[Editor’s Note: Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.]
In the Hollywood version of parent trigger laws, motivated parents of children trapped in a failing inner city school join forces to take over the institution and save their children’s futures.
In reality, trigger laws, which allow parents to intervene in a struggling school, are a lot more complicated and controversial.
Versions of parent trigger laws have been proposed in at least 25 states and adopted by seven, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In real life, parent triggers have been attempted only a handful of times.
California in 2010 adopted the first parent trigger law in the nation. Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas have since followed, according to Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at NCSL.
In most states, the laws allow parents to petition for change when a school fails to meet certain requirements, typically underperforming for a number of years. The options for parents vary by state but may include replacing a principal, converting a school to a charter school, or closing a school.
This year, bills to either create new parent trigger laws or modify existing ones – in some cases expanding them to potentially include more struggling schools - are still alive in about a dozen states, while about a half dozen states have already rejected such legislation, Cunningham said.
Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that spurred the original parent trigger law in California and has helped put other parent trigger laws in place across the country, argues the laws empower parents.
“From our perspective, the importance and value of parent trigger is that it gives a legal status and a legal mechanism that parents can invoke and use,” said David Phelps, a spokesman for Parent Revolution. “It’s important that parents have an equal place at the decision-making table, that they be able to put forward a kids-first agenda.”
Opponents say parent trigger laws are a veiled attempt to privatize schools and that they have caught on only because of the money being poured into groups like Parent Revolution, whose funders include the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (There really was a Hollywood movie, “Won’t Back Down,” produced by Walden Media, about two mothers, one a teacher, who join forces to save their failing school.) According to tax documents, Parent Revolution received $7.5 million from 2007 to 2011 to support its efforts.
“We believe in parent empowerment (and) parents having a voice, but we believe the parent trigger doesn’t do any of that and is just a stalking horse for privatization,” said Julie Woestehoff, co-founder of Parents Across America, a grassroots organization working to improve public education by bringing the voice of parents to education debates.
In addition to Parent Revolution, parent trigger laws have been promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit coalition promoting conservative principles that provides model legislation to its members. ALEC claims 2,000 state lawmakers among its membership.
In Florida, a parent trigger bill died in a dramatic tie vote in the state Senate on April 30, echoing the defeat of a similar bill last year also in the Senate. Proponents, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, argued the legislation would have empowered parents. Teachers unions and parents’ groups countered the measure was an attempt to privatize education by handing over schools to private charter school operators.
A parent trigger bill in Georgia sailed through the House this spring but was withdrawn in the Senate in March for lack of votes. Under the bill, parents or teachers could have petitioned to convert public schools into charter schools or to impose a turnaround model, such as removing school personnel or allowing parents to send their children to other public schools.
In Oklahoma, a parent trigger bill that would have allowed parents to convert an underperforming public school to a charter school or fire administrators cleared the Senate but not the House.
“Opposition to this bill has little to do with the merits of the policy, because anyone would tell you that a failing school could use the parent involvement and regulatory flexibility this bill facilitates,” Republican state Sen. David Holt, a sponsor of the bill, said.
Woestehoff said she feels it will be very difficult for parent trigger advocates to put the laws to use “now that parents are becoming very informed about what it’s really about - privatization - and not improving education or giving parents a real voice.”
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in June signed into law what might be considered a reverse parent trigger bill, which will allow parents to shift control of a failing school from the state-run Recovery School District back to the local public school system. Louisiana’s original parent trigger law, approved by the legislature last year, allows parents to shift control of a failing school to the Recovery School District, which is run by the state’s Department of Education and helps manage chronically low-performing schools.
In California, the only state where parents have actually succeeded in activating the so-called trigger, the principal at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts lost her job in May after parents petitioned to oust her. The California law allows parents to activate the trigger if a school has been subject to corrective action under No Child Left Behind for at least one academic year and scores below 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index (on a scale of 200 to 1,000). The law also excludes the lowest-scoring 5 percent of school districts, which qualify for other turnaround strategies.
Weigand’s principal, Irma Cobian, was popular among teachers, and her dismissal has generated concerns that the parent trigger law could result in good educators being removed too hastily.
There have been four other attempts at using the parent trigger law in California, according to Parent Revolution, which estimates that about 1,200 schools, or about 11 percent of those in the state, are eligible for the parent trigger. State law limits the total number of parent triggers to 75.
The first attempt, in Compton, came to an end when a judge ruled some of the signatures on the parent petitions invalid. A second attempt, at Haddon Elementary School in Los Angeles, was put on hold by parents who decided to work with the school district. A parent trigger campaign at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto will result in the school being turned over to a nonprofit charter school operator this year. And in another, at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, parents asked the school district to collaborate with a nonprofit charter school, resulting in the first time a school district opted not to challenge parents working to activate the parent trigger law.
Several attempts sparked bitter controversy, with parents claiming they had been misled by parent trigger organizers.
Because parent trigger laws are so new, there is little research-based evidence on their effectiveness. Even Phelps acknowledged it is too early to tell just how effective parent trigger laws really are.
A 2012 policy memo by the National Education Policy Center, which produces peer-reviewed research on education policy, concluded that parent trigger laws are too new to evaluate. But the center noted a large body of research on the typical outcomes of parent triggers, such as charter schools and governance changes, which indicate that such changes are “not likely to yield any benefits.”
Janelle Scott, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who was one of the authors of the NEPC policy memo, said she would advise lawmakers considering adopting parent trigger laws to “proceed with more deliberation.”
Scott said lawmakers should consider the data on charter school performance, for example, which show that while some charter schools outperform public schools, many perform about the same and some fare worse.