Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Refusal to offer low-achieving school list creates new front in California’s school war

Kindergarten teacher Marlene Strickland, right, shows Ozzy Ramirez and son Nathan Ramirez, 5, a classroom at Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, a charter school formed by parents under the “parent trigger” law allowing them to take over low-achieving schools.
Kindergarten teacher Marlene Strickland, right, shows Ozzy Ramirez and son Nathan Ramirez, 5, a classroom at Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, a charter school formed by parents under the “parent trigger” law allowing them to take over low-achieving schools. Los Angeles Times file

Six years ago, the Legislature adopted a landmark measure to give parents – particularly poor parents – more power over their children’s educations.

The education establishment, especially unions, didn’t like it, but refusing to compete for a “Race to the Top” federal grant was an unpalatable option.

The best-known aspect of the measure, carried by Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero, was the “parent trigger” that allowed parents of children in low-performing schools to intervene – even seizing control.

Another provision, however, required the state schools superintendent, then and now Tom Torlakson, to publish annually a list of the state’s 1,000 lowest-achieving schools, as shown by academic tests, and allowed parents of children in those schools to move them to higher-rated schools.

The basis for those judgments was the Academic Performance Index, a test-based scoring system for schools that teacher unions and other elements of the education establishment also disliked.

Two years ago, the testing regime upon which the API was based was changed, and the API itself was suspended. The state Board of Education is devising a “multiple measures” accountability program that downplays testing and is likely to seek a repeal of the API.

The effect on the “parent trigger” is still uncertain, but Torlakson, citing the API’s suspension, is refusing to publish a list of the 1,000 low-achieving schools, thus blocking parents from sending their children to ones with better ratings.

Sen. Bob Huff, the outgoing Republican Senate leader, is raising a stink about it. He has an opinion from the Legislature’s legal counsel that Torlakson, a close ally of unions, is still obligated to calculate an API, based on available indices of achievement, such as the state’s newest academic tests, and therefore issue a list.

“Failure to provide this information traps good students in bad schools, with no option to transfer elsewhere,” Huff said last week, demanding that Torlakson act by the Jan. 1 deadline.

Huff’s drive is getting support from the state’s school reform and civil rights groups that have been pressing for more accountability. “It’s most egregious that minority and poor students are unable to leave for better neighborhoods and schools like their affluent classmates,” Bill Lucia of EdVoice said.

Like many other school accountability conflicts, the squabble over whether Torlakson must calculate API scores and publish the list of failing schools is likely headed to the courts.

As Huff was issuing his demand to Torlakson last week, Students Matter, another school reform group, was filing paperwork aimed at compelling 13 school districts to comply with the Stull Act, a 44-year-old law that requires teachers to be evaluated on the basis of academic test results.

Students Matter’s Stull Act lawsuit is one of two the organization, founded by wealthy technology executive David Welch, is pursuing. The other, already decided in its favor and on appeal, attacks teacher tenure and layoff laws it says hurt poor students by saddling them with inferior teachers.

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