Judge: Parents can’t rescind “parent trigger” signatures

By Caroline Grannan

Parents Across America founding member, San Francisco

Updated July 24

The parent trigger, an idea presented by the voices of corporate education “reform” as parent empowerment, won a round in court this week. Ironically, the court came down firmly in favor of disempowering parents, as the parent trigger’s sponsors had requested.

The ruling by a California Superior Court judge decreed that parents who have signed a parent trigger petition do not have the right to change their minds and may not rescind their signatures. The ruling cast the future of the targeted school, Desert Trails in Adelanto, in Southern California’s high desert, into confusion. Charter operators will now be invited to bid for the school, even though Desert Trails parents on both sides of the controversy say they don’t want the school to become a charter — disempowering them even further.

California’s so-called parent trigger law, called the Parent Empowerment Act, was presented as allowing parents to take over low-performing schools and force them to undergo one of three supposed transformation models or else shut down, if a majority of parents at the school sign a petition. One option is turning the school over to a private charter operator. The law was created by the Los Angeles organization Parent Revolution, which was founded by charter-school entrepreneur Steve Barr and funded by many of the wealthy backers of currently vogueish education reforms.  The widespread assumption was that the law would mean many charter takeovers of struggling schools. Several other states have adopted or are debating similar laws.

But since the California law passed in early 2010, there have been only two attempted parent triggers, both in Southern California, and no successes.

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.

At Desert Trails Elementary, the petition gatherers, organized by Parent Revolution, circulated two petitions. One called for a list of reforms but no change in school leadership. The second called for turning the school into a charter. As described by the Los Angeles Times, “Organizers (Parent Revolution) had told parents that the preferred option was district reforms and that as leverage to get them the charter petition was also being circulated.” The Adelanto school board president called the tactic “bait and switch.”

But only the charter petition was presented to Adelanto district officials. “Nearly 100 parents who had signed the original trigger petition later signed a second petition asking that their names be removed,” the Reuters news service reported. “Many said they had not fully understood the campaign and didn’t want to convert Desert Trails into a charter.”

One Desert Trails parent leader explained why she opposed the parent trigger. “I immediately sensed that this is a smokescreen for people’s opportunistic agendas. This is not driven to help our schools,” parent Lori Yuan told the Victorville Daily Press, the local daily newspaper.

Victorville Daily Press reporter Natasha Lindstrom, who has covered the story from the beginning, was tweeting updates the day of the ruling. “Many (parents) told me they didn’t want a charter. Both sides of Parent Trigger like the current principal, who only took (the) helm in October,” Lindstrom tweeted.

Yet, according to Reuters, “Ben Austin [executive director of Parent Revolution] … said parents would immediately begin soliciting proposals from private management companies interested in running Desert Trails as a charter school.” Another Parent Revolution spokesman said that due to the short time before school starts this fall,  the target would be the 2013-’14 school year.

The situation raises questions: Will parents sit still for having a charter forced upon their school when they’ve said they don’t want one? Will the parents whose request to rescind their petition signatures was beaten back by Parent Revolution’s legal team take that meekly? With an entire school year full of likely drama ahead, the confusion and chaos continue.

Some further twists in the story:

  • Lindstrom tweeted: Now that Parent Trigger prevailed, district may be stuck w/ 18 unfunded tchrs. Thinking it’d fail, rescinded layoffs.” That is, the school district had sent layoff notices to all the Desert Trails teachers who would lose their jobs in a charter takeover, as required by law, and then rescinded them. Yet with the uncertainty inherent in the fact that nothing will happen until fall 2013, the situation is overall unclear.
  • Recently, Parent Revolution has indicated that it’s backing off trying to turn schools into charters in any future efforts (if there are any). One likely reason is that charter operators aren’t eager to take over existing struggling schools. They prefer to start their own, pick their own students and create their own procedures. That raises further questions about what charter operators might want to take over Desert Trails even if all the parents fall into line.

The details of this situation should raise concerns for lawmakers in other states considering parent triggers. But if it continues to be true that charter operators don’t want to take over existing struggling schools, the parent trigger will fade away in any case. Yes, struggling schools need help, but a fad that’s destined to ignite divisiveness and chaos – and that offers supposed solutions that have no track record of success – is not the remedy.

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