Risk-taking charter school operator Steve Barr is launching an effort through which parents would wrest political control of the L.A. school system from unions, school bureaucrats and other entrenched interests.
The plan is for parents to form chapters all over town and improve schools, one by one, using the growing leverage of the charter school movement. The goal is to unite a city of overworked and isolated parents with a brash promise:
If more than half of the parents at a school sign up, Barr’s organizers say they will guarantee an excellent campus within three years. They call it the Parent Revolution.
With parents, they predict, they’ll have the clout to pressure the Los Angeles Unified School District to improve schools. They’ll also have petitions, which Barr and his allies will keep at the ready, to start charter schools. If the district doesn’t deliver, targeted neighborhoods could be flooded with charters, which aren’t run by the school district. L.A. Unified would lose enrollment, and the funding would go to the charters instead of to the district.
Based on past performance, the school district would be challenged to meet parents’ heightened expectations, Barr said. “We’re not trying to prove the district is doing things wrong. But our kids are at stake.”
The initiative is the latest envelope-pushing project for the publicity-savvy Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit operates 10 local charters as well as Locke High, the district’s first traditional high school to be taken over by a private operator.
Despite this milestone, Barr and his lieutenants have expressed frustration with what Green Dot can accomplish on its own. They also wanted to make more of the fledgling Parents Union, a Green Dot spinoff that Barr envisioned as an independent, assertive alternative to the PTA.
“You can’t just have meetings,” Barr said. “Unless you’re driving a tangible outcome, you’re just setting people up.”
The three-year pledge was conceived by Marco Petruzzi, a business consultant who was a Green Dot board member and now is Barr’s chief executive. “What was really missing was a value proposition for parents,” Petruzzi said. “If you do this, you get this.”
The initiative is directed by attorney Ben Austin, a longtime political consultant who has reshaped the Parents Union, which has a mailing list of thousands but a much smaller active core. So far, the Parents Union has been a useful but limited political vehicle for causes Barr supported, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s unsuccessful attempt to win control of the school district.
Barr’s parent organization gave Villaraigosa’s campaign a grass-roots visual that it otherwise would have lacked. And his paid staffers hit the right rhetorical notes for Villaraigosa, while identifying themselves to reporters and officials only as parents.
If the new effort succeeds, Green Dot will have to let go of the reins, Austin said. But he characterized a proper school as one that is safe, orderly and small, where the principal can personally and rapidly fire ineffective teachers, where nearly all dollars get to the classroom and where every child is progressing toward college.
“Not every school needs a revolution,” he said. “I’m going to send my daughter to Warner Elementary, because it’s a great neighborhood school. I’d actually oppose a revolution there. But I’m already actively working on a revolution for Emerson, her middle school, because it’s not good enough for her.”
In its endeavor, Green Dot also has enlisted Bright Star Schools and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, two other successful charter operators.
Funding for the parent groups has come from Green Dot, philanthropist Eli Broad, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Service Employees International Union.
The campaign is already underway in Spanish, with Univision radio stations agreeing to air ads, pro bono, that promote a toll-free number and a website that features a promotional video. And, for months, a handful of organizers fanned out to speak at churches, schools and meeting halls.
L.A. Unified continued with its own parent outreach last week. Supt. Ramon C. Cortines met with long-established parent groups, and he previewed a survey of parents that will be included in future school evaluations. On Friday, he met with Barr to discuss future collaborations.
The Parent Revolution “has never been raised with me,” Cortines said. “I’m somewhat taken aback by this, but I look at a traditional school and a charter school as choices for parents. I think that competition is healthy, but I don’t think any of us have all the answers. We should be collaborating.”
On a recent night in Tujunga, before Parents Union organizer Mary Najera could even begin her pitch, she listened to parents unload at a neighborhood gathering.
Among concerns: Local activist Lydia Grant was worried about the lack of outdoor lighting at the nearby middle school; people felt unsafe after dark. A grocery store worker said that her disabled daughter had been taunted in school by gang members and that no adult had intervened. A third woman complained of a teacher who called her daughter “lazy” and a “loser.” Formerly an A student at a private school, the girl is feeling lost after one semester in her crowded public school that she said was not nurturing.
Parents couldn’t sign Najera’s petition fast enough -- and the Parents Union had not even targeted Tujunga. Mark Twain Middle School in Venice and Garfield HighMark Twain Middle School in East L.A. will be the first to officially take part.
A man suggested they call their affiliate the “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” chapter.
Najera assured them: “This is a legitimate threat to the school district. And this is how we have to play to be heard. This is going to steamroll.”
At some schools, administrators rebuffed Najera when she tried to distribute fliers, and some meetings attracted only a few people. Someone once called a school police officer to question organizer Shirley Ford, but at other places, principals quietly welcomed her.
At a recent meeting at a Boys & Girls Club in Venice that drew more than 100, Laura Alice held 8-month-old Wren as she listened to Austin and Petruzzi. She wants neighborhood parents to leave private schools and return their children to the local elementary school.
“In my little pod of 30 parents, it’s hard to get 15 who will commit,” said Alice, a business manager for artists. Some say they’re with her, she added, only until they get off the private-school waiting list.