Policy Documents

California School District Rejects ‘Parent Trigger’ Petition

Ben Boychuk –
February 24, 2011

McKinley Elementary School parents say they are undeterred by Compton Unified School District’s decision Tuesday to deny a petition to convert their chronically underperforming school to a charter school. Attorneys for the parents said they would move ahead with a class action lawsuit against the south-central Los Angeles school district.

“Since day one, we’ve been blocked by the district so many times,” said Ismenia Guzman, whose 6-year-old daughter attends first grade at McKinley. “There is no way they’re gonna stop us.”

Guzman appeared alongside several other McKinley parents at a press conference at the law offices of Kirkland and Ellis the morning after the board’s unanimous vote. They are the first to use California’s landmark parent empowerment law, also known as the Parent Trigger.

Under the law, if at least half of eligible parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition, the school district must shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter; or implement the “turnaround” or “transformation” models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

More than 60 percent of McKinley parents signed the petition, which organizers delivered to Compton school district officials on Dec. 7.

‘Five Years is Too Late’
“We really want the best for our kids,” Guzman told reporters. “Why is it so difficult for [the school board] to understand?”

Parent Shamika Murphy said she was upset and outraged by the board’s vote. “I’m taking this personally. We’ve come a long way to stop now,” Murphy said. “I need my daughter to get the education she needs now. Five years from now is too late.”

Compton district officials said the parents’ petition did not comply with emergency regulations the California State Board of Education passed last summer. According to a seven-page report CUSD released minutes before the Feb. 22 board meeting, the petition had numerous typographical errors, failed to include a correct description of the desired “intervention model,” and lacked other technical details such as proper headings, dates and attachments.

Ben Austin, executive director of the Los Angeles Parent Revolution, criticized CUSD officials for violating the spirit and the letter of the law. “The law is about empowering parents, not about empowering bureaucracies to find technicalities to disallow petitions and defend an indefensible status quo,” said Austin, who served briefly on the California State Board of Education. “If that’s true, then no parent group—even one with great lawyers—could get anything done.”

Signatures Disputed
The district also says too many signatures could not be verified. Of the petition’s 258 signatures—representing 62 percent of the McKinley’s students—the district claims it could not verify 221.

“The district reviewed the petition not to verify the signatures, but to disqualify them,” said Jeff Senik, one of the Kirkland attorneys representing the Compton parents pro bono in a preemptive lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on February 3.

Compton district officials in January announced that parents who signed the trigger petition verify their names in person with a picture ID, as well as submit to a five-minute interview at the district office. Parents allege the district’s demands violate state and federal laws.

A judge granted parents a temporary restraining order against the district forcing parents to appear in person to verify their signatures. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Senik said the district has not acted in good faith throughout the verification process, and he is confident the district’s decision will not hold up in court. 

“It seems clear to us this was just an exercise to find any type of paperwork issue,” Senik said.

No Discussion
Parent Trigger supporters criticized the Compton trustees for adopting the school district staff recommendations without discussion.

Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, said the school board did not make available a seven-page report listing reasons for denying the parents’ petition until moments before the meeting began.

Acting CUSD Superintendent Karen Frison said in a written statement the district is planning meetings to inform parents about their options going forward.

“We intend to have an open and transparent parent engagement process that includes every parent, not a chosen group of parents who are organized and persuaded to take a specific action,” Frison said. “What our students don’t need, and what our district must avoid, is a chaotic situation that becomes overblown by the emotions of adults.”

Gloria Romero, director of the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform who authored the state’s parent trigger law, said Frisson and Compton trustees may have already run afoul of California’s open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act.

“I’ve written amendments to the Brown Act,” Romero said. “I know how open meetings are supposed to work. I have to question why after all this time there wasn’t any public discussion of the petition leading up to the vote. I bet if you dig deep, there would be violations of the Brown Act.”

Romero says the law she wrote was meant to empower parents, not bureaucracies. “After two and a half months of threats, of intimidation, of calling parents in for questioning, the board without any discussion votes unanimously to deny parents their right to a better education for their kids,” Romero said. “They denied it why? Because there wasn’t a staple? There were typographical errors? Because a couple of numbers were transposed? It’s laughable.”

“This is happening in one school in California,” Romero added. “There are 9,000 schools in the state. Do we have to go through all of this every time and with every one of those schools to make the changes we know we need?”

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News.