Smoke and Guns: Pulling the Parent Trigger

What are Parent Trigger Laws?

 The Parent Trigger movement has caused quite a stir in the education world ever since the first enactment in California.  It is now in full effect in six other states including Texas, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia, with a pilot program in Columbus, Ohio as well.  Furthermore, it has been proposed without success in 14 other states, indicating its fast growing popularity among parents.

What is a Parent Trigger Law?  Parent Trigger laws take various forms in different states, but in general they allow a majority of parents of students in a persistently failing school to petition either the school board or state board of education to enact reform.  Some, such as in California give the parents three different options to petition for, such as contracting a charter management organization, staff changes and budget monitoring, or in extreme cases closure with vouchers to attend alternative private or charter schools nearby.  Others are much more conservative, such as in Connecticut, which allows for parents to form a “school governance council,” to recommend changes to the school and state boards.  This council only has advisory authority and not governing authority and therefore has very limited policy power.  Although, they may vary in extremity, the idea behind all the bills is the same: children are those who have the most at stake when it comes to their education and as their advocates, parents should play a bigger role in policy decisions.

 The Landscape Leading Up to Parent Triggers

 According to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Reading Test, one out of three fourth grades students scored “below basic.”   Unfortunately, scores aren’t improving much as students enter high school as 27% of twelfth graders had “below basic” reading scores.  In 21st century skills such as math, the U.S. is steadily falling behind the rest of the world as the U.S. is now ranked 25th in math performance among 15 year olds.  These effects can be felt throughout the economy as more and more technical jobs are being outsourced over-seas.

International math performance statistics

These trends aren’t new either.  Since the passing of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 there have been various adaptations to education policy by both conservative and democratic parties.  President Clinton passed the Improving America’s Schools Act in 1994 and President George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind in 2001.  However, despite these efforts, average math and reading scores for 17-year-olds haven’t changed since the 1970s.  Parents attitudes towards sub-par performance and stagnant test scores despite years of government reform: let us take a stab at it.  And who can blame them?

Pulling the Trigger

 As of today, only one group of parents has successfully “pulled the trigger” and that only came after a hard fought legal battle.  Parents of Desert Trails Elementary School of Adelanto, CA, petitioned the school board with 466 original signatures, well over 50%, demanding reform.  Desert Trials had failed to meet AYP 6 years running.  However, the school board threw out various signatures based on technicalities and teachers’ unions and other school administrators successfully convinced 97 parents to rescind their signatures.  After dropping below the required 50%, the school board dropped their petition, causing the parents to take them to court.  As of July, 23, the Superior Court of California ruled that school boards did not have the power to rescind signatures due to protection clauses that kept parents safe from pressure from school administrators and teachers.  This is particularly noteworthy, as the parents of Desert Trails were not the first to attempt to pull the trigger, but thanks to the court ruling, they were the first to do so successfully.  The only other attempt was made by parents of McKinley Elementary (Compton, CA) in December of 2010 and was thrown out due to a typo in the petition.  Therefore, this upcoming year will be the first year a school will operate after parent-take-over and it will be interesting to see the results.  Depending on success (or failure), parent triggers could prove to be an integral part of the education landscape or could just be a passing fad.  Surely education policy experts will be watching closely.

 Piecing it all Together

 Are the Parent Trigger Laws an important piece of legislation to put pressure on complacent school boards?  Yes.  Will the parent trigger laws lead to a complete revolution in K-12 education?  Probably not.  There are several key kinks to the laws that could prevent them from carrying out their purpose.  The first is the issue of cycling.  There are no provisions in the laws that stop reform from occurring year after year.  This means that teachers and school board members can rally those in opposition to sign a petition that repeals the previous reforms.  Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for some reforms that may need a few years to really take affect to get played out if parents are impatient.  The key to fixing such loop-holes is to include provisions that allow the clock to restart in terms of calling a school failing.  This would mean that school would be taken off the “needs improvement” list for not making AYP three years in a row and would be put back on if the school didn’t make AYP three years after reform.  This would encourage parents to still be vigilant and involved in their child’s education, but would stop rapid cycling that could potentially leave the school worse off than before.

 Secondly, it must be made clear that most parents are not education policy experts and should not be left alone to make decisions.  The Parent Trigger Laws are great for allowing parents to better advocate for their child, beyond traditional forms such as the PTA or voting for elected officials.  However, although they [parent trigger laws] allow parents to shake up complacent school boards, they don’t necessarily put those most equipped from transforming a school into power.  Therefore, it will be important for organizations that consist of policy experts such as Student First or Parent Revolution to help guide parent unions.

The final thing keeping parent trigger laws from being fully effective is the fight that is put up by school boards and teachers.  In the two cases of a petition being submitted in California since the laws enactment in 2010, only one has been successful and both have been fought furiously.  Furthermore, even at Desert Trails, there has been a threat of appeal.  There is no indication that a petition submitted in the near future would be received more welcomingly, as they are inherently threatening to those currently running the school.  This limits the number of parents who have the time and energy to fight such battles, especially if they go to court.  This self-selects the type of parents who are most likely to push for reform.  They must have the time and resources and often this does not describe parents of low-income students.  Finally, once a petition is submitted, the changes won’t take affect immediately as they could potentially end up in court.

In conclusion, parent trigger laws are good for getting the ball rolling, much like the gun pulled to signal the start of a race.  However, they are not a full-proof plan for raising the education bar. They engage parents and keep teachers and administrators on edge, and for now that’s good enough.