Your Take: Trigger Laws Are No Magic Bullet for Failing Schools
The new state laws sound empowering, but signing a petition is a sad substitute for real education reform.
We all love it when parents get aggressive about their kids' education. In an era of dismal achievement gaps, the public tends to cheer even harder when parents are low-income, black or Latino. Whether it's a felony-offense fib to get a child into a better school district, or forcing a slacking high school kid to stand on a corner with a humiliating sign depicting his GPA, there seems to be a cultural consensus that any action a parent takes in support of a child's academic success is to be applauded.
Enter "parent trigger laws": Newly passed and proposed from California to Connecticut, they promise a role for parents in a big way. All it takes is for a majority of a school's parents to sign a petition demanding action, and the school district must make dramatic changes in staffing or management. These laws appear on the surface to allow for the ultimate in parental involvement. But in reality, they may be a distraction from the type of authentic parental involvement needed to sustain improvement at low-performing schools.
These new laws have been declared a potential game changer in efforts to reform low-performing schools. The laws' supporters argue that instead of idly sitting by while student achievement remains low or worsens, parents are empowered by "pulling the trigger" through the petition process. In California, where the first parent trigger law was passed in 2010, parents can request that the school be converted into a charter school, that the principal and most of the teaching staff be dismissed, that the school be closed or that other changes intended to improve academic achievement be made.
Fourteen states are considering passing laws similar to California's. Rep. George Miller, the education mastermind for Democrats in Congress, has stated that he would not rule out including a similar provision in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
It may be true that they're changing the game, but it's not at all clear that the changes are the ones needed. Teachers unions and charter school opponents are the laws' strongest detractors, arguing that low-income parents are being used as pawns in political battles over school reform.
The one California school where the law was successfully utilized shows the shortcomings of the process. Some parents have complained that the petition process allows one group of parents to hijack school reform and that uninformed parents may be swayed by sophisticated campaigns financed from outside the schools. Because the trigger laws focus on the petition process instead of establishing a system for sustained parent engagement, the laws can easily be perceived as thinly veiled plans to facilitate charter conversion or school closures. Proponents of the laws may gain more supporters if they begin advocating that the trigger be the first step in a much longer process toward parent engagement.