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Legislation would give parents new power to trigger change at a school

December 7, 2009 |  1:08 pm


The Republican governor and a top Democratic lawmaker have united behind legislation that would give parents the authority to trigger major reform at a persistently low-performing school.

This right-of-parent petition is included in a latest version of the bill crafted to enhance California’s eligibility for at least $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding.

The idea is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who has carried the bill. She added the parent empowerment language Friday, with the governor’s support, as a follow-up to a related effort in Los Angeles. As in L.A., key backers of the parent provision include Ben Austin, head of the Parents Union, a parent organizing and lobbying group closely affiliated with Green Dot Public Schools, which operates charter schools.

The Assembly is working on its own version of “Race to the Top” legislation, authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). The Romero and Brownley bills are notably dissimilar. The Assembly version proposes new accountability measures for charter schools and does not incorporate the parent petition language. Schwarzenegger, a consistent ally of charter schools, opposes the Assembly bill.

Charters are independently managed and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools. One option that could result from a parent petition is the conversion of a school to a charter operation.

Romero’s bill, which already has cleared the Senate, will be taken up this week by the state Assembly’s education committee.

The Romero bill was designed to include provisions necessary to apply for federal grants, but it goes beyond what the federal government specifically calls for, including the parent petition. Schwarzenegger said the petition option is nonetheless in line with the goals of the Obama administration.

“In order to ensure California meets federal guidelines and is highly competitive for funding, this bill would need to include stronger parental rights, including the right for parents to be empowered to require school boards to reform underperforming schools,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

If this provision becomes law, a school district would have to initiate major changes at a school as soon as the number of signatures on a parent petition equals half the number of students currently attending a school. A high school of 2,000 students would have to begin the reform process, for example, if organizers collected the signatures of parents representing 1,000 students.

The threshold also could be reached with the addition of signatures from the parents of children not currently attending that school -- because they are too young or in private school. Parents can sign the petition provided that they live in the attendance area, said Kathy Gaither, a state undersecretary of education.

Romero's bill also includes "open enrollment" language crafted to make it easier for a student to leave a poorly performing school district for another one.

The Legislature has until mid-January to enact legislation to meet a federal grant-application deadline.

-- Howard Blume

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