Families & the Community Opinion

Triggering Reform at Public Schools

By Andrew P. Kelly & Phi Delta Kappan — February 29, 2012 14 min read
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An intriguing experiment in direct democracy is afoot in some of the nation’s struggling public schools. Under new “parent trigger” laws passed in California and on the agenda in New York, Ohio, Colorado, and Chicago, parents of children in chronically failing schools can petition to unseat the schools’ current leadership and staff. If petitioners obtain signatures from 51% of parents, the school must undergo some kind of major change. The options include replacing the principal or existing faculty, converting to a charter school, or closing the school entirely. California’s first test case—McKinley Elementary in Compton—provoked considerable controversy, including a successful legal challenge by the district and charges that the school’s current teachers had harassed children whose parents had signed the petition.

The parent trigger gives reformers a new weapon in the battle to improve schooling, and the idea’s growing popularity has excited many across the country. After decades of a focus on parental choice as a way to pressure traditional schools to improve, reformers now have a more direct route to influence individual schools. The trigger gives parents an option other than “exit” through school choice or “loyalty” to the school. If parents can collect enough signatures, the school must listen to their collective voice.

Optimism surrounding parent trigger laws is understandable. We all should be in favor of giving parents the ability to demand more of their children’s schools. But the promise of increased democratic control is not without its pitfalls. In particular, parent trigger proponents must acknowledge that while mobilizing parents to overturn the status quo may be straightforward, encouraging stability and patience after the fact could be much more difficult. Without sufficient attention to the rules and institutions necessary to build stability into the process, parent trigger laws may lead to the same policy churn, inefficiencies, and persistently troubled schools that exist today.

California Test

The parent trigger is elegant in its simplicity: Parents whose children attend schools that chronically fail to live up to expectations can band together to demand change. In California, if organizers can convince a majority of parents to sign the petition and agree to one of the four turnaround models currently favored by the federal government, then the district must implement it. The four options are:

1. Converting the existing school to a charter in the same school building;

2. Replacing the principal and at least half of the teaching staff, and giving the new leader added control over staffing and budgeting;

3. Keeping the school intact but firing the principal; or

4. Closing the school and sending students to higher-performing schools nearby.

In California’s first test case, a majority of parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton signed a petition to convert the school to a charter managed by Celerity, a local charter management organization. Parent Revolution, a reform advocacy group that helped to push the Parent Trigger law through the California state legislature, choreographed the McKinley parent trigger. The move spawned swift and energetic opposition from the school board and the local teachers union, eventually culminating in a successful legal challenge that led a judge to dismiss the petition on technical grounds. When Celerity opened a start-up campus a few blocks away and attracted far less than half of McKinley’s student body (30%), critics argued that the demand for change was not as acute as the petition drive suggested.

As the McKinley experience shows, identifying, and mobilizing sympathetic parents is difficult, and can provoke fierce resistance from established interests. But, in theory, convincing parents at a failing school that anything is better than the status quo should be an easy sell. By definition, these schools are chronically struggling to make the grade.

The real problems are likely to arise after the fact, when any new majority can threaten the agreement struck in the earlier round of petitioning. Just because most parents preferred one model to the status quo the first time around doesn’t mean they’ll stick with it the next year. Barring immediate and palpable improvement, the same frustrations that gave rise to the first petition may resurface to threaten the triggered reform plan.

Political scientists and theorists call this phenomenon “cycling” and have demonstrated that it’s common to many social decision-making processes. Even if individual preferences are rational, majority rule can produce outcomes that are chaotic and irrational. Without built-in rules and safeguards to prevent cycling, majority rule systems can produce serious instability in policy outcomes.

The cycling problem has implications for the parent trigger, and chronically failing public schools may be particularly susceptible to this kind of instability. First, the set of stakeholders at a given school will change over time. Take your average high school: Every year, about 25% of the students move on after graduating, and a new class of freshmen enters. Add to this turnover some additional attrition by students who move or drop out, and the typical year-over-year change in constituents is probably something more like 30%. In other words, any majority coalition that successfully comes together to win a parent trigger petition in one year may no longer be the majority in the next year. Some parents who led the petition drive will move on, and an entirely new group of parents will take their spots. These new families may very well be up for grabs to any group that wants to revisit the earlier agreement. In particular, existing parents who lost out in the prior round of petitioning have incentive to enlist the new entrants in a coalition that overturns the current arrangement.

Second, the challenge of turning around failing schools is extraordinary, meaning that bias against the triggered remedy could be strong. If the new reform plan fails to produce a quick turnaround in school quality, incoming parents are likely to question whether the current policy is effective and demand a change if it isn’t. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that turning around low-performing schools is difficult and that doing so quickly is exceptionally rare. In a study of California’s public schools over the last 20 years, Loveless (2010) found that only 1.4% of the schools that scored in the bottom quartile in 1989 had moved to the top quartile by 2009; 63% scored in the bottom quartile again. And when California intervened in the 20% of schools with the lowest scores on the Academic Performance Index, just 11% of the elementary schools among the low performers were able to make “exemplary progress” over three years; only one out of 394 middle and high schools were able to do the same (Smarick, 2010). In one of the largest studies of comprehensive school reform, WestEd concluded that only 12 of 262 initially low-performing schools were able to make sizable gains in math and reading achievement over a three-year period (Orland, 2011). The study concludes that “if history is a guide, few schools across the nation are likely to be making quick and substantial gains in student achievement that are sustained over time” (Orland, p. 1).

Given the difficulty of quickly turning around failing schools, incoming parents may be biased against the strategy chosen in the first round of petitioning. After all, the logic of the parent trigger is to give parents a mechanism to fix a school that is chronically failing. What’s more, parents who were initially sympathetic to the remedy may also prove impatient when immediate progress proves elusive. This pattern is similar to what my colleague Frederick M. Hess has dubbed “policy churn”—the tendency of school districts to adopt a particular reform strategy, grow frustrated with its failure to deliver immediate effects, and then discard it in favor of an entirely new approach. Policy churn can be just as troublesome at the school level, resulting in inefficiencies and incoherence from year to year.

A Cure Worse Than the Disease?

How do you get around the potential to churn through one triggered reform after another? The key is to create rules and structures that prevent cycling—what game theorists call structure-induced equilibrium. Endowing one group with agenda-setting power can lead to a stable outcome, as does eliminating proposals that have been defeated from consideration, but both of these raise questions about how fair and democratic the process actually is. Policy makers could also build in a specified waiting period after policy choices are made, allowing time for implementation before a new coalition can revisit the decision.

Unfortunately, California’s parent trigger law has few rules that will discourage policy churn. Petitioners can include signatures from parents whose children attend feeder schools, although these parents can’t be the only signers. Including these constituents can cultivate buy-in among incoming parents and should help alleviate some problems posed by yearly student turnover. The law also limits the number of schools that can be triggered to 75 in total, though it is not clear whether that limit corresponds to successful petitions or to schools (which could be triggered multiple times).

Beyond this limit, there is no provision that explicitly prevents parents from petitioning each and every year if the school doesn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). A school is eligible for parent trigger if its Academic Performance Index (API) is lower than 800, has been subject to “corrective action” under No Child Left Behind for at least one year, and fails to make AYP while under corrective action. (Schools must also be outside of the 5% of California schools labeled “persistently low achieving.”) Importantly, the clock does not restart on these criteria after a successful petition. If a school is triggered and implements the remedy but still fails to make AYP and achieve an API score over 800, parents can petition all over again. On its face, this is a recipe for instability and policy churn.

A mandatory post-trigger implementation period also has drawbacks. Sources close to the drafting of the California rules said there was talk of building in a “cooling-off period” after a successful trigger. Proponents decided against it amid fears that doing so would go against the democratic spirit of the law. If the trigger were taken off the table for a set period of time, parents may be less likely to remain engaged and vigilant after a successful trigger.

The ultimate success of the parent trigger experiment may rest on this trade-off between the desire to consistently empower parents and the need to protect against policy churn. The current incarnation of the policy seems to privilege the former over the latter, which is understandable in light of the law’s intent. But policy makers and other stakeholders must do what they can to confront the potential for cycling. The worst possible outcome for parent trigger proponents may be a string of chaotic, short-term interventions that are discarded before they even have a chance to succeed. It’s hard to believe that a school would have a chance of improving amid such upheaval. In the absence of some success stories, the law’s opponents will have a much easier time rolling it back. If the McKinley experience is any guide, there will be no shortage of opponents chomping at the bit to undermine the law’s basic tenets.

Reconciling Empowerment and Stability

Parent organizing groups, coupled with some rules governing the back end of the process, may be key to navigating this trade-off. In the last few years, grassroots groups have emerged to rally parents to the education reform cause. High-profile organizations like Michelle Rhee’s Students First, 50Can, and Parent Revolution have fomented a new strain of parent activism and won significant legislative and regulatory changes. Groups such as these typically are focused on organizing parents to promote policy change, including charter school expansion, transparency on teacher quality, or a successful parent trigger. But policy changes are often vulnerable to subsequent challenges that can undo them. In the case of the parent trigger, pulling the trigger may be the easy part. Institutionalizing this initial support so reforms can take root is likely to be more important to the long-term success of the school and the law itself. As such, the organizing prowess of these insurgent parent groups may be just as crucial after the trigger as before.

Parent Revolution, the group that facilitated the trigger at McKinley, seems to have learned some of this through experience. The group spent considerable energy on the front end of the parent trigger—getting the law passed, organizing parents in Compton, getting the signature drive started and validated, and helping parents choose a charter provider. But as the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, Parent Revolution’s proactive role in the McKinley trigger was criticized for “commandeering the process” (Watanabe, 2011).

The criticism has led Parent Revolution to develop a new approach to organizing and change, one that may help prevent policy churn. The new model establishes so-called parent unions at low-performing schools—voluntary organizations run by interested parents. Rather than a top-down movement to implement a particular change, these unions are designed to endow parents with the power to set their own reform priorities and choose their own strategies. One implication is that parents who come together to form these unions will then have an incentive to push for policy changes and also to make sure those changes remain in place over time. In an ideal world, Parent Revolution could start these unions and then get out of the way, confident that the organization would provide the ballast necessary to see reform through. In reality, though, it seems likely that these fledgling unions will require continued support and mentoring from Parent Revolution and other groups, particularly if their triggered changes are challenged down the line. California is already providing a test for this model of grassroots education reform.

However, even the most successful parent unions will struggle to maintain their initial focus and energy in the face of collective action problems, turnover, and challenges from organized interests. Policy makers should also consider creating post-trigger rules that would encourage stability while leaving parents empowered to make changes. Two potential measures stand out. First, the law could require that any effort to petition again within a certain time period after a successful trigger win a supermajority—three-fifths or two-thirds of parents—rather than a simple majority. Raising the bar would make it more difficult to immediately undo triggered reforms while ensuring that parents could still force a change if the new direction turns out to be on the wrong track.

Second, policy makers could make it easier for post-trigger schools to avoid being immediately retriggered. Already, the law has a sort of safe harbor provision making triggered schools temporarily immune to another round of petitioning for a period of time. The law also could treat the triggered school as a “new” institution, thereby restarting the clock on the achievement standards that the school must reach within a certain time period. Both approaches would acknowledge that reforms may take time to implement fully and would limit the tendency to cycle through remedies if the school doesn’t turn around immediately. It might also free new leaders and charter management organizations to make changes that have long-term, rather than short-term, payoffs. At the same time, triggered schools would still have to meet strict standards to reach the safe harbor.

Don’t Underestimate Opposition

In reality, the potential for cycling may not be as great as predicted. After all, mobilizing stakeholders even once, let alone multiple times, is challenging. For its part, Parent Revolution has found that simply locating a school’s parents is difficult enough, even before trying to mobilize them around a reform agenda. These logistical hurdles suggest that the cards are stacked against repeated triggering and policy churn.

But this perspective downplays the fact that there will be winners and losers in each parent trigger fight, and that the losers may have every incentive to revisit the question as soon as possible. The education reform experience of the last 20 years has produced at least one clear lesson: Proponents must never underestimate the power of organized interests to block, water down, and undo promising reforms. There is no reason to believe that the parent trigger will be any different. In the McKinley case, the district and the local teachers union have vehemently opposed the trigger, leading to a messy legal fight. This kind of reaction is likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

In refining the parent trigger concept, policy makers and activists must acknowledge the promise and the pitfalls of direct democracy and majority rule. Without adequate attention to what happens after the trigger is pulled, this promising approach to reform may be hard-pressed to live up to the hype.


  • Loveless, T. (2010, March 17). The 2009 Brown Center report on American education: How well are American students learning? Washington, DC: The Brookings Institute.
  • Orland, M. (2011). The federal comprehensive school reform program and school turnaround: Key evaluation fndings. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
  • Smarick, A. (2010, Winter). The turnaround fallacy. Education Next, 10 (1), 20-26.
  • Watanabe, S. (2011, September 15). California parents test ability to organize for school change. Los Angeles Times.
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