Acase underway in a nondescript Victorville courtroom lacks the trappings of a trial of the century — there's no celebrity in the dock, no DNA evidence or CNN trucks broadcasting from the parking lot. But the case could have monumental consequences for California children.
FOR THE RECORD:
Adelanto: A March 28 Op-Ed and Jim Newton's May 14 column, both of them about parents' efforts to reform a school, said the town of Adelanto was in the Antelope Valley. The high desert community is not part of the Antelope Valley. —
The trial pits a group of parents at Desert Trails Elementary School against the district that runs that school, and it turns on two related questions: How much power does California law give parents to seize control of a failing school? And how much authority do school districts or others have to thwart those efforts?
Desert Trails is, by any measure, failing and has been for six years in a row. It's the lowest ranking elementary school in the Antelope Valley's Adelanto School District. And more than two-thirds of the school's sixth-graders are not proficient in either English or math. A state law passed in 2010 thus seemed well suited to this case: Known as "parent trigger," it allows parents at a failing school to initiate major reforms if more than half sign a petition for such change.
In January, the parents of 466 Desert Trail students — well over the number required by the law — did just that. All that was left was for the district to verify the signatures and meet with parents to chart the school's future.
But the forces opposed to parent trigger are organized, relentless and sometimes duplicitous. They fanned out in Adelanto, urging parents who had signed the original petition to sign a new one recanting their support. They persuaded 95 parents to sign the new petition, and then argued that backers of the trigger now lacked a majority.
That process frames the legal issue that Superior Court Judge Steve Malone now confronts. Parent trigger's lawyer, former prosecutor Mark Holscher, posed the question this way: Does the law allow districts or other opponents of parent trigger to move in after a petition is filed and ask supporters to reconsider? In an argument that blended meticulous analysis of the law with bracing common sense, Holscher explained why districts should not be trusted with that power.
Start with the fact that the law itself never mentions rescission. The parent trigger law simply goes into effect once a majority of parents call for it. There's no provision for reconsideration except in the event that the petitions fall short of 50% when the signatures are checked; in those cases, parents are given a second chance, and the district is required to tell them why their first effort failed. Think of it in terms of how an initiative is qualified: Imagine if every time a measure raised enough signatures to put it on the ballot in California, opponents were allowed to canvass those who signed the petition and urge them to reconsider. It would be, as Holscher put it, "chaos."
It's even worse under parent trigger because the parents being lobbied still have children in the school. They initially declared their dissatisfaction at the risk of alienating teachers and administrators, and then are asked to go through the process all over. The potential for coercion is immense.
And in this case, there also is powerful evidence of cheating. Parents asked to rescind their support for the trigger were presented with a new petition that included boxes they were to check if they felt misled by the original campaign. In a number of cases, parents signed the form but did not check any boxes. Some signature gatherers appear to have then checked the boxes themselves before turning them in. The alleged fraud came to light when copies of the forms without check marks were mistakenly released. Area lawmakers have called for a criminal investigation.
Finally, there's mischief. School district officials insist that a couple dozen of the original petitions are invalid because the district has no signature on file for the parent who signed. They don't suggest that the signers aren't actual parents of actual Desert Trails students, mind you, just that the district doesn't have a signature on file. If, say, a student's mother signed his emergency contact card at the beginning of the school year, and his father signed the petition, the district has disallowed the petition. That's not verification; it's obstruction.
These tactics are transparently repugnant and demonstrate the lengths to which opponents will go to protect the status quo at the expense of the children whose lives are being damaged by underperforming schools. Malone has the chance to halt this cynical gambit and make a mark on the history of California education.
Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.