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Parents’ attempt to take over school prompts debate and a movie

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Who has the power to shut down a school?

The question, one of the hottest in education today, was temporarily answered this week in Adelanto, Calif., when the city's school board rejected a petition from parents to close down a struggling elementary school.

The discussion, however, is far from over. California's "Parent Trigger" Law, which gives parents with sufficient support power to take action against faltering public schools, is attracting fierce opponents and equally vocal defenders — and the drama is high enough that Hollywood is taking interest, shaping a feature film around this very question.

Last month, Desert Trails Elementary School parents submitted a petition to Adelanto's school board that they said contained support signatures representing 70 percent of the student body. The petition, according to the Wall Street Journal, aimed to convert Desert Trails into a charter.

The petition was rejected on Tuesday, however, when school board officials unanimously declared it short of the necessary signatures, reported the Victorville Daily Press, the region's local newspaper.

The Los Angeles Times reported 97 of the original signatures were dismissed when parents revoked them, saying they had been duped into signing.

But organizers of the movement, which has been guided by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution, are vowing to take their case to court. The Parent Revolution blog maintains that the revoked signatures were a sign of "an illegal and unethical rescission campaign run by CTA (California Teachers Association) and local teachers unions."

Though California's controversial law has been in place since early 2010, this is only the second time a community has attempted to wield it. Parents in Compton, Calif., started gathering signatures in fall 2010 to convert failing Mckinley Elementary to a charter school, reported the New York Times, but legal battles over that petition are continuing.

The Parent Empowerment Act, or Parent Trigger Law, essentially creates a union for parents, reported the Times. If 51 percent of parents at a school floundering behind federal standards sign a petition, they may replace teachers or administrators, transform the school into a charter or even shut it down.

California's law was the first, but since its passage, Texas, Connecticut, Ohio and Mississippi have installed similar legislation. According to the Huffington Post, 20 states drafted trigger bills after the first one passed.

Trigger laws nationwide are inflaming an already heated debate about the solution to America's public education problems — and who is to blame for those problems in the first place.

Proponents of trigger laws argue the mechanism allows parents to fight for their children's right to an equitable education, especially in communities where odds are already stacked against them, according to "All Things Considered," a news program on National Public Radio.

For some, however, the laws amount merely to a "parent lynch mob," according to NPR — an ineffectual method that vents anger but accomplishes little else and does nothing to solve the problems of inequality.

The debate has been deemed compelling enough for Hollywood. According to the New York Times, 20th Century Fox will release "Won't Back Down," a feature film about the fictional movement to take over a failing school in Pittsburgh starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and current best actress Oscar nominee Viola Davis.

The film, according to the Times, is another attempt to catalyze a popular response to education reform. Walden Media, which backs the film, also funded the pro-charter documentary "Waiting for Superman."

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com