials referred to it as a “lynch mob provision.”
The move in Compton will likely be watched by educators and political leaders all over the country, as many advocates try to exert more pressure on teachers’ unions. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is supporting the effort and Rahm Emanuel has promised to introduce similar regulations in Chicago if he wins his bid for mayor there.
In many ways, the parent trigger is a nightmare situation for unions, threatening to pit teachers against parents, particularly in poor neighborhoods where schools have struggled for years. In essence, it is a union for parents.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Marion Orr, a professor of public policy at Brown University. “It really pushed to the edges of a strong democracy and could create real challenges for public officials who believe they know best how to run school districts.”
Compton has struggled for years. This summer, a state audit concluded that there was a focus on “adult needs as a priority before student needs.” And in October, the school board voted to fire the former superintendent, who had charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to a district credit card.
Many of the parents involved in the effort to overhaul the school are immigrants who dropped out before earning a high school diploma themselves but hope their own children will go on to college. Several of the parents earned G.E.D.’s and piece together part-time jobs to earn enough money to pay for their modest homes in this struggling city a few miles southeast of Los Angeles. All of the students at McKinley are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
Even among schools with similar demographics, McKinley is one of the lowest performing on state tests, with less than 25 percent of fifth-grade pupils at grade level in math and reading. Still, the school has shown some improvement in the last two years on state exams.
“It’s not enough to say year after year that we will get better,” said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles group that lobbied for the law and organized parents here. Mr. Austin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, has also worked at charter schools. “Parents are the only ones without a conflict of interest when it comes to kids,” he said.
Critics of the parent trigger law, including union leaders, said that it was simply a way for charter school operators to gain control of more schools. The law also allows for “transformation” of a school by bringing in a mostly new teaching staff and changing budgeting, firing the principal or closing the school entirely.
Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, questioned the group’s tactics and said that other options should have been considered.
“Were all the alternatives considered to help turn this school around?” Mr. Wells asked.
For many of the parents, just the term “charter school” conjures the notion of a better chance for their children. Organizers of the petition took dozens of parents to other schools run by Celerity, the group that will open the charter school to replace McKinley. Vielka McFarlane, Celerity’s executive director, said it was impossible to know how many of the teachers currently at the school she would hire, though “all of them would, of course, be welcome to apply.”
- JENNIFER MEDINA
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