Pulling the Trigger
When NSFWCORP sent me to Victorville this January, I little expected that the neighboring town of Adelanto would become ground zero for a fight between billionaires on one side, and poor, vulnerable minority parents and children on the other.
I first heard about the fight through the local right-wing paper, the Victorville Daily Press, which gleefully announced on its front page that a local school, Desert Trails Elementary, had just made history as the first school in the nation to be privatized under California's new "parent trigger" law. The paper described the takeover as “promising a fresh start to the failing elementary school,” and claimed it had received widespread support from parents.
The national press gushed in similarly glowing terms. The LA Weekly described the Adelanto privatization as an “historic moment for the education-reform movement picking up steam across the nation.” The New York Times dutifully compared the takeover of Desert Trails to “Won’t Back Down.” An “issues” movie starring Face of Indie Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Won’t Back Down” promotes the parent-trigger law as a panacea for America’s public-education problems, one that “empowers” parents to fight back against self-interested public school teachers and their union.
All in all, everyone agreed that this takeover of Desert Trails Elementary represented a triumphant moment for parents and their children, a victory for the people over rapacious elementary school teachers and their unions.
But something didn’t seem right about this story — it was too pat, too much like a triumph-of-the-spirit Disney tale, too much like Maggie’s movie. So I made some calls and started spending some time in Adelanto, to find out what really went on there.
Motorists entering the City of Adelanto are greeted with a big blue sign that reads: "The City With Unlimited Possibilities." It's not clear who came up with this slogan, or when. But, these days, the sign is a cruel joke.
Founded in 1915 by the guy who invented the modern electric iron, Adelanto never amounted to much. Mostly it served as pit stop and junkyard to a nearby George Air Force Base. The base closed more than a decade ago, and home values have collapsed since the last real-estate bubble popped. Entire neighborhoods emptied out, and building companies went belly up, leaving behind half-finished “master planned communities” that still stand there, desiccating in the dry heat. Signs advertise brand-new three-bedroom McTractHomes for zero down and $800 a month.
Today, Adelanto is the end of the line. A poor, desert town, the city serves as a dumping ground for low-income minority families who have been squeezed out of the Greater Los Angeles-Orange County region and pushed out over the San Bernardino Mountains into the bleak expanse of the Mojave Desert, where housing is dirt cheap and jobs almost non-existent.
The numbers tell the story: Of the 32,000 people who call Adelanto home, one out of three are below the poverty line. Per-capita income is just under $12,000 — nearly three times lower than the California average, and about as much as the average person earns in Mexico. There are almost no jobs here, and Starbucks ranks among the city’s top-ten employers.
Nearly two-thirds of the population are Latinos, many of them undocumented. Another one in five are African-American. Then there are the 5 percent of the population that the census bureau classifies as “institutionalized,” which is nothing but a wishy-washy bureaucratic way of saying that 1 out of 20 Adelanto residents is currently rotting in jail — a rate five times higher than the national average. Adelanto does not have its own high school, but dropout rates in the neighboring suburb of Victorville, also hard-hit by the subprime bubble, are among the worst in the state — hovering somewhere around 50%.
If you stand at the city’s welcome sign, you can just make out its three major prison facilities: a giant federal prison complex to the north, a brand-new state prison to the west, and just north of that, California’s largest private immigrant deportation facility. The last was built recently by Geo Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison contractor.
I would spend several weeks talking to the parents of children enrolled in Desert Trails Elementary, meeting with them in local taco joints and strip mall diners and talking about what happened. As I had suspected, their version of events turned out not to match the Disney version in national papers.
The parents told me that a Los Angeles-based group calling itself Parent Revolution organized a local campaign to harass and trick them into signing petitions that they thought were meant for simple school improvements. In fact those petitions turned out to be part of a sophisticated campaign to convert their children’s public school into a privately-run charter — something a majority of parents opposed. At times, locals say, the Parent Revolution volunteers’ tactics were so heavy-handed in gathering signatures that they crossed the line into harassment and intimidation. Many parents were misled about what the petition they signed actually meant. Some told me that the intimidation with some of the undocumented Latino residents included bribery and extortion.
They first noticed something was up in the summer of 2011, when small groups of parents decked out in Parent Revolution T-shirts started appearing around town, going door to door to speak to parents of Desert Trails Elementary kids, spreading the word that they were organizing a "parent union" to try to improve the quality of their children's education.
At that, local parents who’d been involved in school affairs started to grow suspicious. According to several I spoke to, two of the leading members of this new “parent union” had previously served in the school’s Parent Teacher Association, and had resigned amid accusations of improprieties.
Why would they suddenly start a new parent organization? Spite? Revenge? And what exactly was Parent Revolution?
Parents didn’t get much of a chance to ponder these questions. As soon as summer vacation ended, the parent union began to reveal its true function. Adelanto was to become the first victim of a giant corporate push to privatize public schools.
Put simply, a parent trigger law allows a group of parents to hand over their kids’ public schools to private contractors, and then allows these new private contractors to tear up teacher union contracts and fire or hire as they see fit — all while receiving taxpayer money to fund their private-charter school business.
The law works like this: If enough parents sign a trigger petition (representing more than 50% of the number of students in the school), they can fire its principal, lay off unionized teachers or hand it over to a private charter school company.
According to a recent investigation by FryingPanNews, Parent Revolution has received $14.8 million since its founding in 2009. Almost half of that — $6.3 million — came from the Walton Family Foundation, which has long bankrolled the war on unions and public education. The rest of Parent Revolution’s cash came from more liberal sources, including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Broad Foundation, each of which has given about $1.5 million to the group.
As reported in Dissent, these three foundations -- Gates, Walton and Broad -- spend roughly $4 billion a year to hand public K-12 education to the private sector, giving them increasing leverage over a sector that's worth $500 billion per year.
Parent Revolution is a direct outgrowth of the charter school industry. Ben Austin, the outfit's leader, previously headed a large charter-school firm called Green Dot Schools, whose backers overlap nicely with Parent Revolution's backers -- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Eli Broad, Phillip Anschutz, and others. Austin's replacement at Green Dot Schools is a former partner at Bain, Mitt Romney's old firm.
Parent Revolution's Ben Austin has described the law as "a groundbreaking and historic new policy" that will "transform public education," and has dressed it up in the language of parents' rights. ALEC, which adopted a version of the Parent Empowerment Act as a model for "parent trigger" legislation, described it in similar terms, saying that it "places democratic control into the hands of parents at school level."
And yet, for all this empowerment, parents have never tried to pull the trigger on their own, not without Parent Revolution coming into town and applying pressure, intimidation and bait-and-switch techniques on unsuspecting parents.
In recent years, Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, has turned into the most eloquent and forceful critic of charter schools and voucher programs. She tells me that California's parent trigger law was not designed for the parents' sake. Instead, Ravitch describes it as "a stealth tactic by charter advocates to gain a larger market share by duping parents."
Charter school advocates like Parent Revolution and so-called "school reformers" like Michelle Rhee (recently discredited in a series of test-score cheating scandals and for trying to conceal the wealthy Wall Street funders of her "StudentsFirst" pro-privatization group) front for some of the world's biggest, most powerful corporate figures. Potentates from the extraction industry, Wall Street hedge fund tycoons and others have invested huge sums into privatizing America's public education system. For them, it is a public trough filled with up to $1 trillion just waiting to be converted into private profit, whatever the consequences for children.
Former "Junk Bond King" and convicted felon Michael Milken, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and billionaire venture capitalist John Doerr are just some of the names betting heavily on privatized education. Black Rock, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and just about every other big name in Wall Street and private equity are in on the action, as well.
An investigation by the Huffington Post revealed that Michelle Rhee's secretive, well-funded pro-privatization group StudentsFirst is backed by hedge fund tycoon David Tepper, who pocketed $2.2 billion in 2012 alone. Another backer is billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron trader who reportedly gave Rhee's group "tens of millions" of dollars. Arnold, a self-described "libertarian" who profited heavily from Enron's manipulation of the California energy markets, is funding the drive to slash California teachers' pensions through his front-group, The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.
Just last month, Rhee joined the "Parent Revolution" group for a joint march in support of parent trigger and charter schools in Los Angeles. It's a small world, school privatization, and its inhabitants have very deep pockets.
So these are some of the people behind the parent trigger law, which should indicate what it’s really about. The law will give these corporate interests a new weapon with which to privatize public education and access to a virgin vein of taxpayer dollars. Best of all, the trigger law makes it look as if parents are choosing to privatize public education out of their own free will. They were given a choice, and they put their trust in the private sector.
California is just the beginning. In the past few years, parent trigger laws have popped in seven states so far, and another dozen others are currently deliberating similar legislation.
But this kind of reform did not come easy. The parent trigger law was conceived as a con, but that didn’t mean that parents would fall for it automatically. That’s what Parent Revolution learned when it used the trigger law for the first time shortly after it passed in 2010.
Parent Revolution first tried using the law to take over a school in Compton in 2010, organizing a small clique of local Compton parents and waging a blitz fake-grassroots campaign to dupe parents into pulling the trigger on their kids’ school. But the campaign crashed and burned after parents and teachers pushed back hard. Compton parents accused Parent Revolution organizers of deception and harassment, and many of those who signed the petition eventually rescinded their signatures. “They told me the petition was to beautify the school," one parent told the Los Angeles Times. “They are misinforming the parents, so I revoked my signature."
To fight back, Parent Revolution called in a favor from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Chicano community organizer turned charter school advocate. Villaraigosa, who has stacked the LA County Board of Education with former employees of the Eli Broad empire, counter-accused Compton parents of harassment, and equated them with union-busters:
“It's particularly alarming to see these parents resort to the kind of intimidation, the kind of smear campaigning, the kind of rumor-mongering that is all too reminiscent of the way bad employers try to intimidate working people.”
But it was no use. Even Compton — a city synonymous with gangs, poverty and violence — was neither poor enough, nor isolated enough to take Parent Revolution’s “power empowerment” program without a fight.
An isolated desert suburb about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, home to some of the poorest families in Southern California, would prove to be much more vulnerable to the tactics used by Parent Revolution.
So they went to Adelanto. By enlisting local parents to canvass the neighborhood speaking out against the teacher’s union, Parent Revolution had already laid the groundwork. The “parent union” was a classic PR strategy, designed to create a rift between parents and the local teachers’ union. Parent Revolution’s aims were initially vague, except on one issue, which was demonizing the teachers union. Parent Revolution volunteers all told the same story: The school’s problems were the fault of bad, self-interested teachers, who cared more about their own pay benefits and job security than about educating the children. As the group's website explained, "Our schools are failing our children because they are not designed to succeed. They have been designed to serve adults, not children."
In September 2011, the local “parent union” was joined by the big guns: a troop of trained, experienced organizers sent in from Parent Revolution’s main office in Los Angeles.
Parent Revolution's "lead organizer," a former Green Beret by the name of Alfonso Flores, headed the campaign. Flores is not just any old organizer. He has worked as a public school teacher, run a Los Angeles charter school called Global Education Academy and is considered an expert in the field of applying free-market solutions to public education. In 2008, Flores led a panel at a seminar hosted by the Pacific Research Institute, a GOP think-tank linked to ALEC and the Cato Institute, and backed by major oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical and health insurance firms. (Pacific Research Institute flaks served on President George W. Bush’s environmental advisory panel in 2001.) The same year that it hired Flores to offer advice on how charter-school administrators could improve student behavior, Pacific Research Institute was lobbying hard against the healthcare reform and a government-run medical system, saying that it would inevitably result in Soviet-style shortages and the rationing of medical care.
Alfonso Flores set up a command bunker in a rented home just a block away from the school, on Delicious Street. Parent Revolution advisors and organizers sent in from LA continuously came to the house to hold strategy sessions, instruct trigger parents on everything from collecting signatures to handling the media. They used it as a forward operating base to launch tactical operations into the community. Hanging in the living room and overlooking all this activity was a black-and-white poster depicting Parent Revolution’s mission and raison d'etre. The top part of the poster showed a big black fish eating a group of disorganized little fish. This was the “system” eating the “parents.” Below it was another big black fish, but this time it was being chased by an even bigger fish made of organized smaller fish. This was the local “parent union” eating “Desert Trails Elementary School.”
Devouring a public school—nothing better describes what Parent Revolution was doing in Adelanto. Over the next three months, packs of trigger activists and organizers would spill out of the house and swarm the neighborhood, aggressively pushing parents to sign some sort of petition that they barely bothered to explain.
First, they started with the school. Parent Revolution’s lead organizer Alfonso Flores led the pack.
One mother described the group’s aggressive petition drive in a signed statement filed with the Adelanto School District. I was able to obtain this statement from anti-trigger parents:
“The man came to my car over several days and constantly begged me to sign the petition when I asked to get it & turn it in later he stated that he couldn’t do that so after several minutes of harassment I gave in and signed the petition unaware of the consequences. He was very pushy & persistent. I wish I that I wan’t intimated [sic] by him & that I didn’t sign the petition.”
It got so bad that parents had to ask the school to deploy more security to protect them from Parent Revolution’s pushy canvassers.
“They were there every day, every morning and every afternoon,” says Maggie Flamenco, a mother of two special-needs children enrolled in Desert Trails, and a member of the Adelanto’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee. We met at a Denny’s just around the corner from Desert Trails Elementary. The way Flamenco describes it, the trigger campaign was much more like a low-intensity war designed to break the parents’ will using intimidation, harassment and deception, than anything like the “empowerment” that the Parent Trigger advocates claimed it was.
She described to me how Parent Revolution volunteers would block cars with their bodies to get the parent driver to sign their parent –trigger petition; how they’d knock on windows, hound and follow parents when they dropped their kids off and when they picked them up after school. They were so persistent about it that it got to the point where parents like Maggie dreaded going to collect their own children.
Maggie told me she had to file a police report against a Parent Revolution activist because the man kept harassing her every time she came to pick up and drop off her kids at school. “Because I was one of the parents who did not want to sign... he blocked the car with his body and prevented me from leaving, writing my writing my plates down, taking pictures of my plates, taking pictures of the kids...it was just harassment."
The harassment worked. Maggie didn’t sign the petition, but she did withdraw her kids from the school because of the stress and fear they were suffering from the repeated harassment.
"Their anxiety was high. Their teachers and aids were saying, 'The school is gonna be done.' They were scared," she explained. “The doctor put them on a home hospital due to their anxiety. All this stuff with their school they were just freaking out that it was going to get taken over, that they are not going to have their aides, their teachers anymore. They are autistic so they don't understand anything. They told me the other day, ‘I hope they don’t close the school when we’re in there.’”
This was clearly no longer a grassroots campaign run by local parents, nor was its mission to empower the community. Its primary goal now was to force as many parents as possible to sign "parent trigger" petitions.
Parent Revolution operatives followed people into local businesses, harassed them with constant phone calls and staked out people's homes. One father got a panicked call from his child, who was scared because a man was lurking outside their home for a long time. Panicking, the dad rushed home, only to find a Parent Revolution organizer camped outside waiting for a signature.
Some Desert Trails parents noticed that Parent Revolution organizers had somehow obtained contact information that was not publicly listed, including cell phone numbers and addresses, and worried that the group had somehow illegally accessed their children’s confidential school records.
One mother outlined her suspicions in a signed statement later filed with the Adelanto School District:
“I received a call on my cell phone, and the parents came to my house twice. My cellphone is not public record and when I questioned the gentleman on the phone how he received my cell # the call disconnected. I then called back and did not receive and [sic] answer. I am also wondering how they knew my address. I feel there has been a breech in confidentiality of my 2 childrens [sic] record at the school … I am now afraid they have my childrens [sic] Social Security numbers.”
Parent Revolution used every debt-collector trick in the book, purposefully making life so miserable for parents that they would agree to sign just to get the canvassers off their backs. “Most of the reason the parents signed was because they were tired of not answering their door, of hiding from them,” said Maggie Flamenco.
Lori Yuan, a mother of two kids Desert Trails and a member of Adelanto’s planning commission, who would later lead the parent effort to resist Parent Revolution, agreed: “Most folks were duped and had no idea the consequences of this petition succeeding.”
Statements filed by parents with Adelanto’s school district all say pretty much the same thing: “We were duped and pushed.” Here are just a few examples:
“I was misled and told that we weren’t going to fight to be a charter school. They kept coming to my home and insisted I sign. I am upset thats not what I wanted for my students.”
“The petitioner kept coming to my doorstep, for many days, my wife told me not to sign it but I did because I felt harassed, and I wanted them to leave me alone. I don’t blame them I blame myself but I don’t agree with the petition now that I understand it.”
Just a few months before Parent Revolution showed up in town, there had been a huge scandal involving the Adelanto Charter Academy, a new publicly-funded charter school that embraced “conservative and Christian values” run by a couple of businessmen with deep connections to San Bernardino County’s GOP political machine. At the time, it was Adelanto’s only charter school. District officials started to notice something was up when they discovered administrators didn’t bother with even the most basic bookkeeping, and a deeper audit revealed that the school failed to meet basic education requirements, served tainted food and functioned as little more than a shell company that diverted public education funds into private bank accounts and political campaigns.
On top of all that, it turned out that the charter school was set up with the help of San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who crashed and burned in that special way only evangelical closet-cases manage to pull off: he was arrested for possession of meth while under investigation for a long list of corrupt dealings and kickbacks. Right before the Adelanto Charter School scandal broke, Postmus pleaded guilty to fourteen felonies, including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and the misappropriation of public funds.
It was big, ugly mess, and it did not make charter schools look very good. So Parent Revolution canvassers did what any honest community organizer would do: they pretended that their petition had nothing to do with charter schools.
"When Parent Revolution came to my door, they explained they wanted to make the school better, get water fountains, the playground set and making sound like they were gonna do a makeover, instead of a takeover,” said Eleanor Medina, who moved to Adelanto 10 years ago from Buena Park in small city in Orange County to retire, and has been helping raise her grandchildren. “They also said that everyone was going to get a computer.”
Other parents report they were told pretty much the same thing: Parent Revolution promised that they were not trying to convert Desert Trails into a charter school, and reassured parents current teachers would not be fired. Organizers also made the dubious claim that if the petition went through, each child was going to receive a laptop to own.
For parents who insisted on giving the petition a closer read, Parent Revolution used a crude bait-and-switch technique: canvassers asked the parents to sign two completely separate petitions, and invoked two different clauses of the parent trigger law. The first petition sought only to introduce reforms and give parents greater power over administering the school. The second petition invoked the full privatization package: firing all the teachers and handing the school over to a private charter- school company (the specific company would be chosen at a later time).
Two petitions? Well, Parent Revolution’s reps explained that the second petition would never be used officially, but only employed as a negotiating tool — a prop that could be used to threaten the school district if it attempted to stall implementing the demands of its first petition.
Chrissy Alvarado, a mother of two students at Desert Trails, says she always thought the two petitions were just a ruse, a way to sow confusion. “They never explained themselves enough for us to understand anything,” she said. “In reality, it was all about the charter.”
She was right.
In early January, Parent Revolution activists announced that they had collected signatures representing 70 percent of the students, and proceeded to submit the petition calling for full charter conversion.
The news outraged Desert Trails parents, but it finally spurred them into action, and the small group emerged to try and stop the petition.
Eleanor Medina couldn’t believe they had the gall to dupe parents like that: "You're talking about my kids' education. They need to go to college. Pretty soon they're gonna need to go to college just to get a Jack in the Box job."
“We didn't know what we could do, because no one had done this before,” Lori explained as she met me for coffee, before heading to an Adelanto planning commission meeting. “We were in overdrive, 24 hours a day, doing nothing but research, pounding the pavement, driving around, having meetings, going crazy. Literally nothing else in life existed how do we beat this, what do we do.”
Very quickly it became apparent a whole lot of parents had been duped, and would happily rescind their signatures if they got a chance.
“We called hundreds of lawyers, but no one would help us. They didn’t even refer us to the right lawyer who could help us,” Lori explained, shaking her head. “Meanwhile, Parent Revolution had a slick legal team working for them pro bono.”
Anti-trigger parents were grasping at straws, and felt totally alone. Local teachers couldn’t help them; they were afraid to even talk. The union told them to stay quiet because it was afraid of legal action from Parent Revolution. Anti-trigger parents say that, in the end, the only real help came from California’s teachers union, but even that was mostly restricted to legal advice on how to properly collect statements from parents so that Parent Revolution would not be able to challenge them in court.
“We got no real help from anyone,” said Lori. And that included the press, which tended to smear anti-trigger parents as union stooges and thugs out to intimidate low-income minorities into submission. LA Weekly ran a series of particularly nasty articles, specifically attacking Lori for doing the bidding of corrupt teachers who care more about “cushy union contracts” than their students’ education. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial features editor (and son of raging neocon Douglas Feith) David Feith published a string of pieces attacking the efforts of anti-trigger parents to push back against Parent Revolution’s astroturf campaign. Feith smeared their genuine grassroots organizing as a “systematic and legally questionable pressure campaign waged against parents” on behalf of the “hostile unions” and the “education establishment.”
Lori started to feel surrounded by intrigue. She says, “I would do these interviews with these people and reporters and journalists and bloggers. Anyone that would call I would talk to because I need to get this information out because people need to know this. And then I'd get the article and I'd be like this has nothing to fucking do with what I said. I got to the point when I started thinking, do they — and by they, I mean Parent Revolution — do they own everything? Do they own the fucking editors, do they own the newspapers?"
Lori’s paranoia-sense was not that far off the mark.
Parent Revolution might not own the press, but the people and companies who fund groups like Parent Revolution and stand to profit from school privatization, well . . . they quite literally do own the press. Sometimes they are the press.
Among the major investors in privatizing education is Rupert Murdoch.
It was Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox that put out “Won’t Back Down,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s parent trigger film bankrolled by Phillip Anschutz, the right-wing oil billionaire who funds everything from anti-gay ballot initiatives and Christian Identity, to teaching creationism in schools. Anschutz is also a major backer of ALEC, the right-wing lobby group that pushed through the “Stand Your Ground” vigilante laws that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s murder. ALEC is also spearheading parent-trigger laws in states across the country.
Murdoch recently announced his plans for aggressive expansion into the private primary education sector, saying, "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”
Murdoch’s News Corp media empire is vast. The Washington Post Company — which owns The Washington Post, Slate.com, Foreign Policy magazine, among other news media holdings — relies heavily on its for-profit education subsidiary, Kaplan Inc, which generated 62% of the company’s revenue in 2012. Then there’s The Financial Times and The Economist, both of which are owned by Pearson, a multinational mega-media company that’s also heavily involved in private education.
Incidentally, all three companies have been members of ALEC’s pro-charter Education Task Force, which has been at the forefront of the effort to enact legislation to privatize public education in states all across America.
But for Adelanto residents, the centralization and corruption of news media was a bigger issue. The main concern for Lori and other anti-trigger parents was to collect as many rescissions as possible.
As they made their rounds, they found that the vast majority of parents they spoke to had had no idea that the petition would convert the school to a charter. The magnitude of Parent Revolution’s deception came as a shock. “In our canvassing to gain rescissions, there were maybe three people or households that I can recall that actually said, ‘Yep, we know exactly what this petition will do, we want the teachers fired’,” explained Lori.
Over the course of two months, anti-trigger parents managed to collect somewhere around 116 rescission statements.
As the group collected rescissions, talked to parents and educated as many as possible about what Parent Revolution’s intended to do with Desert Trails, tension in the community continued to mount. There was real anger and bitterness. Friends and neighbors suddenly became mortal enemies, and even kids started getting drawn into the conflict.
Desert Trails’ principal David Mobley told the Los Angeles Times that kids whose parents were on opposite sides of the trigger issue had started fighting at school. "It's sad because these kids used to be really good friends. Now these kids have become pawns in a political mess, and it just breaks my heart,” Mobley said.
Chrissy Alvarez’s best friend -- I’ll call her Mary (not her real name) -- was one of the leading members of the trigger group. Chrissy explained that their friendship turned into hostile after she realized that Mary had been an accomplice to Parent Revolution’s swindle and knowingly helped sell out her community — something Chrissy could not forgive.
Why would Mary do the bidding of a corporate front group, pouring her energy and time into privatizing her kid’s school?
Turns out that Mary, who had a second-grade daughter in Desert Trails, had good reason to join the campaign. Chrissy says she had serious problems with her immigration status and was facing deportation. Parent Revolution promised to make those problems disappear. It was an offer than must have been hard to resist: help a group pull off its trigger campaign or face deportation and the possibility that she’d never see your family again.
"No shit?!" I blurted out. We were sitting in a taco shop in a strip mall on the edge of town with a couple of other parents. We were in a family setting, and there were kids around. But I couldn’t restrain the profanity. I was too shocked. I just couldn’t believe it.
“Yes! She told me! She was my best friend,” Chrissy explained. "We were still best friends until the time she submitted the petition. And I told her to her face: 'You guys have been bs'ing. These were bought with citizenship.' She had already signed two documents that she was supposed to leave the country years ago. She was in a heap of trouble. She had gone to a lawyer, who told her that there was no way around this other than you going back to Mexico.”
I recognized the woman’s name. She had been interviewed by cable news networks, and appeared in dozens of news stories talking about parent empowerment and the need for parents to take an active role in their children’s education. She even squirted a couple of tears for reporters once.
Dangling citizenship in front of a desperate mother facing deportation—this is what parent empowerment looks like to the billionaires trying to privatize public education. And it appears she was not the only one...
Multiple sources told me that Parent Revolution had propositioned other undocumented Latino immigrants, promising to help resolve their immigration status in return for their support of the parent trigger petition. Help with immigration in exchange for a single signature? It’s an offer that many families must have found difficult to turn down.
I made multiple to attempts to verify these allegations. But no one would talk or even communicate with me — on or off the record. Through a third-party, I was told that they feared retribution from Parent Revolution and did not want to put their families in danger. “One, they are tired. Two, they are scared. Three, they are thinking: ‘What’s the point? The school is already gone’,” explained a parent who had tried to arrange a meeting.
They were scared. And who could blame them?
As undocumented immigrants, they had nothing to gain by talking to me. On the contrary, they had everything to lose. The sprawling private deportation facility located just a few miles north of the school, dedicated to corralling and booting out people just like them, served as a constant reminder of just how much they had to lose, and how easily deportation could happen to them. A speeding ticket is enough to initiate deportation these days, and it doesn’t matter if they have children or family: recent stats show that a quarter of people deported are parents with children who are U.S. citizens.
I could appreciate this kind of fear. My family fled the Soviet Union in 1989, and we spent seven nerve-racking months living in European refugee camps. We had no money, no citizenship and no idea about the future. I was just a kid, but I was deeply affected by the fear, anxiety and insecurity that dominated our lives. We certainly didn’t think we had any rights, or that we were entitled to anything. The most important thing was to keep your head down and not rock the boat.
No wonder Parent Revolution chose Adelanto. Out here it could act with near-impunity.
Even so, there was some pushback. Even the poor don’t like being ripped off.
Armed with the stack of rescissions collected by Lori and Chrissy, Adelanto’s school board invalidated 100 of the 466 original petition signatures submitted by trigger activists, bringing the number below the simple majority required by law. And so on March 2012, Adelanto’s school board unanimously voted to reject Parent Revolution’s petition on grounds it had failed to meet minimum signature requirements.
But it was a short-lived victory.
Parent Revolution lawyered up, and after a year of court battles, forced the Adelanto’s school district to accept the trigger petition. In the summer of 2012, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the school district had no right to reject the petition because California's parent trigger law did not give it authority to rescind signatures. It was a bizarre decision, and didn’t seem to accord with the spirit and letter of California’s Parent Empowerment Law.
But was it valid?
That’s not clear. Adelanto’s cash-strapped school district didn’t appeal the decision. It simply didn’t have the resources to continue a lengthy court fight. Not that it would have continued to fight for very long, even if tired. Shortly after the decision, two parents who had been involved in Parent Revolution won spots on Adelanto’s school board, finally and totally tipping the board’s ideological balance in favor of charter school.
"I thought the ruling was crazy,” said Diane Ravitch. “If anything, it seems totally not to have empowered the parents, but to say: you mistakenly signed a petition and you can't take your name off. That's not parent empowerment, that's parent deception.”
“It’s basically the taking of public property,” said Ravitch, unable to hide her annoyance with the claims made by trigger advocates. “In the nature of public education, people come and go. In the course of a few years, there is a lot of turnover in terms of who the parents are in a school. But they don’t own the school. The public owns the school. So you’re taking a public facility that was paid for by tax dollars and saying that they people who are using it right now this year have the right to turn it over a private operator.”
Imagine if we did the same thing with other public services like buses or libraries... "Take a vote of everyone who happens to be in a public library at any given moment and say we want to hand it over to the Library Corporation of America to run for a profit.”
But the reality was even worse than that.
On October 18, Desert Trails parents met in a park adjacent to the school to vote and pick the specific charter company that would take control of the school. California’s Parent Empowerment Act allows only the parents who signed a trigger petition to cast a ballot in this vote, which meant that hundreds of parents should have shown up to make the decision, and to exercise their newfound empowerment. But in the end, only 53 ballots were cast — with 50 of them voting to give the contract to LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, a small charter operator that runs one other school in a nearby town.
A decision made by 53 people in a town of 32,000? That’s less than 0.2% of the population. Parent empowerment indeed.
As this article goes to press, LaVerne Academy has posted a job ad looking to hire teachers for the newly rebranded Desert Trails Preparatory Academy. According to the ad, job seekers only need a substitute teachers permit to apply. Apparently that’s all that’s required to help improve education at a chronically struggling school.