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Journalist Yasha Levine wrote the single most comprehensive article about the “so-called” Parent Trigger and the takeover of the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California.
Levine went to Adelanto to interview parents and teachers. He immersed himself in the issue.
The article is timely because a few days ago, the Adelanto school board refused to renew the charter for Desert Trails charter schools. Read Levine’s article for context.
It starts like this:
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?