“Parent Trigger” Laws Spark Debate Over Strategies for School Reform

Ben Austin  baustin@parentrevolution.org Parent Revolution
Michael J. Petrilli  mpetrilli@edexcellence.net Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“Parent Trigger” Laws Spark Debate Over Strategies for School Reform

Laws give parents more leverage for demanding school improvement, but will they result in legal battles or better schools?

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Parent trigger laws allow a majority of parents at a low-performing school to vote to convert a school to an independently-run charter school or force major staff changes.  In a forum released today by Education Next, Ben Austin and Michael J. Petrilli discuss the hurdles parent trigger groups face and whether parents really can turn around chronically failing schools.  “Pulling the Parent Trigger” is now available at www.educationnext.org.

Ben Austin, whose Parent Revolution group championed the nation’s first parent trigger law in California in 2010, states that “politicians across the political spectrum find common ground around the simple notion of giving parents power over the education of their own children.”  Without an “organized parent effort applying pressure to the system,” he writes, bureaucratic inertia keeps low-performing schools the same year after year.

Parent trigger laws give parents in disadvantaged neighborhoods more power at the table where decisions are made, Austin notes, as they permit a 51 percent parent majority to force a school turnaround or conversion to a charter school.  In Adelanto, California, for example, the school board recently approved the parents’ petition to convert Desert Trails Elementary School to a charter this fall, managed by a highly qualified, nonprofit charter operator.

Austin argues that the parent trigger is a more effective tool for low-income parents than policies that focus on expanded school choice (including public and private schools).  He notes that low-income parents need improved schools for their children in their neighborhoods, and they often lack the financial resources and/or access to information that wider school choice options require.  He stresses that meaningful change for low-income families rests on public school improvement, the sole focus of parent trigger laws.

Petrilli agrees that strengthening parent power over their children’s education is imperative, but doubts that trigger laws will result in significant improvement in schools, even if parent groups are able to surmount formidable opposition from the education bureaucracy.  The lawsuits and negative publicity that bedeviled the movement in California, for example, show that “successfully pulling the parent trigger is going to be a slow, expensive slog anywhere that school boards choose to resist.”

Even if triggers are successfully pulled, both charter school conversions and school turnarounds are problematic, Petrilli notes.  Public schools that have converted to charters often come to be seen as “faux charters” that gain a few operational freedoms, but not enough to make a difference.  School districts and boards often are indifferent to these converted charters and the schools do not thrive;  districts are also reluctant to embrace turnarounds that they did not want.

A more constructive reform strategy, argues Petrilli, is to continue to expand school choice through new, high-quality options.  With more independent charter schools, growing digital learning options, and the expansion of opportunities for private school choice via taxpayer-funded scholarship programs, the nation will have “lots more excellent options from which parents can choose,” and school choice at scale might “finally force districts to improve.”

About the Authors

Ben Austin is executive director of Parent Revolution and former deputy mayor of Los Angeles.  Michael J. Petrilli is vice president for policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.  The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:  www.educationnext.org.

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976, pepg_administrator@hks.harvard.edu, or visit www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg.

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