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Seated in the light-filled living room of the largely unfurnished house that serves as their organizing headquarters, half a dozen mothers take turns describing the ways that Desert Trails Elementary School has failed their kids. Their well-practiced stories pile up quicker than they can be written down.

“I moved up here three years ago and I had no idea this was what the school was like,” said Cynthia Ramirez, whose daughter Meleny is in the second grade at the Adelanto, Calif., school. When Ramirez arrived in Adelanto, other parents would welcome her to the neighborhood in one breath and warn her to take her daughter out of the school in the next.

“Other parents said to me, ‘When she gets to the third grade pull her out,’ ” Ramirez said. “And I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ “

desert_trails_diaz_021412.jpgDoreen Diaz’s daughter Vanessa is repeating the fifth grade after spending three years in a special ed class crammed with students from first to sixth grade, where Diaz said fist fights erupted daily and her daughter tested persistently at a second-grade reading level. It was a demoralizing experience for her daughter.

“At one point Vanessa was crying every day before going to school,” Diaz said.

But in the four months after Diaz got her daughter out of special ed classes and into a mainstream class with a tutor last year, Vanessa bumped up to a fourth-grade reading level.

“You’re telling me in all those years the school couldn’t help her get to that level?” Diaz said, incredulous. “Her teacher now is excellent, but I just wonder what happened all those other years that couldn’t have been done then.”

Diaz’s frustration led her to organize parents to use California’s so-called parent trigger law to demand sweeping changes at Desert Trails—changes for which they’ve long and unsuccessfully lobbied. Now, this tiny, predominantly black and Latino school in the high desert of Southern California has been catapulted to the front line of a national reform war that increasingly pits parents against teachers, and one another. 

The parent trigger is a relatively new concept, but it’s caught on fast. The law allows parents at a school with consistently dismal test scores to file a petition to restructure their children’s school. Since 2010, when California became the first state in the nation to pass a parent trigger law, Mississippi, Texas and Connecticut passed their own versions of it. 

Supporters have lauded parent triggers as groundbreaking ways to, in the words of the education reform non-profit Parent Revolution, “force change” in recalcitrant systems. It’s a favored policy of school reformers who support drastic, externally-driven overhauls of failing schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose school reform group called the parent trigger “radical community empowerment,” both helped fuel its staggeringly quick expansion. 

Last year, 22 states introduced parent trigger legislation. This year, organizers in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana have taken up the fight again. 

The parent trigger has emerged at a time when education advocates and reformers are debating how, and toward what ends, to engage parents in school reform. Communities are no longer content to let the message be amplified by policymakers and politicians alone. 

The antagonistic nature of the school reform debate and the entrenched bureaucracy in public school institutions make the parent trigger an attractive tool, especially to folks who have to deal with the everyday desperation of sending their kids to poor schools. It carries a guarantee of concrete change, any change. It ostensibly enables a people-powered overhaul with the flip of a switch. 

Certainly, Desert Trails’ experience suggests parents are eager for that kind of power. The California law calls for at least 51 percent of parents to sign on. In January, Desert Trails parents delivered 465 signatures to the school, a whopping 70 percent of parents’ support.

But in the weeks since the petitions were delivered, the parent trigger law has created a widening gulf in the small town of 36,000. Not everyone remains excited about the reforms, and even those who say they share the petitioners’ goals say the conflict of the petition process damaged their hopes for a more collaborative change.

Critics of the parent trigger say this is precisely its danger. They say it’s susceptible to abuse by corporate-backed groups that use parents as spokespeople for untested and short-sighted competition-based reforms—creating an astroturf movement for dismantling public schools. And they say Parent Revolution is working with exactly this agenda. 

Critics also point out that the right-wing group ALEC, a coalition of conservative state lawmakers and lobbyists, has added parent trigger bills to the list of legislation it pushes—alongside bills like Arizona’s SB 1070 and voter ID initiatives.

So as parents like those in Desert Trails maneuver around their brand-new seat at the negotiating table, they’re also fighting to flip the script on the national debate. Desert Trails parents, well-aware of the controversies swirling above their small town, insist that not only are the reforms they’re pushing entirely self-generated, they also have no desire to turn their neighborhood school over to a charter school operator. They want the rest of the country to know they’re nobody’s pawns.

Revolutionaries or Pawns?

desert_trails_ramirez_021412.jpgRamirez never imagined herself becoming an education activist, even though today she’s one of the parent union’s most visible leaders. She talks while sitting on the floor of a bedroom-turned-strategy-room, canvassing maps and meeting notes hang like wallpaper above her. She uses her hands as she talks, gesticulating forcefully, even as she keeps a hand on her toddler son Nathan’s back while he plays at her feet.

Her activism has been spurred in part because her family is determined to make it in Adelanto. Like many Adelanto families, she moved to the high desert from the Los Angeles area for the safe neighborhoods, and affordable home prices. But since the subprime mortgage crisis, home values have only dropped. While many of her neighbors have given up on their mortgages or been forced out of their homes, Ramirez and her husband are still holding on.

“We thought we got in cheap. We bought our house for $124,000. And I just checked: now it’s worth $82,000,” Ramirez said. A billboard outside the subdivision advertises rent in three-bedroom homes starting at $795 a month. Save for a single strip mall and the jail down the road, there aren’t jobs to speak of in Adelanto.

But the Ramirez family isn’t moving again.

“People used to tell me I was so shy,” Ramirez said. “Now they can’t shut me up.”

“It’s just that if we don’t stand up for our kids, who will?”

Parent Revolution is a relatively new player in the education reform debate, but the group has quickly gained national prominence for advancing the parent empowerment meme, propelled in part by the Obama administration’s school reform agenda.

California’s parent trigger law passed the Assembly by a one-vote margin in 2010 as part of a move to help the cash-starved state win money under the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grants program. California never took home any of the winnings, but the law, vaguely written and rough around the edges, went on the books anyway. It was the first parent trigger in the nation, and Parent Revolution set out to make sure that the law was used right away.

“The fear was that if it wasn’t used in the first year, it would be eliminated. It would be history,” said Pat DeTemple, Parent Revolution’s organizing director.

That haste led Parent Revolution to rush into what would become one of the most acrimonious, and high-profile, school fights the state has seen in recent years. 

Last spring parents at McKinley Elementary School in Los Angeles’ Compton filed a parent-trigger petition to turn the school over to Celerity Educational Group, a charter school organization. But the Compton Unified School District declared the petition invalid, citing signature gathering improprieties and undated petition slips. Compton parents, with the help of Parent Revolution, took the school district to court, where the case sits today. The controversy compelled the California State Board of Education to finalize regulations around the parent trigger law.

As the Compton effort grew into a polarizing, national story, Parent Revolution re-designed its organizing model to support the creation of local parent chapters that would advocate for their own self-selected reforms, charter school or no.

“Our premise is, our first goal is to improve education with a kids-first agenda, and so we are about supporting an autonomous organization of parents at a school who are committed to the same thing. We make that a precondition,” explained DeTemple, a veteran organizer who spent a large chunk of his career organizing California’s farmworkers. “As to the reforms themselves, the organizing model is agnostic under these issues. I wouldn’t dream of pushing charter schools.”

And yet, the Compton fight helped solidify the perception of the parent trigger as a faux-populist policy designed to shortcut charter school takeovers. The mess left in the petition’s wake trails Parent Revolution, too.

The group also faces continual criticism about its funding sources and political ties. Parent Revolution had early ties to the Green Dot charter school network, which it’s since severed. Its big donors include the Wasserman Foundation, the philanthropy giant Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, which gave $500,000 to the group in 2010. These funders are considered power players in education reform who push a free market philosophy to improve schools through, among other initiatives, charter school expansion.

In 2010, the Gates Foundation separately donated almost $400,000 to ALEC for work on education policy reform. ALEC has pushed versions of the California parent trigger bill as model legislation. 

DeTemple said that Parent Revolution operates without any political input from its funders.

“I saw in the law a rare mandate to organize,” said DeTemple, who was wary of wading into school reform work before joining Parent Revolution. “It’s an organizing opportunity clearly aimed at poor, working class people. The second you say no to organizing majority communities, poor communities because other people can use that for nefarious purposes, you’ve got some other paternalistic-left notion of politics.”

‘We Just Want To Fix It’

“I think the misconception of Parent Revolution, because they tried to go charter at McKinley, is that that’s what’s happening here,” said Ramirez of the Desert Trails petition.

“They think that Parent Revolution came here to organize us; we called them,” Ramirez said. “Their role has been to instruct us and guide us, not to force things.”

Desert Trails parents lead decision-making sessions and have pulled their demands from a parent survey they conducted while canvassing the neighborhood. They have set up their organizing headquarters in an empty home in Adelanto, for which Parent Revolution pays the rent. They also get briefed on education policy from education consultants that Parent Revolution pays to come out to the desert and give crash course in education finance, reform and policy.

“It always raises concerns for me when there is a dramatic power disparity through which partnerships are emerging,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA.

“Often times, in political action, local activists are trying to in effect make use of outside players who are themselves trying to make use of local activists,” Rogers said. “That makes it sound like everybody is out to get something, which is overly cynical.” Still, he added, “I do think that there is a certain dynamic that can play out this way.”

There are a few uncontested facts everyone in Desert Trails agrees on, namely that Desert Trails Elementary School is in poor academic shape. It’s the lowest-ranked school in the Adelanto Elementary Unified School District, and ranks 4,716 out of California’s 5,188 public elementary schools.

In order to even qualify for the parent trigger law, California schools must have an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 800 or lower out of a possible 1,000. Desert Trails’ 2011 API was 712, with two thirds of the students failing the state language arts exam, and more than half failing the math portion. Just under 80 percent of the fifth graders failed the state science test.

According to state data, the entire student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch at school. The number is a proxy for gauging family poverty levels. The student population is 67 percent Latino and 27 percent black, and a quarter of the students are learning English as a second language.

But to Desert Trails parent Diaz, the demographics of the school are irrelevant.

“We’re sick of the excuses,” she said. ” ‘Oh, it’s a social-economic issue,’ people say. Or, ‘Oh, it’s No Child Left Behind,’ or ‘Oh, it’s the home environment.’ A school is supposed to be a place where kids can see another way of life is possible.”

desert_trails_2_021412.jpgAnd her concerns go beyond just the school’s lousy test scores. Parents complain regularly about rampant bullying. There are too few aids monitoring the playground during recess, said Olivia Zamarripa, the mother of two kids enrolled at Desert Trails. Zamarripa said her son’s been on the receiving end of schoolyard taunts and bullying since he was in the second grade. He’s now in the sixth. 

But when parents visited the school or tried to voice their concerns, they were made to feel unwelcome, mothers repeatedly said. Diaz, who first revived the PTA and then got involved with the council that helps make decisions about budget issues, found that in all of her roles, parent attempts to suggest and win changes were rebuffed by school administrators and district officials.

“I was told when I complained that if I didn’t like the school I should transfer my daughter to another school,” Diaz said. “What kind of answer is that?”

It’s a familiar frustration for many parents in poor neighborhoods. And after all her efforts to improve her kids’ school, Diaz was ready to leverage the power that the parent trigger afforded. Therein lies the unique political appeal of the parent trigger law for parents who’ve been long locked out of the decision-making process in their kids’ educations.

“Those who characterize themselves as reformers in this case are able to tap into something real because parents are often deeply frustrated with what’s going on in public schools serving low-income communities of color,” Rogers, the education professor said.

“And when politicians use the language around parent power … often times it becomes a populist rhetoric, a way for politicians to talk about policy measures they want to advance but from the voice of working class people of color,” Rogers explained, adding that the parent empowerment narrative fits with an anti-bureaucratic rhetoric, which frustrated parents like Diaz and Ramirez need little help tapping into.

Parents also acknowledged that many Desert Trails educators and district staff nevertheless share their same goals.

“It’s not some kind of vendetta that we have,” said Melody Medrano, a Desert Trails Parent Union leader. “We’re not interested in a blame game. We don’t care who started the problem, we just want to fix it.”

Community in Conflict

There may be no blame, but there’s plenty of disappointment. Adelanto Unified Teachers Association President La Nita Dominique said she invited the parent union to discuss their plans before the petition was filed, but her request was ignored. The parents union may not have intended to vilify teachers, but teachers feel they’ve been left out in the cold in a reform process that has put her members on the defensive.

“If the intent was not to push teachers to the side or have them not be a part of the process, that is exactly what we are seeing and feeling,” Dominique said.

It doesn’t help that the parent trigger law has often been wielded as an anti-teacher bill. Aggressive education reform governors like Florida Gov. Rick Scott have backed the parent trigger law alongside proposals that call for an end to public workers’ collective bargaining rights, and a ratcheting up of test-score based teacher evaluations and accountability measures. 

The sore feelings extend elsewhere.

“I feel parents only have the best interests of the students, and I believe their motives are pure,” Desert Trails’ principal David Mobley said, speaking in diplomatic, well-considered sentences. Mobley just arrived in his job in October, and he is clearly trying to make the best of the scrutiny his school has come under. Mobley gamely noted that he was taking a break from his actual job of improving Desert Trails to talk about the conflict his small school is now immersed in.

“But I think it’s sad that we’ve become pawns in … the excitement of the larger game,” he said.

Mobley said the parent trigger process erupted a bitter controversy in Adelanto. Mobley charges some parents have said the parent union’s demands are different from what they thought they’d endorsed. Some now wish they could revoke their signature.

“I think some parents do not want to see the school become a charter school, and don’t want so-called ‘elite petitioners’ making all the decisions about the school,” Mobley said. A representative for that set of parents did not respond to a request for comment. “It’s very sad that parents are put in this situation, some who have been friends for years. It’s heartbreaking to see the community broken up over this.”

The parents union has devised a two-pronged strategy which gives them powerful leverage. 

They actually turned in two petitions to Desert Trails last month. The first was accompanied by a list of 55 criteria parents want to see in a healthy school. Their four key demands called for control over hiring and firing the principal, who would have control over hiring staff. Parents also want control over budget and curriculum decisions and a majority of seats on a newly created school board. 

The parent union settled on these reforms after surveying members and consulting with Parent Revolution. Yet Parent Revolution organizers declined to elaborate on the proven efficacy of such reforms, instead reiterating that the organization’s simple “kids-first” mission was its only guiding principle. 

If an agreement can’t be reached 40 days after the petition drop, the parent union will move on the second petition, which calls for a parent-managed community school. 

Parent Revolution is hosting weekly sessions to get parents up to speed on the logistical, legal and financial ins and outs of running a school. It’s a steep learning curve.

“It’s just a lot of information about schools that makes you say WOAH,” Ramirez says, setting her hands out in front of her as if to break a fall. “But I’m loving it. I’m happy to learn about all of this.”

As the closed-door conversations continue, neither the school district nor the parents union will discuss the specifics of the negotiations, so what exactly will emerge remains to be seen. In the meantime, the parent union is working to build as strong a parent organization as they can to take advantage of whatever long-term change is sure to come. 

But at a member meeting in the beginning of February, the empty seats and core leadership outnumbered the two parents who showed up. With the parent trigger law, Desert Trails parents may have leveled the playing field, but it’s not yet clear whether the organization will be able to sustain itself for the long haul. 

And given the inter-community strife parent trigger initiatives have left in their wake, neither is it yet clear whether the petition-based parent trigger process is the best mechanism to voice the concerns of a whole school community. 

Rogers put it this way: “How do you build trust and understanding and coalitions through a petition process?”

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