School Choice

This Is What It's Like to Take on School Unions As a Democratic Leader in California

Gloria Romero fights for school choice from the left.

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Gloria Romero
Photo courtesy of DFER

When National School Choice Week kicked off at the end of January in Los Angeles, former California State Senator Gloria Romero was there to celebrate. 2013 may prove to be a banner year for Romero in her school-choice activism. As a state senator, Romero introduced and fought for the passage of "parent-triggered" school reform in 2010. The law allows for parents to force a school district to convert a failing public school into a charter program if they have enough community support.

Toward the end of 2012, Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., became the first school to successfully convert to a charter program through application of the parent-trigger law. A second school in Los Angeles is now on its way to join them.

Romero is also a Democrat, and thus her education reform activism has pitted her against the powerful education unions that are very politically influential within her party. She's now the California director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group devoted to fighting for school choice from the left. Last month I interviewed Romero about recent school choice successes and the challenges of trying to fight for education reform within the confines of her own political party.

Reason: How do you feel National School Choice Week went this year?

Gloria Romero: Well, it was a very enthusiastic kickoff. For us in California it was very symbolic. The kickoff occurred in a very blue state. This is very democratic country. It begins to show increasingly that the issue of choice, that the issue of parent empowerment, is no longer such a partisan issue. Democrats aren't just joining the fold, they're leading the fold. It was a bipartisan group, but there were more Democrat speakers than Republicans. Choice can no longer be construed as an issue of the right.

Reason: Describe what it's like to try to challenge union control of the education system as a Democrat.

Romero: Where do I begin? When we talk about education and education reform, it automatically means change agents have to take on and confront the No. 1 political force in California, and that's the [California Teacher's Association]. Simply to talk about education reform, to enact legislation means you're dealing with the power of money. Unfortunately we'd been stymied in many of our reform efforts because of the power of money. I still think we have to try. We have made progress. We've gone two steps forward, one step back. If we can't get it through the ballot box or legislature, we have to go through the courts.

Reason: Tell us a little bit about Democrats for Education Reform and what they're up to.

Romero: It's a national organization — a PAC — that is committed to supporting Democrats who have the courage basically challenge the status quo, to challenge the system. In California we have focused primarily on parent empowerment strategy. We have very much connected this with the civil rights fight. In California the base of the Democratic Party is black and Latino. When you look at failing schools, they're primarily in poor and minority areas. This is where we see there's strong ground we can stand with Republicans. More successfully we have focused our efforts at looking at litigation and empowering parents and teach parents how they can have choice and overcome the entrapment of ZIP code.

Reason: What has surprised you most about this struggle?

Romero: The betrayal of money. I'm a Democrat. I believe in the Democratic Party, but I think the party has largely lost its way when it comes to fighting for rights. The money has caused the party to not have the courage to stand up for the most vulnerable, the people we're supposed to be fighting for. This will change, but it's a civil right fight. It's one in which, whether it's through the courts—less through the ballot box due to the power of money there—this system will change. I'm just amazed at the commitment of those who have stepped up to fight: They are fearless.  It's like a David and Goliath fight. It's encouraging to see people step up and try to chip away at this failed public system that we pay for ourselves.

Reason: You were responsible for helping craft and push through parent-trigger legislation in California. What do you think of Desert Trails Elementary being the first school to make it through the process?

Romero: Bravo. Let's get going. Let's get moving in other cities. I'm going to be going to Texas and meeting with parents who were instrumental in getting a similar law. Parent trigger has started a revolution, a rethinking of the role of parents as true architects of their children's future and in being oversight agents and holding schools and their bureaucracies accountable. To me, when I look at parent trigger, I'm very pleased to see what happen. It's amazing to me to see how quickly to see embraced nationally. It was a hard fight to get it passed. I'm looking forward to it taking root. Parent trigger, when you think about it, should be a lesson that school districts, school boards, superintendents need to wake up. What it's saying is that parents are telling their own elected officials that they have the power to create change but they just don't. I hope it will encourage elected officials to create change and not have to wait for a petition. They should not have to wait. They should just know that the petition's coming.

Reason: Is there a way for unions to embrace school choice without feeling like it's a threat to their membership?

Romero: I would say yes. We do find Green Dot has a unionized charter network. But if we're talking about choice with charters, most are not unionized. There's the reluctance there. I think it depends on what level of choice. The way I talk about it to classified unions, these are the kids of their own members they're stifling by restricting school choice. If it's adults versus kids, I'm going to go with kids first. This is a public education system, not an employment agency for adults. I think you'll find different union members react differently. Many rank-and-file members are not in agreement with their unions. There is a push for choice and it's growing and gaining strength. The question is whether they jump on the bandwagon or end up on the sideline of history. That will be an individual struggle within the unions themselves.

Reason: Why should teachers embrace school choice?

Romero: Teachers themselves have the power to enact choice. The parent trigger law also allows teachers to force conversion. Teachers have this right. They have this power already. Ultimately, already, they have to think about the quality education system they want. Who is the system designed for? Why should teachers embrace choice? I think it produces a stronger, robust education system. We shouldn't be afraid of choice. You have to be afraid of the other person in order to block choice. If we're afraid, it's because we're worried about what they might do to our own little special interest.

Reason: Why should administrators embrace school choice?

Romero: When I look at it, the biggest obstacles to school choice are in administration. I used to be just appalled at what was occurring in Sacramento with the administration lobby. This is probably the epitome of a special interest group. They're looking out for their own market share. They're looking out for their own narrow interest. It is wide and it is expansive. We talk about teacher unions, but we need to look at administration. [School reform] is a right that administrators had but they wouldn't use it. They were quite content to just sit there and look at lists of failing schools year after year and never do anything about it. This is where the ossification of the education process has taken place. It's important to take a look at it; they're very well paid compared to teachers. This is where the education shake-up needs to take place. We need leaders changed at the very top, and then we see changes in the system. The administrative the branch is the one where we need to have greater focus.