'Parent Trigger' Laws Gain Traction, But Slowly
State lawmakers and community activists are making a new push for "parent trigger" laws, measures that let parents vote to convert academically struggling schools to charters or to radically restructure them in other ways.
But proponents and critics of the often-controversial, citizen-led efforts are divided on just how profound an impact those policies are likely to have on public schools across states and districts, and about who is likely to guide overhauls of those schools—parents themselves or outside organizations.
Opponents of proposals such as legislation recently introduced in Florida predict that they will lead to groups of parents organizing overhauls of schools at the urging of charter school advocates and operators.
Others, however—including many backers of the parent-trigger laws—say that relatively few parents will attempt to clear the legal and organizational obstacles necessary to bring about a school overhaul, and when they do, it will be because the community's frustration with an underperforming school is widespread.
Predicting the power of trigger proposals in states like Florida is difficult because the concept is so new.
California approved what is believed to be the nation's first parent-trigger law in 2010. Mississippi and Texas have also approved such laws, and Connecticut has a modified version of one. At least 12 states are considering proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So far, however, there have been few attempts to restructure schools using the existing laws, partly because of opposition, but also because of the time delay before the "trigger" kicks in for academically struggling schools.
The sponsor of one of the parent-trigger proposals in Florida, state Rep. Michael Bileca, a Republican, discounts the idea that the state will see a "mass conversion to charters" if his proposal becomes law. The power of the trigger is not that it allows parents to impose one academic solution on a school, but that it compels local district officials to take their ideas seriously, he argues.
"If the parents have voice in the school turnaround plan, it's going to be a better turnaround plan," Mr. Bileca said in an interview. "It gets parents engaged in the discussion and in the direction of the school."
Mr. Bileca's proposal would allow a majority of parents at schools that have continued to struggle after being designated for academic turnaround to submit petitions to change the schools in a number of ways.
If a majority of parents signed a petition, the options would include shutting the school down and reopening it as a charter; reassigning students to other schools; contracting with an outside entity to operate the school; or converting the school to a district-managed turnaround, with a state-approved plan for improvement, according a recent version of the measure.
The local school board could select a plan for turning the school around that differed from the one chosen by the parents. But the state school board could overrule the district board's option and choose the parents' plan, if the state board regarded the parents' plan as more likely to be effective, according to the proposal.
The most recent version of the legislation also would require that districts notify parents when their children were assigned to teachers with low performance ratings. That notification would also inform parents that virtual education options were available from teachers who had been rated effective.
The debate over Florida's proposed legislation also underscores the extent to which parents—and groups that say they represent the interests of parents—have very different views of parent triggers.
Proponents and critics of the legislation both claim to have the greatest grassroots support for their position. Mr. Bileca, who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said he has heard from many parents who favor the idea. The national organization StudentsFirst, founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, has circulated a petition asking for supporters to press state lawmakers to approve the proposal.
"If you had a child in a persistently failing school, would you want to do something about it?" a letter accompanying the petition says. "If you had a child whose teacher had been continuously evaluated as ineffective, would you want to know? Most, if not all, Floridians would say 'Yes!' "
But organizations like the Florida Parent Teacher Association, which reports having at least 300,000 members, oppose the parent-trigger legislation.
Mindy Gould, the legislation chair for the state PTA, says her organization wants parents to become more involved in demanding strong school performance. But she says that the measure would divide communities, and that parents could be manipulated by for-profit companies promising to make improvements to schools that they couldn't deliver.
"The bill pits parents against parents," Ms. Gould said. "Our belief is that if you want to empower parents, you have to educate parents."
The parent-trigger concept gained national prominence after California lawmakers approved a measure two years ago that allowed parents to bring about the restructuring of a school.
A group of parents in the 25,000-student Compton Unified School District organized a petition to convert their school to a charter school. (" 'Parent Trigger' Law's Use in California Draws Controversy, National Attention," Jan. 12, 2011.)
The Compton parents' plans were met with strong opposition, and a legal battle over the validity of their effort ensued. Last year, the California state board of education approved regulations to clarify the rules surrounding the parent-trigger process, which have won praise from many supporters of the law as well as skeptics.
Despite the tumultuous rollout in California, lawmakers in other states have been drawn to the parent-trigger idea. But how great an imprint those laws and proposals will leave on school policy is hard to say.
Mississippi has not yet approved any plans for school overhauls endorsed by parents, at least partly because the program is so new that more test results are needed to determine whether academically struggling schools are eligible, said Pete Smith, a spokesman for the state department of education.
In California, the Compton effort is in litigation, and the state has not yet approved any improvement plans crafted by parents through the state's trigger mechanism, said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based organization that is a leading backer of parent-trigger proposals. He believes the new state regulations will help parents interested in pursuing school overhauls.
In Indiana, state Sen. Dennis Kruse, who chairs his chamber's education committee, predicted that if the parent-trigger legislation under consideration there became law, it would be used no more than "two or three times a year," partly because of the difficulty of getting so many parents in a community to agree on a school overhaul.
Mr. Austin also said the idea that parent triggers would bring about widespread restructuring of schools across states is overblown, given the obstacles. He also did not believe that most nonprofit or for-profit charter school operators were eager to take on schools being restructured through parent-trigger laws, given the myriad challenges in turning around those schools and the requirements that they serve a broad population of students.
Over the coming years, Mr. Austin believes, parents are likely to pursue a more nuanced approach to restructuring schools through trigger laws, rather than simply pressing to convert them to charter schools with outside operators.
Parents will use the trigger laws for leverage in negotiating with districts to make substantial changes to schools, which also allow for parental oversight, Mr. Austin said. That approach is now being pushed at Desert Trails Elementary School, in Adelanto, Calif. A group of parents there is seeking to convert the school to a "community charter," without an outside operator, and they are trading ideas with district officials, said Mr. Austin, whose organization is helping the parents.
"The parents are using the trigger in a very sophisticated way," he said. "That is the way the movement is really going to go to scale. Our hope is that, more often than not, the parents will use the trigger as leverage to be taken more seriously."
One of the tensions created by trigger laws is that while they require committed parents to rally behind a cause through political activity and grassroots organizing, "the qualities you need to start a school are not based in politics," but rather sound management, said Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in Chicago.
If parents vote to convert schools to charter status, making them independent public schools, they need to take steps to ensure sound oversight, he said, such as establishing boards independent of operating organizations and with representation from people experienced in law, finance, and management.
Parent triggers "are still quite rare," Mr. Richmond noted. "Everybody is trying to understand what the implications of all of this might be, but nobody has very much experience in dealing with this."
The idea holds strong appeal for Jimella Harris, of Fort Wayne, Ind. She and others in her community hoped to convert a school that was attended by her grandson to a charter school, an effort that did not succeed. She supports her state creating a parent-trigger law.
"It's a tool of accountability," Ms. Harris said. Even if parents "don't know what questions to ask, or who to ask them to" about a school, they "have plenty to say," she added. "What we learned going door to door was they all had strong feelings, and they wanted a charter conversion."
Vol. 31, Issue 20, Pages 1, 22Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as 'Parent Trigger' Push Stirs Debate on Impact