For Pete’s Sake, Let’s Try It

Mike is usually the “glass-half-full” guy around Fordham, while I’m the gloomy Gus. On the matter of parent triggers, however, our roles seem to have reversed. He doesn’t think the parent-trigger mechanism will amount to much—and comes mighty close to suggesting that we might as well therefore give up on it. He puts his faith instead in what he calls “school choice,” by which he means more charters, more vouchers, more digital options, etc.

Of course we should have more of all of those—provided they’re accompanied by suitable quality control and customer-information strategies. But why so bleak about parent triggers? Well, Mike explains, they’ll get tangled up in lawsuits—but so does every single one of his preferred options; just this week, for example, the Louisiana supreme court struck down the Bayou State’s new voucher program. Charters get litigated everywhere. So do virtual schools.

Then he says the parent trigger is really a school-turnaround strategy and turnarounds seldom succeed in turning bad schools into good ones. He might try telling that to Arne Duncan, to Congress, and to a throng of states and districts—and philanthropists and nonprofit and for-profit groups—that, for better or worse, have placed enormous hope and many resources in schemes for effecting such turnarounds. No, they’re not very good at it, but most analysts say that school turnarounds generally fail because those involved in them seldom make the wrenching changes—personnel above all—that are most apt to yield something truly different and better. What could be more wrenching than the kind of governance-and-control shift brought about by a successful parent trigger? No, we cannot be confident that the newly empowered parents will then entrust their school to truly competent educators—that remains to be seen. But there’s much about parents that we cannot be confident of, including their capacity to make wise choices among the new school options that Mike puts so much faith in.

Mike’s third argument is that the parent trigger won’t be powerful enough to change the district itself—but then he acknowledges that nothing is powerful enough! Then he half backtracks at the very end and says, well, maybe choice will.

But of course he knows better. Districts only improve if their own leaders are determined to make that happen, and that’s far too rare a situation in American education. They only respond to competition—that is, respond constructively to competition—if they’re well led, not brain-dead, and not completely entangled in their own bureaucratics, contracts, and governance malfunctions. Let’s assume that most bad districts are going to stay bad. Then the job of serious reformers, Mike included, is to give kids every possible exit from them into something better. Helping an entire school to extricate itself from the dysfunctional system is surely one such strategy. Instead of pooh-poohing it, how about we put it on the list of possibilities, wish it well, and do our damnedest to help it succeed as often as possible?

My parent-trigger glass isn’t more than half full. But Mike needs to return to the spigot.

—Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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