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.
Such a move shouldn't be controversial, since everyone agrees that parents are instrumental in the success or failure of schools. A hallmark of high-performing schools is often the strong presence of parents — on parent-school leadership teams, as classroom volunteers and, most important, directly involved in their children's education. And advocates for the laws are correct in asserting that parents are emboldened by the process of demanding change from school bureaucracy.
The parent trigger could be a tool to jump-start parent engagement at low-performing schools. But no one should be satisfied that simply signing a petition constitutes sufficient involvement for parents who have been continually failed by their public schools. The ability to demand change may seem empowering on the surface, but that demand is rendered meaningless if parents are not prepared and permitted to be full partners in the school-reform process.
The problem with parent trigger laws as currently structured is that they promise empowerment but don't provide low-income parents the skills and access needed to have sustained influence at the school. Parents may succeed in restaffing the school with new teachers or converting the school to a charter, but if parents aren't connected to the real work of schools (whether it's recognizing and demanding effective instruction or analyzing a school budget), their ability to support improvement is limited.
But when parents feel truly respected and engaged by schools, their involvement can transform the school community. Strong parent-engagement policies, such as the creation of local school councils in Chicago, which encourage information and power sharing, allow parents to have an impact on school success. If a parent trigger is invoked, all parents at the school should receive data and information on the causes of the school's failure and be given an opportunity to fully understand the options that would result from signing the petition.
Engaging parents is difficult but possible, even in some of our most challenged schools. Take the work of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago. Education professor Soo Hong recently examined the association's successful Parent Mentor program being used in low-income schools there. In addition to being trained to be effective assistants in the classroom, parents also learn about issues important to school improvement.
Over time, parents feel more confident to both support their children's individual education and be fully engaged in discussions around school and district policies. Student achievement has increased at schools with the mentors, and mentors have also succeeded in fighting district policies that they felt were damaging to students. That's the type of engagement that we risk losing if we don't demand more following the pull of the metaphorical trigger.
The emergence of parent trigger laws is a clear signal that parents at low-performing schools are eager to be engaged. But parent engagement shouldn't be a one-time affair. Advocates on all sides of this issue should encourage a more robust vision of parent engagement — one where schools educate parents on the necessary elements of school improvement and invite parents to be equal partners in providing an excellent education for kids.
Saba Bireda is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an education advocate living in Washington, D.C. She is the deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.