Is It Do-or-Die Time for Parent Trigger Laws?

As states weigh whether to allow parents to take over struggling schools, reformers are still waiting for a successful trigger.
by | September 27, 2012 AT 5:00 PM
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the film "Won't Back Down," which chronicles the efforts of two mothers to use the California parent trigger law. (Photo: AP/20th Century Fox, Kerry Hayes)

Education reform has gone Hollywood. “Won’t Back Down”, to be released Friday and starring a trio of Academy Award nominees (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter), chronicles the efforts of two mothers to use the California parent trigger law—which allows that, if 51 percent of parents at a struggling school vote to take it over, they can hire a new administration or convert it to a charter—to save their children’s education.

It is, in all likelihood, an uplifting story. But it is also entirely fiction.

The fact is that, despite gaining a high profile since the first law passed in California in 2010, there has never been a successful parent trigger to take over a failing school. Six other states have passed their own laws, and 20-odd others have debated such a policy. But the end game—passionate parents intervening to save a school for their children’s sake—has never happened. Several California parent groups have tried, but they’ve been caught in the court system when the school district fought back, as Bloomberg Businessweek recounted in its recent story on the attempted parent takeover of an elementary school in Adelanto, Calif.

Those struggles have led some education reformers to wonder if the parent trigger, while a noble ideal, is a tragically flawed policy in the real world.

“I think it had some promise, but once you see how difficult it is to do, it starts to refocus attention on other school choice reforms that might work better,” says Adam Emerson, director of the parental choice program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. “You’re starting to see a lot of ambivalence and questions about whether this is a viable option.”

And as the fairy-tale story of parent trigger heads to theaters this week, those questions have been amplified. Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and an advocate for returning control of public education to its parents and educators, wrote a blog post Wednesday that proposed a radical idea for reformers: “Maybe we shouldn’t support parent trigger laws at all.”

Why the change of heart? The problem, Kingsland argues, is that parent trigger might “be better at destroying bad schools than creating excellent schools” and distracts from more promising school choice policies. He makes his point through an analogy: if you don’t like the clothes being sold at Target, you don’t vote to take over the company. You go to another store. In the same way, maybe it makes more sense in education to allow parents to choose a school for their children, whether through charter schools or school vouchers, instead of having them take over a failing one.

“I worry that the parent trigger addresses symptoms of our broken system and not its root causes,” Kingsland writes. “In short, it is another example of well-meaning educators falling to the temptation of adding another reform to our unworkable system.”

Parent trigger laws aren’t going away any time soon. They are still the law of the land in seven states, and the Michigan legislature announced earlier in September that it would consider legislation to put a policy in place. Mayors of major cities—Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark’s Cory Booker—have stated their support. But, as Fordham’s Emerson notes, there has been a lot more talk about parent trigger laws than actual movement. If they’re going to become a formidable weapon in the push to improve America’s schools, reformers need to see results.

“For this to really take off as a viable option for school reform, I think there has to be a successful trigger,” Emerson says. “Really, the stars should have already aligned by now. It’s going to be an uphill fight.”