‘Parent trigger’ campaigns can continue despite lack of new test scores

July 27, 2015

Gloria Romero, a former state senator, meets with parents from Palm Lane Elementary School in Anaheim to discuss a "parent trigger" campaign in 2014.

While California’s testing and accountability system is in flux, parents are allowed to attempt to force major changes at schools considered failing based on tests that are at least two years old and that measure material that’s no longer being taught.

A judge’s ruling earlier this month in an Anaheim case indicated that parent groups can continue with so-called “parent trigger” campaigns to transform schools that are low-performing, even though recent test scores are unavailable.

“The crux of this ruling is quite empowering for every parent in California,” said Ben Austin, the former executive director of Parent Revolution, who is now with the nonprofit Students Matter.

Under the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, also known as the “parent trigger law,” parents can prompt changes at their schools, including replacing principals or turning schools into charters, if the schools fail to meet test-score goals. But California is in the middle of moving to a new testing system and produced its last standardized scores in 2013.

In Anaheim, Palm Lane Elementary School, which sits about a mile and a half from Disneyland, is proceeding with plans to convert into a charter in 2016, said Gloria Romero, the former state senator who co-authored the law and who now runs the California Center for Parent Empowerment. She helped lead the Anaheim parents. Parents complained about the removal of a principal, who they claimed was improving the school, and school administrators’ failure to address their education concerns.

Anaheim City School District officials argued in the Orange County Superior Court case that parents were ineligible to use the “parent trigger law” because no test scores were available from 2014 – the year when parents started collecting signatures for the transformation of Palm Lane Elementary School. Both sides filed legal complaints in April.

Judge Andrew Banks sided with the parents because the California Department of Education had frozen test scores, called adequate yearly progress, or AYP, so that 2013 results could count for 2014.

“The evidence clearly establishes that Palm Lane failed to make adequate yearly progress,” Banks wrote in the July 16 ruling, clarifying that the 2013 scores count.

Superintendent Linda Wagner said the district filed the suit to clarify the law because of the lack of recent test scores. She said the law creates “ambiguities” for school boards that need legislative attention.

“We hope that the courts and the Legislature will provide the much-needed clarification and guidance to school districts throughout California on these challenging issues,” Wagner said in a statement the day after the ruling.

The district board is appealing the ruling – a decision backed by the California Teachers Association, a longtime opponent of the “parent trigger law.” Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the teachers union with 325,000 members, said the law is disruptive, divisive and does not guarantee better learning.

“We also agree with the school district that it makes no sense to allow outdated student testing data to be used to disrupt the future of a school, as was done with Palm Lane,” said Myslinski in an email.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, who co-authored the law, said he is asking what can be done to keep the “parent trigger” option viable to parents while the state sorts out the future of the testing and accountability system.

“We need to keep the tool available. That’s the question – how do you go about doing it,” Huff said.

Under the act, parents can initiate petitions to transform schools mostly under two main conditions:

If the school meets the criteria, parents must collect signatures from at least half of the parents and guardians to prompt a change.

Through 2013, the yearly progress and API scores were based on the California Standards Tests, which measured how well students were learning under the previous standards.

The following year, the state switched to the Smarter Balanced Assessments, which are based on the new Common Core standards. In 2014, the state gave a field test of Smarter Balanced Assessments. The first full run of the new assessments occurred in the spring and the results have yet to be released.

During this transition, the state has suspended the API for at least a year while officials attempt to come up with a new measurement. Also, under a federal waiver, the state is leaving test scores out of the AYP calculation for now.

Jenny Singh, education research and evaluation administrator for the California Department of Education, said parents can continue to use the API based on 2013 results or a three-year average of the previous API scores for “parent trigger” purposes.

Also, this year’s AYP will be based on criteria other than test scores: participation rates for all schools, graduation rates for high schools and attendance for elementary and middle schools, Singh said. The State Board of Education is expected to set the goals for graduation and attendance in September.

Any changes to the law would have to be made by the state Legislature, Singh said.

“Just because there’s suspension of testing, it doesn’t mean everything gets thrown out,” Romero said.

Huff said he believes the state should have kept the API in the meantime. For now, however, state education officials are expected next year to come up with a new system that will incorporate multiple measures, not just test scores, for all accountability purposes. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson last week announced the formation of a task force to come up with a recommendation.

But advocates said parents shouldn’t have to wait, just because the state has yet to come up with a new system.

“What’s very clear is that … the burden falls on the state, not on the parents,” said Gabe Rose, chief strategy officer for Parent Revolution, which leads “parent trigger” campaigns.

Even before the Anaheim case, advocates encountered resistance from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Officials claimed last year that the district was exempt from the law because it had a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

But the U.S. Department of Education and the state Legislative Counsel have said that the district has to follow state law.

Since 2010, the parent trigger law has been used at 10 schools with different results, Rose said. In five cases, he said parents made changes at the school, such as making it a charter or bringing in new leadership. At two schools, deals were negotiated before petitions were submitted. In three other cases, parents used the threat of circulating petitions as a way to negotiate a deal to improve schools.

The first successful “parent trigger” case was in Adelanto, where parents led the conversion of a school into a charter, Desert Trails Elementary. Parents, who were concerned about low test scores, led a two-year campaign, including legal challenges, to turn the school into a charter in 2013.

Romero said parents should still have the chance to make improvements in their schools while the state and federal governments change their accountability systems.

“It doesn’t invalidate the law. It just means we have to update the law,” she said.


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