Another bite at the “parent trigger”

Blog readers know that I admire education commentator Rick Hess. He combines an ardent commitment to reform with a welcome insistence on asking how proposed reforms would work for teachers, parents, and students – in military parlance, the  “boots on the ground.”

So I wanted to share his recent comments on California’s parent trigger laws. Parents in Adelanto, California have been trying for several years to employ California’s parent-trigger law to transform Desert Trails Elementary – a poorly-performing school serving a largely low-income, Hispanic population – into a charter school. They just won a court case, and it looks as if they’re finally going to get to pull the trigger.

Hess applauds the parents’ initiative, and generally supports parent triggers, but he also sounds some warning notes. From his (short) article

The parent trigger’s power is that it enables impassioned parents to break the grip of school boards that placidly preside over educational malpractice year after year. Absent the parent trigger, it’s unclear how the parents at Desert Trails could have forced a change. They could have tried to elect a new school board majority, but parents at a single school usually find it immensely difficult to do so, especially in board elections dominated by school-system employees.

That said, it’d be a mistake to over-hype the parent trigger. Parents don’t necessarily have the skills or knowledge to drive school improvement. That’s especially true in low-performing schools, which typically serve families with limited education or political prowess. Pursued ineptly, the trigger could spur even more ineffectual governance, as families bicker and micromanage. (Chicago’s extensive experience with site-based school management in the 1980s and early 1990s raised just such concerns.)

This matters a lot: We’re likely to see a lot more schools going the way of Desert Trails. The parent trigger has been adopted in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana — and was endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this summer.

The parent trigger is a positive step for long-suffering schools, but it’s no solution. It’s just a chance to push dysfunctional schools onto a new path. Whether would-be reformers are willing and able to help parents seize this fresh start — by providing tough-minded guidance, helping to recruit high-quality school operators, and policing the bad actors — will help determine whether it ushers in real change or amounts to one more faddish reform.

What do you think? Should parent triggers join my list of reforms that would help drive educational improvement in Utah?


  1. Jeffery Hosten

    I agree–triggers are probably good on the whole, but I don’t think they are a panacea. To the contrary, they can cause some problems of their own. Still a net benefit.

    I’m interested, though, in local governance of schools–has there ever been a system wherein each school had a board of governors of some kind? Instead of district-level involvement, this would be school-level. I can imagine some problems, but I’d be interested to read up on it if anyone knows anything about it.

  2. CarolineSF

    Rick Hess is an eloquent and interesting commentator, but he is paid by the so-called education “reform” sector to promote its preferred policies, including privatizing schools. So view all his commentary through that lens, even when he makes a show of skepticism.

    I’m posting from California, where I’ve been following the parent trigger closely as an unpaid advocate and founding member of Parents Across America. Here are some facts about the parent trigger and the Adelanto situation.

    — What the court ruled in the Adelanto case is that parents cannot rescind their signatures from the parent trigger petition. That DISempowers parents, obviously. It’s a “gotcha!” for the billionaire-funded AstroTurf operation Parent Revolution that created the Parent Trigger and organized the petition drive in Adelanto.

    — Parents on both sides of the Adelanto parent trigger have said they don’t want their school to become a charter. The parents’ petition consisted of a list of improvements and changes they wanted at the school. Parent Revolution orchestrated a second petition calling for turning the school into a charter, and then submitted only the charter petition. Now Parent Revolution is supposedly interviewing charter operators about taking over the school, Desert Trails Elementary. But, again, the parents have said they don’t want the school to become a charter. Again, they’re further disempowered by Parent Revolution and by the process.

    — There have been no successful parent triggers, ever, anywhere (assuming one defines success as a consummated charter takeover).

    — In both attempted parent triggers, the school and community erupted into controversy, divisiveness, conflict and chaos. Needless to say, this is not a positive thing for the children, especially vulnerable low-income children.

    — The other parent trigger occurred at McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif. In that case, the charter operator — which had been pre-selected by Parent Revolution with no involvement by McKinley parents — ended up opening a new school down the street. Only a fraction of the families transferred their children. The Los Angeles Times reported that 20% of McKinley families transferred to the charter, though official enrollment figures show only a 12.9% drop in enrollment at McKinley after the charter opened nearby.

    — Reality is — and Parent Revolution admits — that charter operators don’t like to take over existing struggling schools. They prefer to start their own schools, where they can pick their own students and set their own policies. That reality puts a huge damper on the magical thinking that charter operators will take over schools and all will be wonderful.

    — Charter schools overall are no more successful than public schools in any case, and “takeover” charters have an especially poor record.

    — The parent trigger is a fraud cooked up mostly to score funding for Parent Revolution from its wealthy benefactors. Ask tougher questions and be skeptical; don’t buy the propaganda from those in the pay of the bounteously funded “reform” sector.

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