Last week, I began my three-part series on the education revolution brewing in Orange County with a post on the rapid increase in the number of charter schools in the county after years of stagnation.
In this second post, I will turn to the use of the Parent Trigger Law at Palm Lane Elementary School in the Anaheim City School District. My colleague, Craig Alexander, was the first person to break the news when he posted here on OC Political that Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks had ruled in favor of the parents in Ochoa vs. Anaheim City School District when Palm Lane Elementary School families used the Parent Trigger Law to petition for a public charter school.
This is a watershed moment in Orange County education. Should the judge’s ruling stand, this will be the first successful use of the Parent Trigger Law in Orange County and one of just a handful in California.
Utilizing the Parent Trigger Law allows parents of students in failing schools to take back control of their schools like never before. For many parents in lower-income areas that have been traditionally pro-union, using the Parent Trigger Law exposes them to the first time to the hostility of the California Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association ̣(and their local chapters, of course). This is an eye-opening experience that causes many of these parents to turn against these unions that are impeding their efforts to improve their children’s education.
It is no surprise that Anaheim City School District administration are opposed to the use of the Parent Trigger Law because it is essentially an indictment of their failures at Palm Lane Elementary School. Furthermore, the conversion of Palm Lane Elementary into a charter school weakens the Anaheim City School District administration’s control of the school (and its funding).
Four of the five Anaheim City School District trustees are in their first term on the school board, so they could hardly blamed for the failures at Palm Lane Elementary School, and when the petitions were submitted to the school district, two of the trustees had been in office less than six weeks while a third trustee had not yet even been seated.
Disappointingly, the Anaheim City School District trustees voted unanimously to appeal the judge’s ruling. Not one trustee stepped back and asked themselves one basic question: “What is so horrible about a public charter school that I’m willing to spend an additional $600,000 to stop one at Palm Lane Elementary?”
The Anaheim City School District contends that only 48.43% of Palm Lane Elementary School parents provided valid signatures for the petition. The Superior Court found at least 51.57% of signatures were valid, but the judge stopped counting at this point because it was clearly above the 50% threshold.
Even accepting the school district’s lower number, at what point do the Anaheim City School District administration and trustees take another step back and simply say, “Wow. 48% of parents at Palm Lane are so upset that they want to convert it into a public charter school.” That’s not to say that the other 52% oppose a charter school; they simply did not sign the petition (if we use the school district’s numbers).
So, we now await the Court of Appeal, as the Anaheim City School District continues their battle against the parents of Palm Lane Elementary School.
In the second half of this post, I have excerpted four of the most stunning sections of the ruling by the judge. The two longer excerpts give a glimpse into the truly offensive way in which the Anaheim City School District has handled this process.
What is the Parent Trigger Law?
Readers familiar with the Parent Trigger Law can skip down to the next section on the scathing court ruling.
In a nutshell, the Parent Trigger Law authorizes parents to petition for one of five types of reforms at their children’s school. The school must meet legal definitions for a low-performing school for the petition to be valid. A majority of parents must sign the petition in order to for one of the reforms to be implemented. Yes, a majority of parents at the school must sign the petition. This is a very high petition threshold. (Contrast that with ballot measures, a certain percentage far below a majority [varying from 5%-20% depending on the type/jurisdiction of measure] is needed to qualify a measure for an election, and most types of ballot measures pass with a majority vote. Getting a majority to sign your petition is a much more challenging task than getting a majority to cast their ballots for your proposal.)
One of the five options for reform is launching a public charter school, and that is the route that Palm Lane Elementary School parents opted for in their petition to the Anaheim City School District.
The Parent Trigger Law was passed in 2010 by a bipartisan coalition of Sacramento lawmakers, and I don’t mean that a couple renegades from one party hopped on board with the other party to pass it. This was authored by former Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero ̣̣(D-East Los Angeles) and Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-San Dimas). In the Senate, 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats formed the group of 23 Senators who voted to pass the bill; in the Assembly, it was 25 Republicans and 16 Democrats. These weren’t rogue Democrats who joined the Republicans — this included the Democrats’ top leaders: then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and future Assembly Speaker John Perez.
Truly Scathing Court Ruling in Ochoa v. Anaheim City School District
After reading the full text of the judge’s decision that Craig posted, I am amazed that no one has quoted more extensively from it. In the published sources I’ve seen, the quotes have been limited to the judge’s findings that the Anaheim City School District’s petition “rejection to be procedurally unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious” and regarding petition verification: “The deficiencies in the process used were substantial; so substantial that it made it an unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair process.” (Craig in his original post also quoted “Clearly, the Respondents [the District] did not meet their obligations of good faith cooperation with respect to this issue and as mandated by the Act.”)
I am amazed no one has published more excerpts of the truly scathing court ruling. As I read the full text of the ruling, I was actually angered and offended by the Anaheim City School District’s behavior. Below are the four most stunning excerpts, and the two longer ones describe the repugnant fashion in which the Anaheim City School District conducted itself with regard to the petition. In the court ruling, references to the “respondent” mean the Anaheim City School District while references to the “petitioners” mean the parents suing the school district in defense of the Parent Trigger petition.
Judge Banks noted about the school in question, “This proceeding involves parents of students at Palm Lane Elementary, a school whose performance over 10 of the last 11 years as measured by the legislatively imposed standards can be described as abysmal.”
The Anaheim City School District attempted to argue that the Court lacked jurisdiction because the parents had not completed all administrative remedies since the district had not rejected the petition. This is ludicrous because even the minutes of the school board meeting note that the motion was “to reject the Petition” of the Palm Lane parents. The Court described the school district’s brazen argument as:
The Respondent Board rejected the Petition in Exhibit 16…In the section “Action” the last sentence in relevant part reads “Accordingly the Petition…is rejected.”
Respondents sought to characterize the rejection as something less, arguing in the trial brief and at trial that the action of February 19th was not a final determination on the Petition (Respondent’s Trial Brief at page 1, lines 17-23 and page 25 lines 3-5). They presented their case in part on the theory that the Petition was returned as allowed under 5 CCR Section 4802.1(g)(j) and not rejected. The language used by the District’s Board plainly says otherwise. They rejected the Petition they did not return it.
The Respondents also argue that this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear this matter as well as to grant relief because the Petition was not rejected but only returned and therefore Petitioners have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. This argument fails because the Respondents rejected the Petition.
I find the rejection to be procedurally unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.
The school district attempted to argue that Palm Lane did not fit the criteria of a low-performing school for purposes of the Parent Trigger Law, relying on a truly bizarre rationale that the state Department of Education did not issue a 2014 adequate yearly progress report, so Palm Lane could not have “failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP).” The Court wrote:
The Respondents [sic] own internal communications admit to the fact that Palm Lane is a subject school subject to the [Parent Trigger] Act and has failed to make AYP. Exhibits 29, 31, 32,67 and 80 are just some of those communications.
The reliance of the Respondents upon Exhibit 47 and the determination by State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Honorable Tom Torlakson, that no 2014 AYP report for elementary and other schools would be prepared by the California Department of Education did not provide a safe harbor against parents utilizing the Act as the Respondents argue. Instead, it froze those schools and districts in their status based on prior measured AYP results. The evidence clearly establishes that Palm Lane failed to make adequate yearly progress. I therefore find that Palm Lane is a subject school under the Act.
In the Anaheim City School District’s rejection of the Parent Trigger petition, their findings noted that “The Petitioners failed to submit a separate document that identifies the lead petitioners.” The judge rips the school district to shreds for attempting to use this argument:
The evidence on the “lead petitioner list” issue was directly contradictory. The Petitioners said they provided it when they delivered the signed petitions to the District at the District’s Office on January 14, 2015. The Respondents said they never got it. After considering all the evidence I resolve this issue in favor of the Petitioners. In particular, I find the testimony of Alfonso Flores to be persuasive and he to be the most credible witness on this issue, and probably in the entire case.
I would be remiss however if I left the issue there. The behavior of the Respondents [sic] personnel in doing absolutely nothing to determine who the lead petitioners were can not go without comment. Wisely or not, the Act requires the Local Educational Agency (LEA) to work with the lead parent petitioners in the process. In practical terms it means the Districts must cooperate and work together with the very people who seek to take from the District a school (and its funding etc) and to establish in its place a charter school. No clearer repudiation of a school district’s performance could be imagined.
I find that the Respondents’ claimed ignorance of the identity of the lead parents and ignorance as to how to learn their identity (feigned and contrived ignorance in the Court’s view) is unreasonable. They could have looked at the “sign in sheet” for January 14th when the petitions were delivered to see which parents were there – but they did not. They could have called the name and phone number of the person listed on most of the petitions; which information was listed after the words:
“For more information, all interested persons, the school district, and others should contact:” (emphasis added)
[Name and number omitted by the Court]
And if that was not enough, immediately below the name and phone number of the contact person were the words:
with the name of two supporting organizations, one of which is headed by Senator Romero, with whom the evidence showed the Respondents were well acquainted.
Any of those acts would have been what a reasonable person would have done and what a reasonable process would have called for. Instead, they manufactured a continuing state of ignorance as to the lead person identities.
Finally, and not to beat a dead horse, Senator Romero herself wrote to the Respondents and offered to put them in touch with and coordinate between the District and the lead parents (Exhibit 49, page TX 049-003 to 006). Respondents never responded to her offer.
On July 2, 2015 while testifying before the Court the District Superintendent testified that even on that day she still did not know who the lead petitioners were. The evidence established that Exhibit 97 (list of petitioning parents, i.e. lead petitioners) was again provided shortly after the District findings were announced on February 19, 2015. How she could not know the identities is troubling.
Clearly, the Respondents did not meet their obligations of good faith cooperation with respect to this issue and as mandated by the Act.
The Court found the petition signature verification process to be”unreasonable, unfair and incomplete” and with just a few phone calls, the judge himself was able to confirm enough signatures to easily exceed the 50% threshold for the Parent Trigger petition. Judge Banks brutally dissects the signature verification process:
Under the [Parent Trigger] Act and its related regulations, the Respondents as an LEA may verify signatures on petitions, but they are not required to do so; and if they undertake to do so their efforts must be reasonable. 5 CCR § 4802.1 (b).
I find that the process set up and utilized by Respondents was unreasonable, unfair and incomplete.
The process was developed by a temporary employee (Evelyn Gutierrez) who was given no training or education about the Act, the Regulations or the importance of what she was being asked to do. She had no background, training or experience in handwriting analysis or comparison. She was not supervised in any meaningful regard. She received no written procedures to follow. She had to develop the script she used when calling parents phone numbers. The deficiencies in the process used were substantial; so substantial that it made it an unreasonable, arbitrary, caprcious [sic] and unfair process. In fairness it must be noted that Ms. Gutierrez did her best in the situation into which she was placed.
The result of this defective process was that valid signed petitions were not counted. Ms. Gutierrez testified to several petitions she rejected that on reflection should have been determined valid. In addition she testified that a number of petitions were placed by her in a “pending” status because she could not reach the parent signatory or for some other reason. Someone, not Ms. Gutierrez, later decided to improperly classify those petitions as invalid.
A brief description of the signature verification process is in order. Ms. Gutierrez would call the phone number twice to try and reach a parent signatory. She called between approximated [sic] 8:30AM and 4:30PM. If she could not reach the person, she would put them in “pending”. If she reached the parent she inquired about their signing the petition. Calling only during normal working hours for the parents decreased the probability of making contact.
Some persons reached by phone said they had signed; others said their spouse signed; others said they could not recall if they signed and finally some denied they had signed.
Some children had separate petitions signed by each parent. If the first petition signature could not be verified there was no attempt to look at the other signed petition to verify the accuracy of the signature on that petition.
In sum, there are numerous deficiencies in the process. The result of the flawed process was that valid signatures sufficient to reach and exceed the 50% threshold were improperly excluded.
In the interest of brevity I attach and include a list of 29 students and parents utilized in argument and entitled “Improperly Invalidated Petitions (Child/Parent)”. I have independently evaluated the evidence relating to some but not all of the 29, stopping once a total of 23 additional valid signed petitions were established. Inasmuch as the Respondents determined and found the Petitioners were 12 valid petitions short there is no need to go further. The Petitioners needed 367, the Court finds they presented a minimum of 378. Using the aforementioned chart, the Court determines the following numbers referenced thereon were valid petitions: 1 – 7; 9; 13 -24; 27 -29. The Court does not reach items 25 and 26.
The Anaheim City School District has much to answer for about the reprehensible way they handled this process.
Key Question for Anaheim City School District Trustees
To reiterate my point from earlier: each Trustee should take a look in the mirror, and then, each should ask and answer this question:
“What is so horrible about a public charter school that I’m willing to spend an additional $600,000 to stop one at Palm Lane Elementary?”