Dan Walters: Landmark California school law wins key court ruling

dwalters@sacbee.comOctober 19, 2012 

Gloria Romero grew up in Barstow, the daughter of a railroad worker, and like many of the desert community's young, left for the big city – in her case Los Angeles, where she earned advanced degrees, and became a college professor and later a Democratic state legislator.

By happenstance, however, Romero's most important legislation – empowering parents to take control of failing public schools – is making its first impact in Adelanto, just a few miles from Barstow.

This week, a San Bernardino County judge ordered Adelanto's school board to stop stalling and grant the charter school petition of parents in the Desert Trails Elementary School.

The decision's timing was exquisitely ironic.

It came as a movie inspired by the Adelanto case and another in Compton, "Won't Back Down," was running in theaters – portraying the low-income parents in heroic terms and their foes in the educational establishment, including unions, as villains. And it came during the fiercely fought campaign over Proposition 32, which would curb political fundraising by unions, with Romero as a high-profile advocate.

The Adelanto case, and Romero's role, also underscore one very intriguing political development – a divide between the education establishment, including the powerful California Teachers Association, and some Democratic political figures, such as Romero, who see poor schools as a civil rights issue.

It's evident on a variety of fronts, such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's efforts to acquire more authority over his city's schools, and a similar stance by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who founded his own charter school and whose wife, Michelle Rhee, is a former head of the Washington, D.C., school system and a national figure in school reform.

The divide was very evident in 2010 when Romero carried the "parent trigger" bill, pegging it to President Barack Obama's Race to the Top education grants. Republicans, including then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed the bill and Democrats split.

But its enactment touched off new battles.

Heavy union opposition doomed Romero's 2010 bid to become state schools superintendent and union-backed Tom Torlakson won.

A few months later, Democrat Jerry Brown became governor and appointed new members to the state school board, which was to implement the new law.

Fears arose that the board would adopt a California Teachers Association-backed requirement for teacher approval of any parent- trigger conversion. Compton parents organized a noisy visit to the meeting and the board backed away.

Nevertheless, union-friendly school boards in Compton and Adelanto threw up roadblocks until the judge ordered Adelanto's board to allow the Desert Trails conversion to occur.

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