(Reuters) - Parents in the impoverished desert community of Adelanto, California, will become the first in the nation to seize control of a failing public school under a controversial "parent trigger" law, the parents announced Monday.
The Adelanto School District had fought to preserve control over Desert Trails Elementary School. But on Friday, Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the parents had met all the requirements under the trigger law by gathering signatures from the legal guardians of at least half the students at Desert Trails.
Judge Malone ordered the district to validate the petitions and clear the way for parents to take over the school.
"This is a huge milestone in our struggle for our children to receive the basic education they are entitled to and deserve," said Doreen Diaz, a mother who led the petition drive.
Desert Trails, which serves a student population that is mostly low-income and minority, has posted abysmal test scores for years. When they graduate from the school at about age 12, barely one in four students can pass basic proficiency tests in reading, writing and math.
Ben Austin, who helped organize the trigger campaign through a nonprofit group called Parent Revolution, said parents would immediately begin soliciting proposals from private management companies interested in running Desert Trails as a charter school.
The school would continue to be publicly funded and open to all students, but as a charter, it would be free to write its own curriculum and disciplinary rules and hire and fire staff without the constraints of union contracts.
Carlos Mendoza, president of the district's Board of Trustees, said he plans to urge his colleagues to appeal the court ruling.
Mendoza pointed out that nearly 100 parents who had signed the original trigger petition later signed a second petition asking that their names be removed. Many said they had not fully understood the campaign and didn't want to convert Desert Trails into a charter.
The judge, however, ruled that they could not rescind their names.
"I'm disappointed," said Lori Yuan, a parent who opposed the trigger petition. She said she had confidence that Desert Trails was on a path to improvement and said she did not trust a private management firm to run a public school.
"This is a very dangerous opening that could lead to leaving the entire school district vulnerable to overthrow," Yuan said. She called the trigger campaign "a special interest group with an agenda to privatize the public schools."
Trigger advocates say they're only interested in improving educational opportunities for their children.
California was the first state to pass a parent trigger law. It lets parents in schools with the lowest student test scores band together to force change: They can fire teachers, oust administrators or turn the school over to private management.
Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana have since passed trigger laws and they are being debated in several other states, including New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Teachers' unions generally oppose trigger laws, saying there is no proof that mass firings or new management boost student achievement. But the concept of empowering parents to run their schools has gained considerable traction. Last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed trigger laws.
Adelanto is the first community to successfully complete the trigger petition process. Parent Revolution also sponsored another trigger drive in Compton, Calif., but that remains tangled in court.
Reporting By Stephanie Simon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman