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California may see more ‘parent triggers’ to force school improvement as state’s ESSA plan ‘punts’ on responsibility

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 3, 2017

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Sixth-grade student from South LA Semaias Muralles addresses the state Board of Education at last month’s hearing on the ESSA plan.

With only weeks to go until California’s deadline to submit its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to the federal government, parents are wondering if the state will offer any guarantee that the lowest-performing schools will improve.

Esther Covarrubias, a mother from South LA, believes the nearly finished draft does not. A stronger option, she says, is the California Parent Empowerment Act, a 7-year-old state law that gives parents the right to take control of a persistently low-performing school.

“I experienced first hand what it is to be a student in a low-performing school. Year after year, I was passed from one grade to the next without receiving any intervention. The system failed me, and I don’t want it to fail my son too,” she said in Spanish at last month’s meeting of the state Board of Education when the latest revision of California’s ESSA plan was presented.

“This law is as important as it ever was and even more important now when the California way means seeking for maximum flexibility and minimum responsibility and accountability for the state and the districts,” said Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that supports public school families to make change and helps parents organize under the state law, also known as a “parent trigger.”

“When you see the ESSA plan, you see exactly why parents need that power,” Litt said. “The California plan has really punted on its responsibility to put in place a credible timeline and way to improve schools. The new plan has very little in terms of school improvement.”

As a result, he said, “I would expect more families to use the law.”

• Read more: ESSA commentary from Dan Walters at CALmatters — California’s war over public schools moves to a new front

Since its passage in 2010, the Parent Empowerment Act has been used successfully nine times at eight schools. There are nearly 2,000 schools in California that are eligible for school turnaround under the law, Litt said. In LA Unified, roughly 300 schools could be eligible.

The law states that a school is eligible for parents to request a turnaround of the school governance if the school has been in corrective action for at least one full academic year, has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or has as an Academic Performance Index (API) score of less than 800.

Problem is, those API scores that measured school achievement were discontinued in 2013. So school districts that faced parent triggers, including LA Unified and Anaheim, argued that since there was no way to measure schools, they couldn’t be considered low-performing, thus they couldn’t be eligible for parent triggers.

But courts sided with the parents, and last month the California Supreme Court refused to hear the Orange County school district’s appeal — another significant development that is likely increase parent organizing across the state, Litt said.

Parents at Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary School won their two-year battle to improve their school when trustees of the school board voted last month to end their efforts to block the parent trigger, after the state Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal. Parents can now move to convert the school into a public charter.

The parents filed the parent trigger petition in 2015 after years of poor performance at the school, but the district denied the petition because the API scores were no longer used. Parents then filed a lawsuit against the district (Cecilia Ochoa V. Anaheim City School District).

Cecilia Ochoa, the plaintiff in the case and lead petitioner, is the mother of two Palm Lane students. “We never thought this fight would be so big and so difficult,” she told the OC Register.

“The court ruling in Ochoa’s case legally takes away the excuse from districts to try deny parents’ rights,” Litt said in an interview. “What this court case states very clearly is that statewide no matter what changes happen in the state or federal accountability system, the California Parent Empowerment law is valid. California has had no system in place since 2013. Still, 2,000 schools in the state and 300 in LAUSD are eligible for the law.

“Districts and the state need to do something credible to improve the lowest-performing schools and need to involve parents, they need to see results,” he added. “If that doesn’t happen, parents are going to continue to use the law, and I guess it could be happening more frequently.”

Turnaround models are not all the same, Litt said. Some schools won more academic resources, some became independent charters, others joined a partnership. “This is not about one particular turnaround model. It’s about parents being in the driver seat for change for their children,” he said.

In 2013, 20th Street Elementary became the first school in LA Unified to submit a petition under the parent trigger. The district rejected the petition arguing there was no accountability system in place, as API scores had been suspended. In 2016, parents chose to settle with the district and to join 20th Street with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. There has not been a parent trigger attempt in LA Unified since then.

Without giving a specific number, Litt said that his organization is currently supporting “several families at schools across the state” that want to use the parent trigger, and “many others” are “thinking about it.”

Victoria Domínguez, education services and policy coordinator for the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), said California’s ESSA plan offers “great promise” on giving districts local control, more flexibility, and some autonomy. But more local control without accountability won’t serve students well, and LA Unified has not demonstrated accountability or been clear on where it spends its funds, she said.

“Historically, the district has not been very efficient in transparency on how they’re using funding on innovative ways to address educational opportunities, and with ESSA it is the same thing,” she said. “In California, the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) is the definition of equity, but we haven’t been able to make a correlation between funding and student improvement. With ESSA, there’s no clarity on that either.”

Domínguez, who works with Latino immigrant families, said she believes most of them would try other ways of improving their schools and use a parent trigger as “their last call.”

“There’s always the need to educate and organize parents in our community, especially in the immigrant community. In LAUSD, a large majority of parents cannot even vote for the people that represent their children on the school board, so there’s a clear urgency to create parent leadership, but to my knowledge a parent trigger would be considered as the very last resource,” she said.

But Covarrubias prefers to act rather than wait for others to make change, and believes changes for improvement need to be immediate. “We need the state to design a stronger ESSA plan that will guarantee that the lowest-performing schools will really improve. Not in the future, not in five years, but now. It’s time.”



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