Desert Trails Elementary School in the town of Adelanto, Calif., has been failing local kids for years, many parents say. At least a third of the students are unable to pass state math and reading tests.
On Tuesday evening, the school board will be hearing about a radical fix: a parent takeover of the school.
For the moms and dads, it's an intensely personal debate. But their little school at the edge of the Mojave Desert has also become a flash point in a high-stakes national struggle over the future of public education, one that pits powerful teachers unions against some of world's wealthiest philanthropies.
Desert Trails, with children in kindergarten through sixth grades or roughly ages 5-12, could be the first school in the nation to invoke the concept known as "parent trigger."
A 2010 California law permits parents at the state's worst public schools to band together and effectively wrest control from the district. The parents can enact dramatic changes, such as firing teachers, ousting the principal, or converting the school into a charter institution run by a private management firm. Several other states -- Mississippi, Texas and Connecticut -- are considering similar laws.
Desert Trails has had high turnover in the principal's office. Parents complain about difficulty getting their children extra help when they fall behind. Just 31 percent of third-graders are proficient in reading and 14 percent score in the lowest level, "far below basic," in state testing.
"We feel like we haven't been heard," said Doreen Diaz, an Adelanto mother of two. "Unless we stand up and fight for our children's education, no one else will."
Several attempts by msnbc.com to reach the school superintendent or members of the school board by telephone were unsuccessful Tuesday.
'A positive change'
A determined group of Desert Trails parents is leading the charge, with substantial help from a well-funded activist group, Parent Revolution. The trigger advocates say they have collected signatures from a majority of families in support of closing down the school this summer and reopening it as a charter school in the fall, to be run by a partnership of parents, teachers and the school district.
"Parents want to see a positive change for Desert Trails, which is the worst school in the district," Linda Serrato, spokeswoman for Parent Revolution, told msnbc.com on Tuesday. "Parents want the school board to hear about a proposed partnership, a partnership where parents work directly with the board, teachers and community."
She said the trigger plan will be presented during a closed hearing late Tuesday.
In Adelanto, a fast-growing community of 32,000, Parent Revolution rented a house to serve as trigger headquarters and sent staff to help organize. Many parents were receptive to the campaign. Some said they had been trying for years, to no avail, to get improvements at the school, where nearly all the students are low-income minorities, mostly Latino and African-American.
"Parents are clear about wanting a positive change for their school," Serrato said, adding "They were told to create a PTA, which they did in 2010 and still didn't see positive changes."
An equally determined group of parents, supported by both state and local teachers unions, say Desert Trails can be improved without being destroyed. They plan to stop the trigger plan.
"Where are their lesson plans?" said Kimberly Smith, a former teacher at Desert Trails who now sends her two children there. "What is the curriculum?... How is it better?"
The parent-trigger battle is perhaps the most dramatic yet in an intensifying fight over the nation's $500-billion-a-year investment in educating kids.
Big names, big money
Over the past decade, several of the nation's wealthiest philanthropists, who see public schools as needing transformative change, have shifted the terms of the education debate. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Los Angeles developer Eli Broad and the Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, have poured billions of dollars into promoting aggressive reforms. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal)
Their prescriptions, many of which have been adopted by the Obama administration, include expanding charter schools, tying teacher pay to student test performance and making it easier to fire teachers.
Unions see many of those reforms as a threat not only to their members but to the very nature of public education. Charter schools are free public elementary or secondary schools that operate independently from the local school district. They often do not employ union teachers, and are typically run by a private management company.
Critics note that some charters are run by for-profit companies that don't open their books to show the public how they're spending tax dollars.
"There's an agenda that basically wants to take apart public education," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Union leaders complain that the reformers have little research to prove their overhaul tactics will work -- and that existing data show less-than-stellar results.
Nationally, studies suggest that charter schools rarely outperform regular public schools of similar demographics.
"Too many people on the outside are advocating for things that don't change student learning," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, which represents 3 million public-school employees.
But to the outside reformers, it's the unions who have their heads in the sand, blocking efforts to remake a public education system that for too long has left too many kids behind. Teachers unions spend tens of millions a year on campaign donations and state and federal lobbying, giving them considerable clout among politicians, especially their traditional allies on the Democratic left.
The Gates and Broad foundations continue to pour huge sums into improving existing public schools; the Gates Foundation, for instance, has pledged $100 million to revamp teacher training, evaluation and pay in Hillsborough County, Fla. Foundation officials say they have no intention of destroying teachers' union or privatizing public schools en masse.
At the same time, however, they say they are committed to experiments like parent trigger.
Seat at the table
Trigger backers say the mechanism isn't intended to convert local schools into charters in every case. Parent Revolution is working with several parent groups in California that have used the threat of pulling the trigger as leverage to negotiate more modest changes, such as cleaning up filthy school bathrooms.
At Desert Trails, the trigger team is negotiating with the district in hopes of reaching a solution that stops short of moving to a fully independent charter school.
"When big decisions about schools are made, there typically are only two players at the table, the teachers union and the district," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. "What we're saying is, we need a third seat at the table for parents. Before, when they complained, they'd be told to go do a bake sale. Parent trigger utterly changes the game."
Parent Revolution started small, reporting assets of just $91,000 at the end of 2009, the year it began pushing parent trigger in California. When the law passed in early 2010, major philanthropies, including the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations, pledged substantial donations.
Parent Revolution reported nearly $4 million in grants in 2010, the most recent year tax records are available.
The group has used the money to rally parents to consider using the trigger at low-performing schools across California. "At every step of this process Parent Revolution is here to support you," the group promises in a 12-page parent handbook.
Parent Revolution has also expanded to promote trigger laws nationwide. The group recently flew several parent activists from Buffalo, N.Y. to Houston, Tex., for a training session.
Members were also in Florida earlier this month, mixing it up in a bruising political battle over a trigger bill. The mostly Democratic activists at Parent Revolution teamed with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, along with parents and lobbyists representing charter schools to promote the law.
Lining up against the parent trigger law in Florida were the teachers union, the Florida PTA and a rival group of fired-up moms, including Rita Solnet, a mother of three who says she distrusts charter schools. Solnet co-founded Parents Across America, an activist group that has received $25,000 from the nation's biggest teachers union, but says she spent her own money to fly to Tallahassee and knock on lawmakers' doors to lobby against parent trigger.
"These schools were built by the taxpayers of the past to support the taxpayers of the future," Solnet recalls saying. "You have no right to turn them over" to for-profit charter school corporations.
The Florida parent trigger bill narrowly failed.
Msnbc.com's Sevil Omer contributed to this report from Reuters.
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