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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

School & District Management Opinion

Making Sense of the “Parent Trigger”

By Rick Hess — August 24, 2012 3 min read

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “parent trigger” and its import for school reform. With the first successful “trigger” effort having played out in California a few weeks back, and the impending release of the Hollywood edu-drama “Won’t Back Down” on the horizon, I thought I’d subject you all to a few thoughts I recently shared on this topic in The Daily:

“These parents did it,” Ben Austin, director of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, said of the parents at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif. “They are the first parents in America to win a parent trigger campaign. It’s a big deal.” Austin is right. It is a big deal and, potentially, a good one.

The parents at Desert Trails were the first at any school in the U.S. to employ the “parent trigger” -- a California law that allows a majority of parents at a lousy school to petition the school board in order to force major changes. The changes can range from firing the principal to converting the school into a charter school.

California’s trigger law currently applies to about 1,300 schools identified as “failing” by the state’s accountability system. In Adelanto, enormous drama ensued when Desert Trails parents filed two petitions, only to have the school board insist that they lacked the requisite number of valid signatures.

The squabble found its way to court, where, it was announced on Monday, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steven Malone ruled for the parents. The Adelanto board’s resistance illuminates the case for the parent trigger. Last year, less than one-third of students passed the state reading exam, less than half were proficient in math, and not even a quarter were proficient in science. And yet the board fought parents insisting on change.

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 overhype 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.

Note: Since this piece was published in The Daily, the news broke that the Adelanto school board voted to reject the parents’ preferred option, which was to convert Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school. Instead, the board approved the creation of a “community advisory committee” that will oversee changes to Desert Trails and report directly to the district superintendent and school board.

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