“Raw power, an unabashed transfer of political power to parents.”
That’s how Ben Austin describes Parent Revolution, the organization he founded and heads up, which aims to shake up Los Angeles’ public schools. It aims to remove the administration and faculty from low performing schools, and, if the parents desire, convert them to charter schools, which are independently operated, without strong unions, and financed by LAUSD.
Austin is a parent whose daughter will enter the Los Angeles public school system after she graduates from Temple Israel of Hollywood’s preschool. He has served as a political aide in the Clinton White House and in Richard Riordan’s City Hall. Public education reform is one of Riordan’s big interests, and after Austin left city hall in 2001, he continued to work on his old boss’ issue, independently and with Riordan and others interested in education. In fact, Austin planned to run for the school board in the Westside district in 2008, but had to drop out after a campaign assistant fouled up gathering the signatures needed to get him on the ballot.
A few months later, with backing from the private nonprofit foundations of arts and education philanthropist Eli Broad and Casey Wasserman (a philanthropist and the grandson of entertainment scion Lew Wasserman) and others, Austin and a few other parents created Parent Revolution, for which he serves as executive director. He also is a part-time prosecutor in the city attorney’s office. Parent Revolution, which now has an annual budget of about $500,000, began by organizing parents of students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and Mark Twain Middle School in the Mar Vista-Venice area. It plans to move on to other schools.
“We represented half of the parents in the enrollment boundaries,” he said. “After that, more parents came to us.” Then they sought help from L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa and allies on the school board. Last spring, members of the group met downtown and went to the school district headquarters. The result of this activity was a plan, presented by the mayor in 2009, which called for 250 school campuses, including some new ones, to be turned into charter organizations or other nonprofit groups. The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), opposes the idea. But in a surprising defeat for the usually powerful union, the school board adopted the plan. Last month the teachers union filed suit to block its implementation.
The mayor’s plan is loaded down with bureaucratic obstacles. It may take a long time to implement. And with final decision making on how to implement the plan left to Superintendent Ramon Cortines, parents may be pretty much cut out of working out final details.
Looking for something better, Parent Revolution and other reformers went to Sacramento. This was a gamble, since the legislature traditionally has been firmly under the heel of the California Teachers Association, which represents more than 340,000 teachers and other school personnel around the state. “We didn’t have lobbyists, we didn’t have a ton of money,” Austin said.
But the political situation has been changing. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program promised $4.3 billion in federal funds to states that would require teachers to be judged by student test results. The Obama administration also insisted that states make it easier to form charter schools.
In the financially strapped Capitol, the promise of federal funds turned out to have more influence than the California Teachers Association. After a struggle, with Parent Revolution taking part in the lobbying, the California legislature passed a bill forcing districts to make major changes when 50 percent of a school’s parents sign a petition. This would apply to a limited number of poor-performing schools in a district. Those schools could become charters. The principal and teaching staff could be replaced. Or the school could be closed.
Under the state law, parents wanting to transform their school would have to sign up 50 percent or more of the parents in an enrollment area. This would trigger the process of change. Parent Revolution is an organizing group, with no plans to actually run schools. Its important role would be to train parent volunteers in how to sign up people and talk to them about the issues. After that, the parents themselves would decide whether they wanted a charter or to simply replace the principals and teachers with a new crew.
The measure also permits parents in the state’s 1,000 worst-performing schools to transfer their children to other schools. Performance of children and teachers would be measured by tests.
The specifics of just how this would work are yet to be worked out. The State Board of Education will write the regulations that will implement the state legislation. These regulations would determine what kind of organization would actually run a school. Just how the state law will mesh with the plan adopted by the Los Angeles Board of Education last year is unclear. It could sweep aside the cumbersome LAUSD program.
“We think it is the most important reform in the country, and it came out of Parent Revolution,” Austin said.
Parent Revolution’s particular foe is UTLA and its contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Critics of L.A.’s schools say such contracts make it all but impossible to remove or discipline poorly performing teachers. Austin believes the current contracts are “restrictive contracts that don’t have anything to do with kids, where there is no accountability.”
A.J. Duffy, the UTLA president, disagrees. “Far too often, UTLA’s stance against outside operators is painted in a negative light — that our members don’t want our schools taken over simply because we don’t want to lose union members or weaken our contract,” he wrote on the union’s Web site. “That conveniently ignores what we all know to be true: Day after day, teachers and health and human services professionals put students first. It’s in our DNA. It’s why we work long hours for low pay. It’s why we stay up until midnight working on a new lesson plan after a TV show sparked an idea for teaching fractions. It’s why we spend that Target gift card on school supplies instead of a needed microwave.”
The combative Duffy and his union are expected to resist as Parent Revolution circulates its petitions in schools around the city, promising parents, in Austin’s words, “if you organize half the parents in your school, we promise you a great school.”
Sounds like a schoolyard fight. Hopefully, the students won’t be the losers.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).