A Superior Court judge has given the parents in a Mojave Desert town who pulled the state’s second “parent trigger” a milestone victory.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the Adelanto School District trustees illegally rejected the petition submitted by a majority of parents to turn Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school. Malone has given the school board a month to approve the petition, and the parents a green light to immediately begin the charter conversion.

The shakeup at the low-performing school won’t happen until the fall of 2013. And the president of the Adelanto school board, Carlos Mendoza, told the Los Angeles Times that he would recommend that the district appeal the decision.

Doreen Diaz, leader of the Desert Trails Parents Union praises the judge’s ruling approving their parent-trigger petition during a press conference on Monday. Click to enlarge. (photo courtesy of Parent Revolution)

But Malone’s 13-page ruling, made available on Monday, has revived the campaign of the Desert Trails Parents Union to transform their school. And it has come down squarely on the side of parent organizers in interpreting a key provision of regulations, involving signature withdrawals, that the State Board of Education adopted two years ago governing the Parent Trigger law.

The controversial law allows a majority of parents whose children attend one of the lowest-performing schools to sign a petition demanding a transformation of the school. Choosing a charter is one of four options under the law: closing the school, restarting it with a new principal, and having at least 50 percent new teachers are other choices.

Contentions from the start

The Legislature adopted the parent trigger in January 2010 to spice up an ill-fated state Race to the Top application, while limiting the imposition of parent petitions to a maximum of 75 schools. But  there have been only two parent drives in 2½ years, and both have led to acrimonious petition fights, charges and counter-charges of lies and deception, and lawsuits. The first, at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified, ended when a Superior Court judge sided with the district’s rejection of the petition on a technicality. About a third of parents at the school subsequently transferred their children to a new charter school that would have taken over McKinley, had the petition stood.

As at McKinley, the children at hardscrabble Desert Trails were mainly African Americans and Latinos who tested in the bottom 10 percent on state standardized tests; 28 percent of sixth graders tested proficient in reading and 30 percent proficient in math. Parents at both schools were organized by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit supported by the Gates and Broad foundations.

Having learned lessons from the Compton experience, parent organizers at Desert Trails made clear who they were and what they were doing. “Great efforts were made to properly train signature gatherers and to attempt to avoid any accusation of misinformation, intimidation, or harassment,” Malone wrote in his ruling.

Charter petition as leverage

Organizers also chose a tactical approach that opponents eventually seized on. They had parents sign two petitions, one calling for parents to jointly run the school with the district and listing changes they wanted, and a backup petition demanding conversion to a charter school. The latter was to provide leverage in negotiations with the district. “It would be an independent charter school but in practice would be more like a district school, with unionized teachers with the possibility of modifying the contract in small but important ways,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. But after talks fell apart in early 2011, parents submitted the charter petition with 466 signatures, representing 70 percent of parents and guardians with children at Desert Trails.

That’s when things got nasty. Organizers for opponents, allied with teachers and the district, charged the charter petition was a bait-and-switch tactic and started a campaign to get parents to rescind their signatures on the grounds that they were deceived. Parent Revolution, in turn, accused the anti-petitioners of forgery and deception, including flyers claiming that the school would close and all of the teachers would be fired under the charter school option.

“All of the parents knew why we had two petitions,” Rose said. “All were trained. They understood what was going on.”

Between the 97 rescinded signatures and other technical challenges to the petitions, the school board ruled that 218 signatures were invalid, bringing the petitioners to 37 percent of school enrollment, which was below the 50 percent required. The board rejected the petition.

Malone agreed that some of the signatures were not valid, but on the critical issues of recissions, the judge ruled that the school board had exceeded its authority. The parent trigger regulations strictly limited the school district’s role, once the petition was submitted, in verifying the accuracy of signatures. And it directed the district to deal directly with petition leaders, not parents who signed the petition. Anticipating underhanded tactics that both sides might use, the regulations ordered that signature gatherers, the district, and its staff should be neutral, so that parents would be “free from harassment, threats and intimidation related to circulation or signature of a petition or to the discouraging of signing a petition or to the revocation of signatures from the petition.”

The State Board briefly discussed the idea but chose not to include in the regulations a requirement for hearings on a parent trigger petition, so that the facts and promises set forth in a petition and anticipated charges of misrepresentation on both sides could be publicly aired. That dilemma remains unresolved.

Rose said that Desert Trails parents would decide what tack to take next later this week. Malone’s “unambiguous” ruling on recissions, he said, “has massive implications for future parent trigger petitions.”


Filed under: Featured, Parent Activism, Parent Trigger, Reporting & Analysis · Tags: , , , ,

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    But the district isn’t the one carrying out the parent trigger. In the first case, at McKinley Elementary in Compton, district and school administrators were apparently unaware that the stealth signature-gathering was occurring until the petitions were presented.

    The parents at McKinley had nothing to do with organizing the petition drive, which was conceived and carried out by Parent Revolution’s paid staff. (Parent Revolution planned the process before they even chose a school to target.) And many McKinley parents said they had been misinformed that the petition was to beautify the school or to improve parking around the school, it’s pretty plausible that there was no buzz that a parent trigger was going on.

    By the way, John (and Louis), what is EdSource Today’s policy on corrections? The claim in this post that 1/3 of McKinley parents transferred their kids to the new charter conflicts with the Los Angeles Times’ reporting. According to the Times, 1/3 of McKinley parents WHO SIGNED THE PETITION transferred their children, but only 1/5 of McKinley parents. That’s a significant difference. Do you have independent sources that say otherwise? Can you please clarify?

  2. Paula Campbell says:

    One logical solution for districts would be to hold the public hearing and invite all interested parties. It doesn’t need to be required by the state to be a good practice. Districts don’t pay teachers to attend board meetings, but they come because they have a concern or are interested.

  3. el says:

    I think it is unconscionable and ridiculous and frankly appalling that a school board has to hold a public hearing to adopt a textbook but that a takeover of a school by a private entity can be done without a public hearing, without an election, without an expiration date, and without any public input, discussion, or choice as to which private entity gets the charter.

    Make it an election instead with public hearings and with actual local members of the public selecting the proposed operator and I’m fine with it.

  4. John Fensterwald says:

    el: The creation of a possible state mandate by requiring hearings was one factor, however short-sighted. Another was adding hearings may have requiring amending the parent-trigger law. The Board wanted to create regulations without the existing law, which was understandable given the divisiveness of the issue.

  5. CarolineSF says:

    @el, in the first parent trigger, at McKinley Elementary in Compton, the petition drive organized and carried out by Parent Revolution was described as “stealth.” A pro-parent trigger advocacy journalist, Patrick Range McDonald of the alternative (libertarian) Los Angeles Weekly, was “embedded” with the petition drive and strategy sessions, and made that secrecy clear in his reporting.

    Since Parent Revolution created the parent trigger — state Sen. Gloria Romero sponsored the actual law, the Parent Empowerment Act* — it seems likely that the omission of mandatory public hearings was strategic rather than based on cost. After all, legal expenses around the two attempted parent triggers have cost school districts untold amounts. Clearly that wasn’t a big concern.

    Despite the powerful and influential forces arrayed in favor of Parent Revolution in that case (the mainstream press as well as the hotheaded L.A. Weekly), that secrecy eventually backfired. But it seems clear, based on the covert nature of the first parent trigger drive, that the omission of public meetings was to avoid a full and open public discussion of the pros and cons.

    One possibility, too, goes back to my point that charter operators don’t like to take over existing troubled schools. A full and open public discussion is likely to begin with and inflame hostility between pro and con parents, let alone teachers. A school that’s not just low-performing but also ripped apart by controversy is likely to be even less attractive to a potential takeover operator.

    You’re right; it does seem likely that some of the students whose parents signed the petitions have aged out (students without younger sibs in the school), and more will have by fall 2013, when whatever happens is supposedly slated to happen. In fairness, the petitions should have to be circulated again. On the other hand, that’s a problem with the entire concept. Today’s parents may want the charter, but would the future families at the school have wanted it that way if they’d been able to make the choice? That’s one of the problems with calling for handing public property over to a private operator. And I don’t see why no one calls for this with police departments, transit lines and other public agencies. I can see the passengers on the Muni bus petitioning to kick the driver off and take over driving the bus themselves.

    *Romero recently wrote a commentary claiming it’s racist and sexist to observe that Parent Revolution created the law and she just sponsored it. I’ll leave that alone.

  6. el says:

    I understand that the reason the law doesn’t have mandatory public hearings is because they were concerned about it being an unfunded mandate – meaning that the state would eventually be legally obligated to cough up a thousand dollars or so to pay staff to attend the meetings.

    Talk about penny wise and pound foolish. Even a school board election costs more than a basic public meeting.

  7. el says:

    Do the parents who signed this petition even still have kids going to this school, or have some of them aged out by now?

  8. Paula Campbell says:

    It seems that the parent trigger law has given parents a choice between their district and Parent Revolution. I agree with the guest editorial in the San Jose Mercury News that noted that deeper, more meaningful and informed parent participation in schools and districts will lead to more parent driven reform in low performing schools. And I just can’t understand why the state board did not require public hearings so everyone in the community can be informed about the choices available.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    By the way it’s incorrect that 1/3 of the parents at McKinley Elementary transferred their children to the charter, and that needs to be corrected. According to the Los Angeles Times, 1/3 of the parents who signed the McKinley parent trigger petition transferred their children to the charter, but only 1/5 of the parents at the school.


  10. CarolineSF says:

    The judge’s ruling appears to contradict language in the “Final Statement of Reasons” on the Parent Empowerment Act that states, “Nothing in these regulations precludes a parent/guardian from withdrawing his/her signature from a petition at any time,” according to the Victorville Daily Press, the local daily newspaper.

    The ruling disempowers parents by refusing to allow them to rescind their signatures. In addition, parents on both sides have said they don’t want the school to become a charter, yet Parent Revolution will now be seeking bids from charter operators — further disempowering the parents. Here’s my blog post on Parents Across America giving further information.


    In the big picture, charter operators don’t like to take over existing struggling schools. As the blog post says, it was widely predicted that the parent trigger would lead to a flood of parent-initiated charter takeovers, but obviously that hasn’t happened.