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California 'Parent-Trigger' Effort Thrown Back Into Turmoil

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A California school board has approved a plan to restructure a school at the center of a closely watched "parent-trigger" dispute, but it's not the plan that a group of parents wanted—and it's not the plan they say a judge ordered put in place.

The Adelanto, Calif., school board voted Friday to accept a petition circulated by a group of parents seeking to become the first in the country to use a parent-trigger law to overhaul an academically struggling school. But the panel rejected the parents' preferred option, which was to convert Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school, the board's president, Carlos Mendoza, told Education Week in an e-mail. The board instead decided to move forward with a form of "alternate governance," he said, which would result in a longer school day, improved technology and other changes to the school.

But whether that plan will ever take effect is anything but certain.

The Adelanto board's actions drew an immediate, angry reaction from the parents seeking to change the school, who said the panel has run afoul of the letter of an court decision issued by a judge last month, which in their view clearly calls for the creation of a charter.

"They've violated the plain language of the order of the court," said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, a group that has helped the parents with the trigger effort. "The district seems to want to hold onto power, no matter what. ... There is no ambiguity about the judge's order."

While the parents are exploring their legal options, it's highly likely that they will go back to court to fight the Adelanto board's decision, Austin said in an interview.

A growing number of states have either approved or considered parent-trigger laws, policies that typically allow parents to revamp the operations, leadership, and personnel at academically struggling schools, if a majority of parents agree to those changes. Lawmakers aren't the only ones drawn to the idea. A movie titled "Won't Back Down," which tells the story of a fictionalized attempt at a school takeover, will be released next month.

The real-world narrative surrounding Adelanto's use of the parent trigger, however, is tangled and controversial.

A group of parents, calling themselves the Desert Trails Parent Union, have sought to convert their children's elementary school to a charter, only to meet strong resistance from Adelanto district officials. Both sides have accused the others of distorting the debate in an effort to win over the local community. Adelanto district officials have disputed the validity of signatures collected by parents as part of a petition drive to change the structure of the school, a process allowed under California's parent-trigger law.

That fight wound up in court, and on July 18, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Steve Malone handed the parents a victory when he upheld the validity of the parents' petition. Malone ordered that the school district and board "allow the petitioners to immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals."

Soon afterward, the parents headed down that path. They invited charter school operators, as well as district officials, to submit letters of intent to manage the school, and four organizations did so. According to the parents, two were existing nonprofit charter operators: LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy and the High Desert Partnership in Academic Excellence Foundation. Two came from "non-charter school improvement consulting firms," identified by the parents as Iwa Rere Educational and Technical Engagement, and School Improvement Solutions. The parents invited three of those four applicants to submit full applications, but not School Improvement Solutions, because it is a for-profit company, a type of operator the parents did not want, Austin said.

But as the parents made plans for a charter school, Adelanto's board evidently had other ideas. At its meeting, the board decided not to approve a charter, but rather the creation of a "community advisory committee" that will oversee changes to Desert Trails and report to the superintendent, Mendoza said. He maintains that the board's plan is superior to that of the parents, in that it will allow the district to make changes to the school immediately, rather than waiting until the fall of 2013, the parent group's preferred date for opening a charter, he argued.

Mendoza pointed to the language of the judge's order, saying that school board has done nothing to interfere with allowing the parents to begin sorting through charter school proposals. "We have never stopped them from soliciting applications," he wrote to Education Week. The board simply voted to pursue another option, he said.

"I believe that the alternative governance is closer to what the Desert Trails Parent Union [has] been claiming to want than a charter school," Mendoza argued. The parents "now have a choice," he said. "They can partner with the district through the alternate governance plan and transform the school or they can continue to partner with Parent Revolution to further rob our kids with lawsuits."

Austin, however, scoffed at the board's reasoning, saying the judge had been clear that the school is to be converted to a charter.

"They don't have the power to propose anything in the first place," Austin said of the school board. "They're still acting as if the parent-trigger law doesn't exist." The board's unwillingness to accept the parents' ideas, he added, "makes the argument for parent trigger better than we ever could."

It appears that the courts will have to determine whether the Adelanto school board is sticking to the judge's ruling—or flouting it.

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