Ben Boychuk: School districts can’t just wave off parent trigger law

In the general scheme of things, federal law trumps state law, and state law trumps a local ordinance. But rarely, if ever, has a local school bureaucracy’s opinion trumped state or federal law. Not for long, anyway. Not even if it happens to be the second-largest school district in the country. And not even if it really wants it to be so.

Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District is making an incredible assertion. Officials say that a special Department of Education waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law exempts the district from state laws.

Not all state laws, of course, but one in particular: the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, also known as the parent trigger.

The parent trigger is one of the better reforms to come along in a while. The concept is simple: If at least half of the parents with children at a persistently failing public school sign a petition, they can compel the local district to make certain reforms.

Converting the school to a charter is the one option the law’s critics love to demonize, but it isn’t the only one available. Parents can also force the district to replace the school’s principal and staff, extend school hours, offer extra tutoring or close the school entirely.

The law allows for cooperation and creativity. Last year, for example, parents at 24th Street Elementary in LA used the petition process to reopen the foundering school as a unique public-charter hybrid. They did it in cooperation with district officials – the same ones who now say the empowerment law doesn’t apply for at least the next year.

LA Unified’s lawyers recently told former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the parent trigger legislation, that the district’s federal waiver reset the two-year clock the law requires to show that a school is failing. They also claim that Assembly Bill 484 – which eliminated the state’s old standardized test, annual goals and Academic Performance Index to clear the way for the new national Common Core standardized tests – locks the trigger.

But what the district’s lawyers are really saying is: Don’t blame them – blame the meddlesome feds.

I hope we can all agree that No Child Left Behind is one of the more pernicious recent federal intrusions into an essentially state and local government function. Passed with bipartisan fanfare and signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, the law required all students to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by this year. You might have noticed many children still do not read or compute at grade level, despite the mandate. Maybe only in Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” might such a lofty goal be obtainable. But not in LA, or other districts around the state, including Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, Santa Ana and San Francisco, which also obtained waivers.

But federal waivers don’t excuse districts from making necessary reforms. A waiver simply means districts have more flexibility meeting federal demands. And LA Unified’s position is flat wrong in any event. The federal waiver’s terms are unambiguous: “any State laws or regulations, including those related to … school improvement status, are not affected.”

Guess what? That’s the parent trigger.

But if Los Angeles Unified – or any other district – wants to test the claim that the waiver doesn’t say what it plainly says, the sharks at big law firm Kirkland and Ellis would be happy to educate the district in court.

Kirkland attorney Mark Holscher has successfully sued two school districts – Compton and Adelanto – that tried to stymie parents from using the empowerment law. Earlier this week, he sent a sternly worded letter to Kathleen Collins, LA Unified’s top lawyer.

“If the LAUSD refuses to accept a valid petition from parents at a low-performing school in its district,” Holscher wrote, “this would constitute a clear violation of parents’ rights … . If necessary, we are fully prepared to seek judicial relief on behalf of parents to correct any attempt by the LAUSD to violate parents’ rights.”

At the moment, there are no parent petitions pending in Los Angeles. But that could change at any time. Districts cannot hide behind federal waivers to stop parents from seeking a better education for their kids. Parents deserve a waiver from bureaucratic intransigence.