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Obstructing the 'parent trigger'

The courts should ensure that the Adelanto Elementary School District lives up to its obligations.

September 10, 2012

As parents attempted to wrest control of Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto under California's "parent trigger" law, school board officials repeatedly said they weren't trying to put up obstacles -- they were simply trying to follow the law to the letter. But the most recent actions of the Adelanto Elementary School District show that following the law is a very low priority indeed.

Under the trigger law, parents can force one of several changes in their low-performing schools if half or more of them sign a petition. But over the last eight months, the Adelanto district has delayed the process at every possible turn and even insisted that organizers of the petition drive find new parents to make up for those who had subsequently withdrawn their signatures. Finally, over the summer, the district was ordered by a judge to just say yes. The court ruled that the district could not discount the signatures of parents even if they later changed their minds. That makes sense. A signature on a parent trigger petition is tantamount to a vote. We don't allow voters to redo their ballots once they leave the polling station.

The school board was given 30 days to do the right thing. It waited until mid-August, almost the last possible moment -- and then had the chutzpah to say there wasn't enough time left to start up a charter school by the beginning of the academic year. It decided instead to retain control over the school and implement its own reforms.

Of course, after eight months of stalling and setting ever-higher bars for the parents, it was certainly too late to establish a new school. That would be true even if the board had made its decision a month earlier. The parents have not yet chosen an organization to operate the school, much less hired new faculty. (Though some current teachers might have been welcomed at a new charter school, one of the chief parental complaints about Desert Trails, which enrolls many impoverished Latino students, is that the district dumped problem teachers there when other schools wouldn't tolerate them.)

But the board's refusal to green-light plans for a charter school to open in fall 2013, while it runs Desert Trails this academic year, is inexcusable. The board flouted the obvious spirit (and possibly the letter) of the law. One board member acknowledged that possibility by bringing handcuffs to the meeting and saying he was ready to be taken away -- which is OK with us, if it comes to that.

The strange thing is that the board might have won parents over to its side if it had made its reform proposals earlier and worked with parents instead of behind their backs. Initially, the parents didn't even want a charter school; they simply wanted the district to address their concerns and meet certain demands. Many of the reforms now being proposed sound good, including a new curriculum, an extended school day and a request that teachers either sign on to the reform program or be assigned to another school.

Even at its most recent meeting, the board might have healed some breaches with parents had it approved the charter for 2013 but at the same time voiced hope that it would do such a good job of transforming the school that in a few months parents would prefer to stay with the district.

We have a number of concerns about the trigger law. One is that the petition process is too secretive and offers too little opportunity for an airing of the pros and cons that parents should consider before signing. That was especially true in the Desert Trails case, in which two petitions were circulated, the goals of the petitions were unclear and even contradictory, and a number of parents ended up feeling confused and angry. But none of this absolves the school district of its legal obligations.

The parents and the school district are scheduled to be back in court on Sept. 20, and we hope the judge takes whatever measures are necessary to make the board live up to its obligations. In the meantime, supporters of the parent trigger can celebrate this much: Even in a recalcitrant school district, parents who join together and demand improvements can indeed force change. But they are entitled to the full reform -- a charter school -- that they petitioned for and that the court ordered.

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