What Really Happens When Parents Pull the "Parent Trigger?"

By Will Dooling and Brendan Fischer

Democrats at the U.S. Conference of Mayors have recently backed "parent trigger" laws that allow parents to seize control of their public schools and fire the teachers and principal, or privatize the schools -- a policy also supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.

Is the "Parent Trigger" a successful plan for empowering parents and promoting school reform, or is it a vehicle for the private takeover of public schools?

"Parent Revolution" Gives Limited Options

Parent Trigger laws allow parents at any persistently failing school to gather a majority and either fire the principal, fire half of the teachers, or turn it into a private charter school. The laws -- which have been proposed in dozens of states and become law in California, Texas, and Connecticut -- have been embraced by some Democrats and groups that claim to support progressive values, despite claims by some that the laws have the impact of privatizing education.

The Parent Trigger has some of its roots in the George W. Bush administration's 2001 "No Child Left Behind" plan. That law required schools that consistently failed to show progress on a battery of tests to, after five years, be placed under "restructuring," which could include turning the school over to the state for reorganization or transforming it into a charter school.

California's Parent Trigger law, which passed in 2010 and has become a model for other states, puts the authority to order "restructuring" into the hands of parents. A majority of parents at any school that consistently fails to meet the "No Child Left Behind" benchmarks (or is otherwise ranked in the bottom 20 percent of the state) can directly trigger one of the following three options:

  1. "Turnaround," which effectively fires the principal and half the school staff;
  2. "Transformation," which fires the principal and institutes a variety of "instructional reform strategies" designed to improve the school;
  3. "Restart," which turns management of the school over to a private charter school or charter management operation. The school must serve the same kids for the first few years but then will operate like any other charter.

According to Julie Mead, Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Parent Trigger laws "suggest to this group of energized parents that one of these things ("Turnaround", "Transformation", or "Restart") is going to work," but "we have no research that any of these models work" to actually make schools better, she said in an interview with the Center for Media and Democracy.

"Schools need reforms," Mead acknowledged, but the limited prescriptions offered by the Parent Trigger in many cases are not the best way to fix a particular school.

Amy Wilkins, President of Education Trust, has expressed concern that for-profit school operators will manipulate Parent Triggers to privatize schools and enrich their shareholders. She notes that in Michigan, the strongest proponents of proposed Parent Trigger legislation are "not the community-based organizations that represent the families stuck in failing schools. Instead, they're the businesses that run 84 percent of the charter schools in the state."

Triggers Pulled, But Fired Blanks

The California law was based on a proposal from Ben Austin, a policy consultant for Green Dot Charter Schools. Austin has since formed a group called Parent Revolution, a group that describes itself as "progressive" while pushing parent trigger laws similar to the California model. Connecticut and Texas have passed pared-down versions of the California/Parent Revolution law by excluding the "restart" option that would turn a school over to private control.

Despite having Parent Trigger laws on the books in three states, the "trigger" has never been successfully pulled.

In California, petitioners have only gathered sufficient signatures to enact parent trigger reforms in two districts, but neither petition drive has yet resulted in transforming or "restarting" the schools.

In Compton, paid staffers for Parent Revolution circulated petitions to convert the school into a charter, but courts threw out the petitions. In Adelanto, a counter-petition effort organized by the school board convinced a large group of parents who originally signed petitions to withdraw their signatures; the battle is still being fought. Some say these fights have led to severe discord in the community.

ALEC and Heartland Propose Parent Trigger Bill with "Voucher" Option

The Illinois-based Heartland Institute, which has recently come under fire for billboards comparing those who believe in climate change to mass murderers, has embraced the Parent Trigger act and is advocating a more extreme model. In October of 2010, Heartland brought its version of the Parent Trigger Act to ALEC, which adopted it as a "model" bill. In contrast with the California/Parent Revolution model, Heartland's bill allows parents to "trigger" a school's reorganization at any time, regardless of whether it is "failing" or performing in the state's bottom 20 percent. Heartland's bill also calls for a "school voucher" option, in which students at a triggered school are provided with "the option to receive a monetary voucher to cover the cost of attendance at any private or other public school."

Parent Revolution says they oppose "voucher" programs that pay for individual students to attend private schools, at the expense of the rest of the community.

Open records requests show that in 2011, Heartland representative Marc Oestreich contacted ALEC members in the Wisconsin legislature with an email offering "to work with you to introduce a Parent Trigger Act in your state." It does not appear that the Heartland/ALEC model has had much traction, in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

However, a similar law, promoted by another right-wing ALEC member, the Goldwater Institute, was proposed in Arizona earlier this year. Jonathan Butcher, the institute's education director, cited both Parent Revolution and ALEC as inspiration for Arizona's "Parent Empowerment" bill. Parent Revolution refused to endorse the bill because of its voucher provision.

Parent Trigger: True Reform or Clever Trick?

Despite widespread support from conservatives, several prominent Democrats also support Parent Trigger laws, claiming they empower parents. The push to endorse Parent Trigger legislation at the U.S. Conference of Mayors was led by Democratic mayors, including Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, Cory Booker of Newark, and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento. Villaraigosa told Reuters: "Mayors understand at a local level that most parents lack the tools they need to turn their schools around."

However, Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration, characterizes Parent Trigger laws as a "clever way to trick parents into seizing control of their schools and handing it over to private corporations."

Ravitch was a supporter of No Child Left Behind and the charter school movement but is now skeptical of both.

She is also skeptical of Parent Revolution, the self-proclaimed "progressive" group. The group claims to be "pro-teacher," "pro-union," and anti-voucher, and focused on empowering parents to improve their schools.

Ravitch, though, notes that the group receives its funding from foundations that have clashed with teachers unions and actively promote voucher programs -- namely, the Wasserman Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "If these foundations were truly interested in parent empowerment, surely by now they would have underwritten the community-based parent groups in New York City and Chicago that oppose the closing of their neighborhood schools. But they have not," she recently opined in the New York Times.

Although Parent Revolution claims to be pro-union, Ravitch notes that if they ever succeeded at transforming a public school into a charter school, "the teachers would be fired and then rehired without a union contract. The charter industry is overwhelmingly a non-union sector."

"If a school is struggling, it needs help from district leaders, not a closure notice," Ravitch said. "Collaboration -- not hostile takeovers -- is the most effective way to improve their public schools."


Playing Russian Roulette with their Children's Education

Thank you for including the crucial information that there have been no successful parent triggers (assuming that privatizing a public school could be characterized as a "success," which many would dispute). Parent Revolution spokespeople falsely told Florida legislators when they were considering a parent trigger bill that there had been successes, implying that there had been many. In Compton, Parent Revolution admits that it orchestrated the entire petition-gathering operation -- planning the professionally run operation and pre-selecting the charter operator to take over the school before even deciding what school to target. In Adelanto, the parents who supported the petitions had a list of demands that included many items fervently backed by teachers and opposed by the "reform" sector that's behind the parent trigger, such as more resources and smaller classes. Parent Revolution somehow persuaded them to circulate two petitions -- one calling for charterizing and the other with the list of demands -- and then only submitted the one calling for charterizing. Many parents recognized they'd been duped. It didn't require the school board to convince them of that. Parent Revolution's legal strategy consists of suing to prevent parents from withdrawing their signatures -- disempowering them, in other words, just in case anyone believed the sham that this fad was intended to empower parents. But all that said, everyone behind this is discovering a large fly in the ointment. Charter operators actually don't want to take over struggling existing schools. They want to start their own new schools where they can pick their students and set their own policies, starting fresh. How embarrassing if Parent Revolution convinces parents to call for a charter operator to take over a school and the entire charter sector says "thanks, but no thanks," which is what appears to be the situation. By the way, Parent Revolution has an interesting dual message going -- most of the time aggressively attacking teachers and especially their unions; occasionally pausing to claim that they're actually pro-union and pro-teacher; then going back to the open warfare. It's not a sustainable message.

The awful thing about this, is is that well-meaning parents might use this option, thinking they are getting more local control over their schools. But once a school is privatized, it becomes a target. I would expect that eventually, large private-equity groups will start buying and selling Charters like they buy and sell commodities. The whole point will be to have the minimum staffing possible, keep the costs as low as possible. This will be a disaster.