Court sides with group trying to turn Orange County campus into a charter school

An appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that the state’s controversial parent-trigger law could be used to convert Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim from a traditional campus to a charter school.

The decision by a three-judge panel from the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal could embolden hesitant charter advocates and parents to try the trigger process at other schools, even though serious questions remain about when the law would apply and how.

The case dates back to early 2015, when parents submitted a conversion petition to the Anaheim Elementary School District, which operates Palm Lane. A legal battle has raged since then.

In July 2015, an Orange County Superior Court judge sided with the parents and charter advocates who assisted them. The appellate panel affirmed that decision.

“We are not opining on whether public schools or charter schools are better for the education of children,” wrote Associate Justice Richard D. Fybel. At the time parents filed their petition, he said, Palm Lane “qualified” as an academically low-performing school, which made it eligible for parents to force change. The petition itself also met the necessary legal requirements, the panel concluded.

“We are very pleased with how the appellate court ruled in favor of our clients — parents who never ceased fighting for a better school for their children,” said attorney Mark Holscher. “This groundbreaking ruling is important to parents across California who are trying to secure a higher quality of education for their children.”

Charters are privately managed public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. The trigger law takes effect when parents representing at least 50% of students petition for change: Their options include replacing the administration, replacing the entire staff and converting to a charter school.

Until the ruling, there was doubt on both sides about whether the parent-trigger law still was in effect in California. That’s because the law, which is predicated on a school’s poor performance, originated under a different school-rating system. The state has revised its academic standards, state tests and accountability system, and it hasn’t updated which schools, if any, would now be vulnerable to the parent-trigger law.

Formerly, one trigger requirement was that a school score less than 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index. That index no longer exists, and there is now no single number or grade used to rank a school.

That ongoing uncertainty could play out in future court battles, unless there is clarification from the state Legislature or state Board of Education.

“We are still reviewing and analyzing the decision especially … how it interplays with new accountability standards,” said Devora Navera Reed, an attorney with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

L.A. Unified last year took advantage of the legal ambiguity in refusing to accept a newly filed petition at 20th Street Elementary School. But the district still negotiated with parents to make changes in how the school would be managed going forward.

The new ruling shifts some power back to parent petitioners.

“As long as the law is on the books, it’s supposed to be usable for families,” said Gabe Rose, chief strategy officer for Parent Revolution, which helps parents organize trigger petitions. “This ruling makes it abundantly clear that the trigger law is still valid.”

The Anaheim school district is not ready to concede.

“We are certainly disappointed by today’s decision,” said Supt. Linda Wagner. “We know the teachers and staff at Palm Lane are continuing to work with parents to ensure the high academic achievement of all students at the school.”

Wagner said she did not “anticipate any changes at Palm Lane in the 2017-2018 school year.”

She added that the school recently won two state honors: a Gold Ribbon Award for overall excellence and a Title 1 Academic Achievement Award, which honors programs that serve students from low-income families. Overall, the state categorized the school’s most recent test scores as very low in English and low in math.

Holscher, the attorney for the Palm Lane petitioners, praised the district for recent efforts to work with parents and make improvements, but he credited the leverage of the petition for this progress.

“We put a spotlight on the school,” he said. “Once a petition is filed, the parents are now at the table, these parents who otherwise have no ability to advocate for their children.”

The parents, he said, could choose to keep the school with the district, but at the same time, “parents are entitled to get the reform they petitioned for.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
64°