In the News The National Law Journal

First-of-its-Kind Lawsuit Seeks to Improve Los Angeles School

Mark Holscher and Jay Lefkowitz, partners at Kirkland & Ellis, filed a complaint on Feb. 3 against the Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles — the first lawsuit brought under California's "parent trigger act." The law, enacted last year as the Parent Empowerment Act, gives parents the legal means to make changes to public schools they deem under-performing.

Holscher & Lefkowitz, who are handling the case pro bono, represent six parents of children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the Compton district of L.A., and 10 of the school's current and former students, in the proposed class action. They told The National Law Journal that additional states are considering laws like the parent trigger act. A lawyer for the Compton Unified School District, Barrett Green, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Littler Mendelson, did not return a call for comment.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

NLJ: What is the parent trigger act?

M.H.: It gives parents the right to petition to change a failing school. If 51% sign a petition [saying that] they want to change a failing school, the school district has to honor it, unless it's impossible. Options include replacing the teachers or, in this case, requesting a charter school be provided for the kids — and there's a charter school operator, Celerity, that is prepared to teach these kids.

NLJ: Why was it passed?

J.L.: It's part of the ongoing effort to innovate in the areas of school reform. Obviously, education is one of the most important functions of state and local government. And when you have a situation like we've had in a lot of big cities and really statewide in California, where you have public schools that are simply failing to perform properly, education reform advocates have been looking for ways to really shake up the system. What the parent trigger act does is allow the parents to mobilize and become a powerful force, an organized force, to assert their rights on behalf of their children. This is something just now taking hold around the country.

There are a variety of educational reform activities going on, in particular in Florida, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They're all looking at different types of legislation that would expand opportunities for children, particularly low-income families.

NLJ: How did this school dispute evolve into a lawsuit?

J.L.: What happened here is that the parents, pursuant to the statute, signed a petition…[which required] the school district to begin the process of converting the school to a charter school. The school district was resistant to this and dragging its feet, and imposing a variety of roadblocks to really impede the implementation of this statute. We've been sitting back and waiting for the school district to approve the petition, and it became clear the school board was taking steps that were really abridging the parents' rights to petition the school, impinging First Amendment rights, the right to petition properly. We finally decided there was no alternative other than to go to court and seek a temporary restraining order against the district.

M.H.: We filed the complaint and went for a temporary restraining order because the district was requiring these immigrant family parents to come to a face-to-face meeting with the district and bring formal identification to re-affirm their petition. The district was taking the position that if the parents did not show up this Saturday for this meeting and bring identification and meet with them face to face, the district would strike them from the petition. As Jay explained, the reason we filed the complaint and TRO is that there is California law and U.S. constitutional law that makes clear if a party signs a petition you can't put these onerous burdens on them. The district was making it harder for this group to sign a petition than it would be to vote for the president of the United States.

NLJ: You obtained the TRO on Feb. 3. Now what?

M.H.: Judge Robert O'Brien of the L.A. Superior Court granted a large part of our request for a TRO. He barred the district from demanding that the parents meet with them face to face and present some sort of official verification for their petition to stand.

The preliminary injunction hearing is set for Feb. 24. The trigger statue regulation estimated it would take about 2 1/2 weeks to verify a petition. The district has now had the petition for two months. I think we expect the district to fight the petition and the establishment of a charter school, and I can't give you a timetable as to when this will be resolved.

NLJ: You just settled another case in Los Angeles dealing with recent budget cuts to schools. What was that case about?

M.H.: Diana Torres and Elisa Miller of the Los Angeles office of Kirkland worked with the mayor's office and a number of groups to change the Los Angeles school district's policy so that the district could, if it faced shortfalls, adjust its teachers based upon merit rather than seniority. It was based on protecting the children's fundamental right to a basic education. That was a groundbreaking case because it reaffirmed the California constitutional right of children to get a decent education. The importance of the case is it allows the school district some flexibility to keep its best teachers rather than keep its most senior teachers.