By Steve Gunn
ADELANTO, Calif. – The K-12 education establishment will apparently go to any lengths to preserve its domination of our nation’s public schools.
The latest evidence comes from California, where that state’s groundbreaking “parent trigger” law gives the parents of at least 50 percent of the students in any public school the power to force changes in staffing and operations, provided the school has been academically failing for three straight years.
Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, California has been deemed to be a failing school for six straight years. Most of the school’s sixth-grade graduates fail to read, write or perform math at grade level, according to attorneys involved in the matter.
Last year, frustrated parents decided to take advantage of the new law, and circulated petitions to convert the school into a “parent-led, community-based, independent charter school.”
The parents gathered more than enough signatures to force the conversion and presented their petitions to the Adelanto school board on two different occasions. But the board rejected enough signatures on each occasion to push the total below the required 50 percent mark.
Some signatures were rejected because the school didn’t have comparable signatures on file to confirm authenticity. Others were rejected because a group of teachers and their supporters went door-to-door and somehow convinced some parents to rescind their signatures, after the petitions were submitted.
There have been accusations that the rescission documents gathered by the teachers and their supporters were “fraudulently doctored,” and many people have called for an investigation.
It sounds like a cynical attempt by the people running the school to maintain their jobs, in direct violation of the parent trigger law. But they may not have the final word on the matter.
Attorneys for the parents argue that the school board had no legal right to reject the signatures. They have filed a lawsuit asking the San Bernardino County Superior Court to force the school board to accept the petitions, thereby allowing the parents to begin the transformation of the school.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday.
‘A systemic effort to invalidate the petition’
We’ve seen this type of ugly behavior before. Last year a majority of parents from a school in the Compton, California district submitted “parent trigger” petitions, but the board refused to acknowledge any signatures unless the parents came in and personally confirmed them.
That blatant attempt to intimidate parents is a clear violation of the spirit of the parent trigger law, and the school board should have been stopped. Unfortunately that case remains tied up in court and some Compton students remain stuck in a failing school.
Parents of Desert Trails Elementary students ran into a similar roadblock from the education establishment in their district. As their attorneys wrote, they encountered a “systematic effort to invalidate the petition” through what they believe were illegal means.
Parent trigger organizers first turned in their petition on Jan. 12 of this year, with 70 percent of the signatures needed to invoke the law. But the school board eventually rejected many signatures, claiming the school had no comparable records on file to confirm authenticity.
The attorneys for the parents argue that the failure of the school to keep copies of parental signatures does not give the board the power to reject petition signatures. Under the law, the school board must make a good faith effort to prove the signatures are fraudulent, they argued in a legal brief.
The board also rejected many signatures due to rescission documents signed by some parents who supposedly changed their minds after the petitions were turned in. State law does not allow petition signers to have their names removed after the petitions are submitted, according to the attorneys.
The invalidations left organizers short of the necessary 50 percent. So they went back to work gathering even more signatures.
They met with the district superintendent on March 6, and he reportedly agreed that there were well over the 50 percent necessary to invoke the law, according to the legal brief.
Organizers went to the next school board meeting and presented the petitions again, based on the superintendent’s word.
But the board again threw out enough signatures to keep the total below 50 percent. Under the law, parents are only allowed to resubmit rejected petitions once. That left them little choice but the take the school board to court.
‘An inherently coercive process’
‘It’s pretty clear that the school board, a very interested party in the matter, should not have been in charge of counting and verifying petition signatures.
As the attorneys wrote, “The district itself is the one that counts the signatures that determine whether or not the district will be fired from running the school. The district and the teachers also have access to the names and addresses of each of the parents that sign the petition. The district has daily control over those parents’ children.
“Under these circumstances, the whole post-petition rescission collection process is inherently coercive.”
In other words, it would have been easy for teachers to intimidate some parents into withdrawing their signatures.
The attorneys claim that “parents (have) stepped forward to declare, under penalty of perjury, that their rescission forms had been doctored in material aspects, without their knowledge or consent.”
They also claim that “other parents reported that those who collected the rescissions deceived parents into signing the forms. Among other things, the rescission collectors blatantly lied to the parents about the goals and potential consequences of the petitions.”
There is also a suggestion that teachers and others may have threatened some parents who may not have legal immigration status.
“Many of the petitioners are poor and undocumented immigrants, placing them in an awful predicament when district teachers and other unknown people go to their homes and demand that they rescind their votes,” the attorneys wrote.
There have reportedly been calls from citizens and the media for an investigation of the rescission process, but the school district has not responded.
In the meantime, it’s up to the court to determine if the school board overstepped its power by rejecting so many signatures for questionable reasons. A quality education for the children of Desert Trails hangs in the balance.