12/14/2010 07:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Parents Revolt and Take Control of School

If the American Revolution started with the flinging of British tea into Boston Harbor, the new American Revolution started last week -- when a majority of parents in a poverty stricken part of Los Angeles took control of their dismal, failing public school.

California has been going through some tough times lately. Among the major issues facing the state: a nation-sized state budget deficit, chronic infrastructure underinvestment, an out-of-control prison system, enough unfunded pension liabilities to sink an empire -- and a galaxy of the worst-performing schools in the nation.

Take McKinley Elementary School in Compton. It is, objectively, one of the worst schools in the state. According to the California Department of Education, McKinley ranks 1 out of a possible 10 in its index of "similar schools ranking."

Translation from the bureaucratese: McKinley is one of the very worst performing schools in the state, even when bench-marked against other schools serving a predominately low-income, minority population.

And McKinley's performance is getting worse.

Three years go, McKinley actually ranked 3 out 10 in the same Department of Education index. (This was, admittedly, a dismal ranking by any objective criteria -- but the trend-line is even more worrisome.)

Today McKinley Elementary School in Compton ranks in the bottom 10% of all elementary schools in California. Would you send your kid there? Would you allow this monument to failure and incompetence to ruin your kid's future?

Well, unless you have the bucks to yank your kids into a private school, or win the lottery at one of the charter schools that are rushing in to save the public education system in California, the parents at McKinley are trapped -- captured in a public school system that cares more about adults than kids, more about power and money than the next generation's future.

In a report commissioned by the Compton Unified School District, and presented on July 13 to the District's Board, Achievement Equity, LLC, an education consultancy brought in to diagnose the system's chronic failure, the District was blasted for its culture that provoked "grave concern about the future of learning opportunities for students in the district."

The report went on to say that "It appears to us that the focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs [emphasis added]... We have evidence that adults are not being held accountable for their work nor for their ethical behavior. We have evidence that consequences for inappropriate behavior [by District employees] are not practiced."<

This indictment of the Compton School District went on to say that there is no "sense of urgency related to student achievement" or "a systems approach to planning, monitoring, evaluation and collaboration."

So there really is no mystery why parents would revolt, no big questions as to why parents would decide to exercise their rights under California's Parent Trigger law and take over the school.

So they did.

With the help of Parent Revolution, a non-profit public education advocacy group that fought for and achieved the passage of the Parent Trigger law, approximately 60% of McKinley Elementary's parents signed a petition to turn the school into a charter, managed by one of the most successful, non-profit charter organizations in the state, Celerity. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid member of the Board of Directors of Parent Revolution.)

And that's when the war started. According to Ben Austin, Executive Director of Parent Revolution and member of the California Board of Education, parents have been threatened in a variety of ways, from outright warnings of imminent deportation if they did not remove their signatures from the petition, to in some cases, being berated in front of their own children, threatened with physical violence, subjected to a campaign of fear and harassment.

I attempted both by phone and email to get an on-the-record comment from Karen Frison, the Acting Superintendent of the District. An employee of the District's Office of Communications, Ron Suazo, said that the district had decided not to comment on this issue and forwarded two press releases that express shock and surprise that parents would pull the Trigger under the law.

So what happens now? While the Compton Unified District scrambles to stop the parent's revolt, many of the parents that were harassed by district employees are talking to the media - and in what could be an ominous sign for the Compton school board, getting lawyers to fight for their rights.

But beyond Compton, this case is a watershed event. For the first time in America's history, parents armed with a new legal right to take over failing schools are taking action to safeguard the integrity and efficacy of public education.

Public education has been the key-stone of American democracy. Generations of illiterate farmers, factory workers and hardscrabble immigrants have seen the lives of their children catapulted firmly into the middle class and beyond by the transformation of a high quality public education.

Compton's parents are fighting to restore that promise, that this low-income, gang-infested community opens the door to a better future for the next generation by fixing these zombie schools.

The educational malfeasance of many public education systems across California and the nation is under attack - not from some bright-eyed reformer, but by the very parents who have the highest commitment, the highest stake in the educational outcome for their kids.

And as Compton goes, so goes the nation. At this very moment, in different communities in California, and even as far away as Connecticut, parents and reform-minded educators are watching the Compton Parent's Revolt and getting ready to pull on the Parent Trigger.

This American Revolution is just beginning.

Here are some of the Compton parents explaining why they took this drastic step: