08.15.13

‘We the Parents’ Chronicles L.A.’s Controversial Charter-School Law

A new documentary takes the side of activists who tried to use L.A.’s ‘parent trigger’ law to turn a public school into a charter. Eliza Shapiro on the education battle behind the movie.

There is a quiet war being waged in the Los Angeles public school system.

On one side: Parent Revolution, an advocacy group that helps parents invoke the state’s controversial “parent trigger” law, which gives them the power to turn their children’s schools into charter schools or replace the staff if enough parents support an overhaul. On the other: much of the state’s educational establishment and the staffs of schools threatened by the law.

Advocates of the parent-trigger law say it’s an empowering movement reminiscent of the battle for civil rights; its critics call the law a hostile takeover of schools that need to be fixed by professionals, not moms and dads. Now a new film is bringing the story of the law, and the battles it has sparked, to a broader audience.

We the Parents, a documentary chronicling the first attempt—and, ultimately, failure—-to use the trigger law in Compton, will be released in L.A. on August 16. It’s the informative if occasionally treacly story of how Parent Revolution led a group of parents in Compton to try to turn McKinley Elementary into a charter school.

McKinley was scoring well below state averages for reading and math proficiency. Ben Austin, the founder of Parent Revolution and a former member of the Clinton administration, picked McKinley out of a number of what the organization considered failing schools in in low-income neighborhoods in L.A. Filmmaker James Takata got wind of what the organization was doing in Compton and emailed Austin, who is also a former deputy mayor of L.A., asking if he could come and film.

“We gave them an all-access pass,” Austin said. “I thought it would be good to have a camera crew around—in case our opponents might try to lie about what we were doing, it would be good to document what was happening.”

Parent Revolution and a bare-bones camera crew set up shop in Compton and, with the help of amenable parents and paid staff, knocked on doors and gathered signatures to try to invoke the parent-trigger law at McKinley. In the film, swelling music accompanies parents dropping their children off at school, and there are several long shots of mothers silently staring at the camera in desolate schoolyards.

Three L.A-area public schools flipped by the trigger law are opening this month.

In We the Parents, mothers who led the petition drive at McKinley say other parents refused to stand next to them while they picked up their kids and many refused to publicly admit that they had signed the petition. Video from PTA meetings at McKinley feels like reality television and makes for truly dramatic viewing. Parents stand at the podium in a cramped school lunchroom, yelling and pointing fingers at other parents for signing the petition, to thunderous rounds of applause.

Marlene Romero, a McKinley school mother who collected signatures for Parent Revolution, says her son came home crying and told her he hated her because the work she was doing made him ostracized at school.

We the Parents focuses on the local causes for that tension, like teachers and administrators feeling like they weren’t being given a fair chance by parents, but less on the plentiful broader criticism of the parent-trigger law.

Though McKinley’s principal and members of the local school district are interviewed, the film spends almost all its time with the leaders and local parents involved in Parent Revolution, and the documentary is more their story than a film about the nuances of the parent-trigger law. Outside the movie, criticism of the law remains intense.

“The notion that parents should have the ability to yank a school away from a district seems to be a huge mistake,” said Josh Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers. “In many cases parents are being sold a bill of goods” by Parent Revolution, he said, “and the money [for the organization] comes from sources that want to privatize schools and destroy teachers’ unions. There’s a hidden agenda.” Parent Revolution is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as other large foundations.

And what happens after the school is overhauled? “These parents flip the switch, fire everybody, but then the parents are saying thank you very much to the charter company. And they are discarded again,” says Tanya Anton, who runs the Go Mama Guide, a website about L.A. public schools.

After fierce opposition from other parents, the school’s administration, and the local school board, coupled with a protracted legal battle over the legitimacy of some of the signatures gathered on the Parent Revolution petition, the organization failed to overhaul McKinley. Now, Austin says, they are doing things differently. “We were the ones that picked the school. We were the ones that did a majority of the organizing,” he says. “Many of the parents said to us, ‘We support this, but this isn’t our fight.’ We ended up throwing our organizing method out the window.”

And it seems the tide may be turning in favor of the trigger law. Twenty states are weighing parent-trigger legislation, and six states have adopted trigger laws since 2010. Three L.A-area public schools flipped by the trigger law are opening this month.

Still, Austin says, the legacy of the parent-trigger law remains to be seen. “We’re building an airplane that’s already in the air,” he says.