By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - Desert Trails Elementary School in the impoverished town of Adelanto, California, has been failing local kids for years. More than half the students can't pass state math or reading tests.
On Tuesday, the school board will discuss a radical fix: a parent takeover of the school.
For the moms and dads, it's a local, and 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 6th grades or roughly aged 5-12, could be the first school in the country 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 company. Several other states 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.
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.
An equally determined group of parents, supported by both state and local teachers unions, aims to stop them. They say Desert Trails can be improved without being destroyed.
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.
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 an existential 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.
One chain of charter schools heavily backed by foundation money, for instance, is Green Dot -- whose founder also launched the group Parent Revolution. Many of the 14 Green Dot charter schools in California have shown impressive academic progress, but all still fall below the state median on standardized test scores. Half rank lower -- many far lower -- than Desert Trails.
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.
A 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 Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, along with parents and lobbyists representing charter schools to promote the law.
They also worked with an aggressive new ally, StudentsFirst. Founded last year by Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, the political advocacy group boasts 1.2 million members -- including Florida moms who flooded legislators with emails and rallied at the capitol. In other states, Rhee has run TV ads to push her agenda, which includes eliminating teacher tenure and supporting parent trigger.
Rhee says she is well on her way to raising $1 billion, though she will not discuss her funding sources.
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 has no ties to the unions but shares their distrust of charter schools. Solnet spent a day in Tallahassee, knocking 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.
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.
BATTLE OVER PETITIONS
"We feel like we haven't been heard," said Doreen Diaz, a mother of two. "Unless we stand up and fight for our children's education, no one else will."
State law lets parents take over if they gather signatures from parents representing at least half the students at the school. Diaz and the trigger team did so.
But their opponents, backed by the teachers union, promptly challenged dozens of signatures as invalid. Some angry parents said they didn't want Desert Trails to become a charter. Others complained the trigger team had little to offer beyond vague promises that new management would make the school better.
"Where are their lesson plans?" asked Kimberly Smith, a former teacher at Desert Trails who now sends her two children there. "What is the curriculum?... How is it better?"
The school board has not yet ruled on whether the trigger petitions are valid. While the board will take public comment Tuesday, negotiations are continuing and no vote has yet been set on certifying the petitions.
Meanwhile, the daily routine continues at Desert Trails. Fifth graders are memorizing multiplication tables. Sixth graders are diving into "The Phantom Tollbooth." There are reading logs to complete and spelling lists to memorize.
Chrissy Alvarado, a mother of two students at Desert Trails, says she worries the bitter fight will be distracting. "That's what concerns me," she said -- "that our little school got brought into politics."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver. Additional reporting by Troy Anderson in Adelanto, Calif. and Michael Peltier in Tallahassee. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Cynthia Osterman)