If you drive by Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim, California, nothing seems amiss. With modern buildings, partially surrounded by a park, the school seems like a tranquil refuge. Like so many settings in sunny Southern California, palm trees and sycamores compete for space on the spacious lawns, beckoning skyward, swaying in the warmth of a slight breeze. By appearances, Palm Lane seems a perfect place to send your children to get an education.
Appearances can be deceiving. Palm Lane does not deliver educational excellence to its students, and it is the latest epicenter of an escalating war for control of California’s failing public schools.
Despite investing to create and maintain an impressive campus, academic achievement at Palm Lane has been sadly deficient. According to a report earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal, “In 2013 a mere 38% of students scored proficient or better on state standardized English tests and 53% in math. About 85% of its students are Latino and 60% aren’t native English speakers.”
Parents at Palm Lane School were not aware of the school’s designation as a failing school, but they noticed improvement when a new principal, Roberto Baeza, arrived in 2013. During 2014, however, the Anaheim City School Board (ACSB) demoted Mr. Baeza and he now works at another school. Parent protests led to the involvement of Senator Huff’s office, along with former State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero.
Back in 2010, Senator Huff, a Republican, joined with Democratic Senator Gloria Romero to pass “Parent Trigger,” a law that permits parents to take over the management of a failing school if a majority of them sign a petition. To get onto the list of eligible schools, among other things, a public school has to fail to meet academic performance improvement goals for four consecutive years. Palm Lane has failed to meet improvement targets for over a decade.
While concerned parents began to organize to gather signatures to invoke the provisions of Parent Trigger, the Anaheim Elementary Teachers Association – that’s “teachers union” in plain English – tried to discourage the effort. As noted in the Wall Street Journal article, “In an October newsletter, the union warned teachers that ‘If you see signature gatherers or unusual people on your campus, contact the office, and depending on the situation, approach them and inquire why they are there or what they need.’ While teachers by law can’t tell parents not to sign the petition, the union said ‘it is okay to make statements such as: If I were a parent at this school, I wouldn’t sign the petition.'”
Eventually, signatures representing about 65% of students were gathered despite efforts by teachers to discourage it. Under Parent Trigger, petitioning parents may choose from among a group of options, one of which allows them to turn the failing school their children attend into a charter school. That is the option selected by the Palm Lane parents. That’s the worst possible option for the teachers union.
How the union is handling this challenge to the status-quo is revealing and typical. They have positions of authority over these children and the ability to influence parents both through their children and through meetings and communications directly with parents. Since the petitions were turned in, the union has been organizing meetings with parents, where, needless to say, the charter school option is not presented in a positive light. In one of these meetings, one of Senator Huff’s district representatives, who was invited to the meeting by concerned parents, had to contend with physical and verbal intimidation from union operatives.
There is understandable reluctance on the part of the Anaheim Elementary Teachers Association to see a change in management. But the way they are handling the situation is creating a movement. There are hundreds, if not thousands of schools in California that have failed according to the criteria specified in the Parent Trigger law.
Charter Schools work. They work because they have the management flexibility to, for example, terminate incompetent teachers and retain excellent teachers even during layoffs. Each charter school has the independence to try creative approaches to effective teaching. They are laboratories where the science of education is advanced far more quickly than in highly regimented traditional schools where student achievement must be accomplished without violating union work rules. Even more important, when charter schools fail, and some of them do, they can be swiftly shut down or reorganized. Charter schools offer hope to literally millions of K-12 students in California.
If Parent Trigger succeeds in turning Palm Lane into a charter school, it won’t end there. The teachers union knows this. But all their money and influence cannot stand up to a grassroots, bipartisan movement of parents who love their children, and activists of diverse backgrounds and ideologies who care about the future. They know that, too.
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Parent empowerment a major tool for school reform in California
Education Watchdog, January 29, 2015
Parent Trigger & Open Enrollment – Ways to Cope With Union Controlled Schools
UnionWatch, January 27, 2015
Rallying for school reform in Anaheim
Orange County Register, January 19, 2015
Parent Trigger Bullies
Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2015
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