Families & the Community

State Lawmakers Throttle Back on ‘Parent Trigger’

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 20, 2014 6 min read
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Interest in the controversial school choice option known as the parent trigger has declined sharply among state lawmakers this year, even as legislators in a number of states forge ahead on tax-credit scholarships and other school choice alternatives.

In 2010, California became the first state to pass a law allowing parents to spark a transformation of a low-performing school. In addition, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas have passed some version of that option, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But no state has enacted a new parent-trigger law since 2012, the same year that a Hollywood film based on the policy, “Won’t Back Down,” was released.

Although 20 states considered trigger bills in 2013, according to the NCSL, the number dropped to 13 this year; seven of those proposals were holdovers that failed to gain traction the year before and had yet to receive a committee hearing this year, as of last week. Two of the recent bills—in California and Louisiana—would simply amend existing parent-trigger laws.

While lawmakers in Alaska, Florida, and Kansas this year have created or expanded a variety of other school choice programs, parents in California remain the only ones to actually have used the parent trigger to restructure a struggling school.

“Even for the states that have adopted the policy, it’s not really having the effect the proponents hoped that it would,” said Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the NCSL who tracks school choice legislation. From the perspective of many state lawmakers, expanding simpler, less controversial school choice programs might be the more appealing course, he added.

Parent-trigger advocates, however, remain optimistic about its broader popularity. States that have parent-trigger policies on the books account for about one-quarter of all public school enrollment in the country, noted Gabe Rose, the deputy director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group that supports the policies and helps parents and other groups seeking to use them.

“I think that’s a pretty remarkable growth trajectory,” Mr. Rose said. “But this is going to take some time.”

Third Time Not the Charm

Parent-trigger laws vary in important ways from state to state. But generally, they allow a majority of parents, if a school is seen as low-performing in some way, to officially petition for that school to be converted into a charter or undergo some other “turnaround” process.

The parent-trigger proposals that have made the most progress so far this year were in Tennessee, but companion bills in the House and Senate ultimately failed by the time the state legislature adjourned April 17.

Momentum Slows

The number of states considering parent-trigger legislation has dipped significantly from 2013 to 2014, and of the bills being considered this year many are holdovers from last year’s legislative sessions. California remains the only state where parents have actually used the parent-trigger process.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures

New proposals have been introduced this year in Illinois, Kentucky, and New Jersey, while there are holdover bills from last year in states such as Georgia, New York, and South Carolina.

In Florida, meanwhile, after two straight years of unsuccessful and controversial campaigns to pass parent-trigger legislation in 2012 and 2013, no state legislator introduced a trigger bill for the 2014 session, which ended May 2. In the past two years, the Florida bills drew intense opposition from teachers’ unions and other advocacy groups.

“The legislature was pretty clear to us that they’d spoken twice on the issue, and there wasn’t an interest in sponsoring it,” said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a Tallahassee-based group led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that is supportive of trigger laws. “Issues rise and fall.”

Those who fought the parent trigger in the state, meanwhile, believe that what’s forced Florida powerbrokers to back away from the idea is supposedly the driving force behind the idea: parent power.

“It’s clear evidence that there is memory with the public, that they don’t like to be schemed and scammed, and they’re watching,” said Kathleen Oropeza, a founder of Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based group opposed to parent-trigger laws, who cited the opposition to the idea by the Florida PTA and other prominent groups as evidence that parents actually don’t like the idea.

Asking More of Parents

Mr. Cunningham of the NCSL noted that how parents choose to use the parent trigger can also affect how much controversy it raises. At Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, he said, the process was used to remove a principal, a move that hasn’t generated the same level of divisiveness as other efforts to convert traditional public schools to charters using trigger policies.

The fear of a legal challenge might also hamstring desires to use them. The charter-conversion process for Desert Trails Elementary, in Adelanto, Calif., involved a court battle between parents and Adelanto district officials over the validity of signatures on the parent-trigger petition.

And trigger laws, even after they’re signed into law, require political advocacy from parents in order to be used in a way that other types of school choice programs don’t.

The issue of who really drives parent-trigger advocacy also remains contentious.

Ms. Oropeza said parents are now highly attuned to the parent trigger’s close ties to the charter-school-management industry, which she views as one of many policies that ultimately sap the power of traditional public schools.

But Mr. Rose of Parent Revolution said that view is way off the mark. He said that when Tennessee was considering parent-trigger legislation this year, one of the local advocates in favor of the bill was the vice president of the Memphis PTA, Helen Collins (who is also a member of Parent Revolution). And he also pointed to the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, in New York state, which has supported the parent trigger.

“It’s their communities and their states. We’re here to support them,” Mr. Rose said.

Expanding Choice

Mr. Rose also rejected the idea that school choice expansion has been a zero-sum game recently, with parent-trigger expansion losing out to tax-credit scholarships and vouchers.

Still, the expansion of some school choice options continues in a number of states even as tangible progress on the parent trigger remains in low gear.

In their most recent session, Florida lawmakers approved an expansion of the state’s long-standing Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, students from households with incomes of up to 260 percent of the federal poverty line (or about $62,000 for a family of four) will become eligible for partial scholarships. Right now, the maximum household-income level for scholarship eligibility in Florida is 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or just over $44,000 for a family of four.

Florida legislators also approved a new program modeled on the Education Savings Accounts in Arizona. The state’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program, if it is signed by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, would allow parents of students with special needs to be reimbursed for private school tuition as well as curriculum, online learning, and occupational therapy services.

Elsewhere, as part of a deal to alter school finance signed this year by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, lawmakers approved a $10 million tax-credit scholarship program. And a bill in Alaska awaiting the approval of Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, would institute a new tax-credit scholarship specifically directed at students in dual-credit courses to cover room and board at postsecondary institutions, transportation costs, and tuition and textbook fees.

The new Alaska program is an example of the “tremendous level of innovation” for choice policies, said Leslie Hiner, the vice president of programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based group.

Because of the relative complexity of parent-trigger bills and what they ask of parents, Ms. Hiner said, “I think it just might take them a little bit more time to develop the idea.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Parent Trigger’ Hits Slow Lane in Legislatures

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