Published Online: August 7, 2012
Published in Print: August 8, 2012, as Ruling Bolsters 'Parent Trigger' Use in Calif.

Ruling Bolster Backers on 'Parent-Trigger' Use

Emboldened by a recent legal victory, a group of parents seeking to use a “parent trigger” law to overhaul a low-performing California elementary school have begun publicly courting outside organizations to help guide them through that complicated process.

If the plans for Desert Trails Elementary School take hold, it would be the first time in the nation’s history that a parent-trigger law has been used successfully to bring about changes to the structure and operations of a school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But while the parents in Adelanto, Calif., say they are moving forward, it remains unclear whether legal obstacles remain. Adelanto’s school board president said that the district is still considering whether to appeal a judge’s ruling, issued last month, which allowed parents to begin the process of converting Desert Trails to a charter school.

Meanwhile, a group representing the parents who led a petition drive to overhaul the school, calling themselves the Desert Trails Parent Union, released an eight-page set of guidelines for organizations seeking to work with them to overhaul the elementary school.

The parents were requesting that potential operators of the school submit “letters of interest,” including descriptions of their plans for the school and for engaging the community, by late last week. Qualified applicants would then have to submit detailed proposals by Sept. 21, which would be evaluated in accordance with the state’s parent-trigger policies. The parents who signed the petition to transform Desert Trails would then vote to choose the operator they want.

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The parents’ group envisions a school serving about 740 students in grades K-6. All students currently enrolled who want to stay at the school will be guaranteed admission, according to the parent group’s guidelines. The goal is to have a restructured school in place by fall of next year.

Complex Debate

To date, much of the debate over parent-trigger laws has focused on their implications for giving parents the power to convert traditional public schools to charters, or replace schools’ staff.

The Desert Trails parents, however, said they would consider proposals not just from nonprofit charter operators, but also from labor organizations, other school districts—and from the 8,000-student Adelanto school system itself.

Teachers’ unions would, on one level, seem unlikely collaborators on any such project. The California Teachers Association fought the Adelanto parent-trigger venture. And the union and a group helping the parents, Parent Revolution, have traded accusations for months that the other side was misleading the public about the petition drive and the school’s future.

In their document inviting operators’ letters of interest, the Desert Trails parents document the school’s academic woes, saying it has been “consistently failing its students for years.” The parents say they envision creating a restructured school that operates with autonomy, but is also held accountable for strong academic performance.

Collaboration Possible?

Doreen Diaz, a parent who helped organize the petition effort, said the parents favored converting the school to a charter. She added that she hoped the district would submit a plan to restructure the school and improve its academic performance. “Let’s work together,” said Ms. Diaz, whose daughter attends the school.

“We’re prepared to handle whatever comes our way,” she said. “This has not been an easy process. ... We want a school that’s going to have a core belief that our children can learn and sets high expectations for our children.”

Seven states, including California, currently have parent-trigger laws, according to the NCSL. Those laws typically allow parents to bring about restructuring of schools through a majority vote of parents. Trigger policies have drawn praise from some quarters for their potential to cut through bureaucratic and political obstacles and bring changes to schools. But they have also been criticized by those who predict they will set in motion poorly conceived plans for school change, written by organizations with little interest or ability to serve schools’ needs.

In California, efforts to use parent-trigger laws to bring changes to struggling schools in the community of Compton, and until recently Adelanto, have been derailed by legal challenges. In other states, the laws are relatively new, meaning that in some cases, low-scoring schools have not been struggling for long-enough periods of time to be subject to the trigger policies.

Legal Boost

The Adelanto effort received a boost last month when San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Steve Malone overruled district leaders who questioned the validity of many of the signatures and argued that parents were given false information about the petition drive. The judge ordered the Adelanto school board and district to “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals.”

Carlos Mendoza, the school board’s president, said he supported appealing the judge’s ruling but he was not certain if the full board would favor taking that step. He said the school board would consider cooperating with the parents to make any structural changes to the school mentioned in the parents’ petition—as long as the parents did not go beyond the parameters of that plan.

“It’s limited to the petition,” he said in an interview. “We’re not willing to be part of some political experiment about how far you can stretch the parent-trigger law.”

Vol. 31, Issue 37, Page 25

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