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Judge Will Hear Arguments in California Parent-Trigger Petition Trial

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Should Anaheim City School District leaders or Palm Lane Elementary School's parents decide the best route to improve student achievement at the low-performing California school?

Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew P. Banks will begin hearing legal arguments June 15 in a trial that could conclude the parent-trigger petition campaign Palm Lane parents mounted last year to transform the Anaheim, Calif., school into a charter. California's five-year-old Parent Empowerment Act allows parents of students attending persistently failing schools to petition a school district to implement sweeping changes, including replacing staff or hiring a charter operator.

Although California's most-recent parent-trigger campaigns have ended in negotiated settlements with local district officials, the Anaheim City School Board rejected the parents' petitions in February. Since then, both the parents who petitioned for the charter school and school board and district officials have filed complaints with the court to seek a resolution to their dispute.

Both parent-trigger campaigns in Adelanto, Calif., and in Compton, Calif., ended up in court. Although Compton parents lost their legal fight in 2011, just one year later, parents of students attending Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto won their case. Desert Trails is currently the only parent-trigger school in the nation operating as a charter.

According to court documents, the Anaheim City School District's arguments include that:

  • Palm Lane's parents did not collect valid signatures to meet the 50-percent-plus-one parent threshold required to enact the law. The district found that the petitioners had the signatures of roughly 48 percent of the parents and guardians.
  • Palm Lane is not a "trigger-eligible" school because the state temporarily suspended its accountability rating system to adopt new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. As a result, there were no school accountability ratings available for 2013-14.
  • All California elementary and middle schools were granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014, eliminating the requirement for the state to calculate "adequate yearly progress," which determines each school's growth using test scores and other school quality indicators.

Meanwhile the parents' arguments, according to court documents, include that:

  • Palm Lane parents submitted petitions with the signatures of almost 67 percent the school's parents.
  • Palm Lane failed to meet state standards (adequate yearly progress) in nine out of the past 10 years—therefore making it a trigger-eligible school.
  • In a letter sent to parents in October last year, school district officials stated that Palm Lane was a trigger-eligible school.
  • District officials failed to make a "good-faith effort" to contact parents and guardians of students to verify signatures but instead relied on incomplete information on students' emergency contact cards and never sought the assistance of the lead petitioners.

Additionally, the parents claim that district officials have engaged in "obstructionist tactics," throughout the petition-gathering and submission process, according to a press release from Kirkland & Ellis, the Los Angeles-based law firm representing Palm Lane's parents. 

"We trust that justice will prevail and no longer will the district be able to scare and intimidate the parents who only want a better education for their children," Celia Ochoa, a Palm Lane parent and one of the lead petitioners, said in the release.

However, Bob Gardner, president of the Anaheim City School Board, told me that he believes the school district will succeed in court because Palm Lane does not meet the parent-trigger law's requirements to enact changes. He argued that Palm Lane was on the "cusp of being turned around" when the petitions were filed this year. Gardner also contends that Palm Lane has made progress under the leadership of a new principal this school year despite the legal battle brewing over its future. 

Still, regardless of the judge's ruling in the case, Gardner said: "We always keep in mind who we serve—Palm Lane's children and their parents."

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