'Parent Trigger' schools process challenged in Compton

Thursday was the second and last day school district officials in Compton were verifying signatures parents collected to radically overhaul a low-performing public school in the district under the state’s new “Parent Trigger” law. The officials’ process has drawn strong criticism by the group that helped parents gather the signatures.

It wasn’t enough for parents to sign a petition that would wipe the slate clean and turn 450-student McKinley Elementary School over to a charter school operator under the new law. Compton Unified is verifying those signatures by compelling parents to show up outside the school’s auditorium on one of two days, says principal Fleming Robinson. "They come over here to a reception area, and in the reception area there’s a place where we’ve already looked through and have a place for all parents who signed the petition have the opportunity to identify themselves," he said in the school's auditorium.

Once parents show official identification, they’re given a one-page sheet of paper with their child’s name on it. Parents must sign to indicate that they support converting McKinley Elementary Achool into a charter school.

That process is onerous, intimidating, and illegal, says Rosemary Segura with Parent Revolution, the pro-charter school group that helped parents collect the signatures. "They already did what the law requires, which is sign the petition and provide confidential information of their children such as birth date, grade and name, information that only parents would know," Segura said.

On the first afternoon, a handful of parents showed up to sign. As some of them approached the school entrance, Parent Revolution staffers approached to urge them not to enter and sign the document.

They convinced Marie Haywood. Four of her children are enrolled at McKinley Elementary, and she says Compton Unified’s efforts to turn the school around are too late.

"It shouldn’t have gone this far," Haywood said. "Why did they wait until the parents get upset and decided to do something? They should have been doing this all along. Oh yeah, things, I guess, are trying to improve, but I’m not seeing it with my children."

Parent Revolution and Compton Unified officials have accused each other of intimidating parents to join their side. Parent Revolution says it may challenge the signature verification process in court.

"The process is messy because of the politics," said University of Southern California education professor Priscilla Wohlstetter. The state’s “Parent Trigger” law, she adds, gives parents unprecedented voice over how to assert more control over chronically low-performing schools.

"I think people are seeing it as a zero-sum game, so if the parents are given voice to be able to close down a failing school, the educators that run schools are feeling that that’s taking power away from them," Wohlstetter said.

The “Parent Trigger” law is here to stay, she said, and educators and parents around the country are keeping close watch on the way it plays out in school districts like Compton Unified.

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