Over 40 years ago, California’s Supreme Court recognized that a child’s access to an adequate education – regardless of race, ethnicity or wealth – is a fundamental right of the highest order. In Serrano v. Priest the Court affirmed “education is a major determinant of an individual’s chances for economic and social success in our competitive society”, “the lifeline of both … individual and society.”
Resolved to secure a better education for their children, parentsof Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary School united. On January 14 they became the first Orange County parents to use California’s Parent Trigger law to bring meaningful reform for the school by restarting it as an independent charter school. They filed their Parent Trigger petition – signed by almost 70 percent of school parents – on the eve of the national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a symbolic gesture of their pursuit of education as the cornerstone of the American Dream.
Palm Lane had been classified as a failing school for over a decade. Sixty-two percent of Palm Lane students are not proficient in English-language arts, and 47 percent are not proficient in math. The school suffered from the constant reshuffling of principals, causing disorganization and disruption of student learning extending beyond the elementary years.
Indeed, Anaheim’s city schools were even cited in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU seeking dismantling of its at-large electoral system. The lawsuit underscored growing acknowledgment that the foundation of great cities and economic prosperity begins with great schools and student achievement.
But a quality education is precisely what Anaheim City school officials have denied Palm Lane students for over a decade. Rather than accept the parent’s petitions, the District rejected 133 signatures as “invalid” or “unverifiable,” leaving parents an mere 12 names short of the 50 percent threshold. But the District’s inability to verify petitions does not make them invalid. Despite clear requirements that the District reveal which signatures were found to be invalid or unverifiable so that parents can correct and resubmit, they purposefully withheld details – either in an insidious attempt to delay determination that the law’s legal requirements had already been met, or to deprive the parents of their right to correct and resubmit the petitions.
Hence, last week Palm Lane parents filed for court intervention to enable them to transform the school. Explained attorney Mark Holscher, “at every turn the district has done everything it can to try to block the petition in violation of the law.”
Not only do the parent actions open a new chapter in the parent empowerment movement nationally, but they follow in the footsteps of another set of parents who, eight decades ago, similarly filed in an O.C. courthouse demanding equality of educational opportunity. That case, Mendez v. Westminster, was the precursor of Brown v. Board of Education.
The Anaheim District officials are behaving shamefully – at taxpayer expense – and shortchanging their own pupils. They initially tried to prevent parents from gathering the needed signatures, but when that tactic failed, they subsequently concocted a claim that their school is not even subject to the law. In claiming exemption, the District negates clear precedent from federal and state authorities. Ironically, they now seek to ignore their own admission to the contrary in a letter they mailed to parents last October – prior to the parents’ petitions – informing them that the school is not performing well and even writing that “Parent Empowerment” is an option that parents, “dissatisfied with their children’s struggling schools,” may employ to affect change.
Apparently, District officials thought parents would not understand or care. Not only did they understand, they cared enough to act – in the proud tradition and history of the Mendez parents preceding them.
About the Author: Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the director of education reform for the California Policy Center. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.