It might be the next school movement to sweep the country. Emboldened by charter school operators, parents of children attending failing schools in Los Angeles are signing petitions that could force the nation's second-largest school system to shut down those schools and reopen them as charters. Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator, is one of the forces behind the grass-roots campaign. It is being called the "Parent Revolution," the Los Angeles Times reports. (Barr's organization operates 10 charter schools, including Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, Calif., which U.S. News ranks among the 100 Best High Schools in the nation.)
Barr, who was dubbed "the Instigator" in a recent New Yorker profile, is known for employing headline-grabbing tactics to drive reform within the L.A. Unified School District. He is perhaps best known for engineering the controversial takeover of Locke High School, one of L.A.'s worst-performing schools. Barr was able to pressure the district into giving him control of the embattled school after collecting enough signatures from teachers there who said the change was necessary. It was the first time that the district ceded control of a public school to a private operator.
The latest effort to improve the city's schools envisions at least 51 percent of parents signing a petition at every failing school. These petitions would give the organizers of a parent organization known as the Parent Union leverage to convert those schools into charter schools. The parent union says the charter schools would be smaller, safer, and better at preparing all students for college. Principals would also have the authority to dismiss bad teachers swiftly, which rarely is an option at traditional schools. If the district ignores these petitions, Barr's organization or another charter school operator could threaten to open charter schools in the neighborhood where a bad school exists. These charter schools could drive students away from the failing neighborhood school, depriving the district of state funding that follows students.
"Now I know this sounds a little crazy, but it's very real," Ben Austin, an attorney and political consultant who is heading up the parent petition drive, says in a promotional video. Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of L.A. Unified, seemed surprisingly open to the idea of converting the worst schools into charters. But he emphasized collaboration over a hostile relationship. "I think that competition is healthy, but I don't think any of us have all the answers," he told the Los Angeles Times .
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan probably is carefully watching what happens in Los Angeles. He has said publicly that turning around the nation's worst-performing schools—1,000 each year for the next five years—is one of his top priorities. So far, Duncan has been encouraged by the work of Barr's charter school organization. According to the New Yorker , the two men had a meeting in March in which Duncan seemed to place confidence in Barr's model of closing failing schools and then letting private management organizations take a stab at fixing them. As CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan followed a similar strategy.
If enough parents demand change in their schools, will local politicians listen to them? Or will they side with charter school opponents, including teachers unions, which have long argued that charter schools rob traditional schools of the best students and the funds to train teachers? Speaking at a Washington think tank this week, Duncan called some traditional schools "dropout factories" and said that closing them down will take "real courage" on the part of elected leaders. It sounded as if he were channeling Steve Barr, "the Instigator."