Parent Trigger II: Desert warfare

State regulations written to bring order and rationality to the Parent Trigger petition process are getting a bruising debut in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto. The recriminations and accusations of misinformation and fraud that undermined the first Parent Trigger effort in Compton and ended up in court last year are echoing in the battle over Desert Trails Elementary School, calling into question the capacity of rule makers to anticipate and deter bad conduct.

On Tuesday, pro bono attorneys for the Desert Trails Parents Union called for a criminal investigation into actions that led 97 parents to revoke their signatures on petitions calling for the conversion of their elementary school into a charter school. Based on the rescissions and other technical flaws they found with other petition signatures, the Adelanto School District trustees last week rejected the second Parent Trigger petition under the parent empowerment law. They ruled that the parents group fell 16 signatures shy of the 333 needed to represent a majority of the children at the school, which was necessary to demand wholesale school reform. The  parents group originally submitted signatures representing 70 percent of the students in the low-performing school.

The parents group plans to ask the school board to reverse its decision when it meets tonight and is threatening to go to court if it doesn’t. The parents and their attorney, Mark Holscher, charged that the counter-reform parents group, which was aided by California Teachers Association staffers, engaged in fraud and misled parents to revoke their signatures. The Parents Union presented evidence that in at least two instances, parents signed blank revocation forms with unchecked boxes that someone later altered to list reasons for withdrawing their signatures. These parents have signed affidavits saying they didn’t understand what they were signing.

CTA representatives and parents opposed to reform charged it was the Parents Union, organized by the pro-Parent Trigger group Parent Revolution, that misled parents into signing the charter takeover petition in the first place. What did create potential confusion was that Parents Union asked parents to sign two petitions – one calling for internal reforms, in which parents would hire the principal and have a big say in running the school, and one calling for an independent charter operator. The tactic was to submit the charter petition as leverage to broker school reforms, said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. Talks, in fact, have been going on, he said.

Silent on revocation

The State Board of Education adopted Parent Trigger regulations last summer after nearly a year of work and multiple revisions. The regulations thoroughly spell out details of the signature gathering process, such as who can vote, how names should be verified, and when the school board must act. But the regulations don’t deal with signature revocation, other than to say there should be no “harassment, threats, and intimidation” related to gathering signatures or revoking them.

Holscher claims signature revocations shouldn’t be permitted at all, and certainly not once the petitions are submitted. He  points to another section in the state election code that prohibits revoking signatures for initiatives. The intent is to protect voters, once their signatures are made public, from coercion.

No regulation can anticipate infinite possibilities of bad faith, but the state PTA, the low-income advocacy group Public Advocates, and others called for the Parent Trigger regulations to include one or two public hearings explaining the Parent Trigger process and providing parents “with useful information so that their signatures could be informed,” said Liz Guillen, director of Legislative and Community Affairs at Public Advocates. A hearing might have cut down on charges of misinformation. A requirement for a public hearing made it into the final draft of the state regulations, but the State Board eliminated it out of concern that inclusion would have been interpreted as a state mandate, adding costs and possible rejection by the Office of Administrative Law, which keeps an eye out for mandated expenses. The Board noted that nothing in the law prevents a district from holding an extra hearing on its own. Nonetheless, compared with the costs to districts and parent groups of a protracted court fight over a Parent Trigger petition, the cost to the state of an extra hearing is a deal.

For all its possible flaws, Rose, who was part of a group that crafted the regulations, isn’t grousing about them. “The regulations are vitally important but the district is not following them,” he said. “There are lots of protections here.”

The biggest is a 60-day  period, after a school districts rejects a Parent Trigger petition, allowing parents to fix problems with signatures, respond to technical reasons that signatures were rejected and collect new signatures. Rose said that in 17 instances, a parent who signed the revocation notice wasn’t the parent who signed the petition in the first place; and there were two dozen instances in which parent signatures were rejected because a signature wasn’t on file in the district office for comparison.  Add them all up, and there is well over 50 percent of parents legally on board, he said.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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