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Parent 'Trigger' Win in California Shines Light on Dysfunctional Public School System

Anaheim school district resisted effort tooth and nail.

Years ago, during a debate with a public school superintendent over the issue of educational choice, I suggested that we shut down the public schools in their entirety. Then we could "buy" education the way we buy other crucial things. We don't expect government to build our houses (think housing projects) or our cars (think Yugo), so why our schools?

It was a thought experiment, meant to stir up discussion. Most of the audience then—like readers today—find this idea to be insane. Rather than debate the merits of a radical concept, I wanted to use today's column to point out the absurdity of the current way we purchase education for the young, with a recent Anaheim dispute serving as a case in point.

Anaheim Elementary School Board trustees voted in late July to allow parents to convert the ill-performing Palm Lane Elementary School into a charter school. School officials have spent more than $800,000 in taxpayer money and two years battling mostly low-income parents over their effort to become the first Orange County school to use the so-called "parent trigger" law. The district had little choice but to relent after a recent comeuppance from the courts.

The law, officially known as the Parent Empowerment Act, "creates a process which allows parents of students in low-performing schools to sign a petition to implement one of the intervention models," according to the California Department of Education. Those models include replacing staff, turning the school into a charter, adding new programs or closing it down.

In 2014, the Anaheim superintendent sent letters to parents noting that the school "failed to meet the English-language arts and mathematics proficiency targets." Many parents already knew that Palm Lane was failing the kids, so they decided to pull the proverbial trigger. School officials in general tend to dislike accountability laws and charters, so it wasn't surprising that, instead of helping the parents, Anaheim officials fought them.

Those who want to see how poorly the district treated the parents need only read the California appeals court's decision from late April. As the ruling detailed, former state Sen. Gloria Romero, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the trigger law and was assisting Anaheim parents, complained to the district that anonymous people identifying themselves as district employees had been calling petition signers and telling them that their names don't "match" school records.

"Even if you are personally opposed to enforcement of the parent trigger law, I am sure you do not wish for these parents and their children to suffer unnecessarily," Romero wrote, according to the court. "Obviously, your callers should stop making statements that sound like the parents are accused of wrongdoing, and the callers should identify themselves."

Romero suggested the district work with the petitioners to verify the signatures. But the district rejected the petition. It claimed that there weren't enough valid signatures, denied that Palm Lane was subject to the Parent Empowerment Act, and argued that petitioners lacked a required document and a specific description. This should disabuse anyone of the idea that parents and students are in any way "customers" in the current public school monopoly.

Fortunately, the trial court rejected the district, and the appeals court rebuked it on every major point. Now the parents have 90 days to decide how they want the school to operate. It's a great victory, of course, but their kids have had to endure a poorly performing school for two more years as their parents, already busy earning a living, had to mount a political and legal campaign. The parents now have to learn how to create (or hire) a quality school.

Let's put that scenario in the context of a grocery purchase. Nothing's more important to people's lives than food, right? We want everyone to have access to healthy food. So the government creates a tax-funded grocery store in each neighborhood designed to serve all the people living within certain artificially created district boundaries.

This is so important that you might move to a neighborhood just because you like the food choices there. But let's say you're not wealthy and you're stuck in a neighborhood with a store that offers few produce choices, bad service and rotten meats. In a competitive system, of course, you would buy your groceries elsewhere. In this one, you have no choice but to go to the Surly Mart.

Under an admirable new law, you could, of course, spend the next two years organizing your neighbors and fighting in court to force changes at the store—over the well-funded recalcitrance of the current management. If you succeed, you get to spend time figuring out how to design and manage a grocery store operation. Lucky you.

Yet, our similarly designed public school system is supposedly more sensible than letting school operators succeed or fail based on their ability to meet the needs of customers. Which system really is crazy?

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Nice way to be gent;e about it. We all, except Tony, understand the grocery and car shopping comparisons, and despise government propaganda mills, but the general public is so mesmerized by the concept of public education that they can't conceive of just separating funding and implementation; if you suggest charter schools, half of them shriek about fascists and and plutocrats.

  • Longtobefree||

    But of course, the actual fascism is the state controlling education.

  • Ride 'Em||

    Why would Tony be against this? Isn't the model the left measures the US against is Sweden? I thought all parents received vouchers and could select any school they wanted.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I just wish someone, anyone, would think of the teachers for once.

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    I did. For a second. Now it's time to focus on important things like education.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Does thinking of eliminating them count?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Most of the audience then—like readers today—find this idea to be insane.
    ...
    Yet, our similarly designed public school system is supposedly more sensible than letting school operators succeed or fail based on their ability to meet the needs of customers. Which system really is crazy?

    Max Stirner

    Do not think that I am jesting or speaking figuratively when I regard ... almost the whole world of men, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse.
    ...
    Is not all the stupid chatter of (e. g.) most of our newspapers the babble of fools who ... seem to go about free because the madhouse in which they walk takes in so broad a space?
  • buybuydandavis||

    Under an admirable new law, you could, of course, spend the next two years organizing your neighbors and fighting in court to force changes at the store—over the well-funded recalcitrance of the current management. If you succeed, you get to spend time figuring out how to design and manage a grocery store operation. Lucky you.

    Freedom is being able to demand a new crop of central planners.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Or hiring one, setting specific goals to be met, and firing them if they fail. I'm sure there are plenty of educators/administrators in the private schools of the world who would jump at the chance of building a school from scratch.

  • croaker||

    Freedom is being able to send central planners through a woodchipper.

  • Longtobefree||

    When do we get the part of the story where the administrators repay the fraudulently spent $800,000.00, and their credentials are permanently revoked for malfeasance?

    OOPS! California, never mind.

  • BYODB||

    This...is actually not the most terrible law it seems like. Taking it as granted that the state should fund education, that is.


    Am I correct in assuming that this was a test case for the new law, thus the District had some incentive to fight back harder than if it had already been successfully done elsewhere? Hopefully other Districts get the message after this case.


    I'm not really sure why they went with such a draconian process to reallocate education tax dollars though when they could have just deregulated. Oh...wait...Taxifornia. Still, this is something in vaguely the right direction so cheers for that I suppose.

  • Davulek||

    I actually took it even further. I gave my city council copies of a story about Sandy Springs Georgia, a city that outsourced its entire government:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06.....ivate.html

  • dschwar||

    In a competitive system, of course, you would buy your groceries elsewhere. In this one, you have no choice but to go to the Surly Mart.

    Or you hire professional agitators who arrange for you to get free transportation to the good stores, while forcing randomly selected people living in the good store area to be sent to Surly Mart. (Although, in Minnesota, people might want to go to Surly Mart to get the locally brewed beer of the same name).

  • AngelaM||

    Education isn't a commodity which can be discarded if it produces poor products. Children deserve the best education society can provide. The fact that one district behaved badly when the parents wished to switch to a charter school model is not an argument for deregulation; any more that the denial of certification to a madrassa would be. We should aim for students to leave school with a basic core of knowledge, maybe not the "canon" so often criticized but certainly the ability to construct a coherent sentence - not a tweet. We all have in interest in students mastering subjects upon which continued learning can occur. This means that course content needs to be uniform and measurable. Memorizing the Koran or learning about intelligent design fits neither of these criteria and does nothing to advance the acquisiton of further knowledge. Parent involvement is one indicator of a student's likely success in school, The Trigger law for all it is cumbersome is a move in that direction. It must be accompanied by rigorous standards and certification of the schools involved.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Wow. Islamophobia AND Coastal Elite sneering in one paragraph. An impressive accomplishment, for someone who has suffered as much at the arthritic talons of the public educational system as you clearly have.

    As someone who has never stepped foot in a government managed or funded school...

    Attempt asexual reproduction. Forthwith.

  • frankania||

    I have taught various subjects and levels in 7 different schools in my life. The worst was a public school in New Orleans in the 70's where I broke up a knife fight (with the help of another teacher) of 14 year-old males during the second week of school. They were dragged to the office and the principal called the cops and told me they would be expelled. The following day, one of them was back in my class, and I asked what he was doing there. He replied, "they done give me another chance."
    I immediately went down to the office and said, "I QUIT"
    I had just resigned from a private school that I liked, because the public system paid teachers almost twice as much. Anyway, it worked out, in that I got a great job with IBM repairing computers for even more money!

  • Galane||

    The 'education' union got two more years of cranking out poorly educated worker drones, so that's a 'win' in their eyes.

  • David Sims||

    Palm Lane Elementary School is (or was) 84% Hispanic and only 9% white/Asian. Low performance is inevitable wherever a large majority of a school's students are from low-IQ groups. It does not matter what teaching interventions or administrative adjustments you try. Failure will remain a fact of life for any school that tries to educate a group of kids beyond their mental ability to become educated.

  • searchingmind||

    So "Hispanic" means "low-IQ groups"? Not as low as you, brother , not as low as you! NB: I use the term "brother" because my mother taught me that the words I wanted to use should not be used in polite conversation, and I wanted to be polite even to you, you stupid, miserable, trash-talking, racist, sub-human being.

  • Trigger Warning||

    Fuck you, Dave. Take that bullshit back to Stormfront and stay there.

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