Parental Involvement and the Parent Trigger Law

The following post was written by Monica Bandy, summer intern for the Alliance for Children and Families Public Policy Office. She is a graduate student and a former Head Start teacher who has been closely monitoring proposed early childhood education reform this summer.

Despite many attempts to improve student outcomes, many schools around the country are still categorized as “failing.” Parents and education reformers who are frustrated with the slow-moving nature of school reform argue that the missing ingredient is increased parental involvement. Currently, seven states have passed laws that allow parents to take on a more active role in turning around failing schools. These “parent trigger” laws state that when 50 percent (or another percentage dictated by the state, but most commonly a majority) or more parents sign a petition saying that a school is failing, the school is forced to take on a sanctioned intervention option. These interventions vary by state. For example, California schools can use one of the sanctioned school turnaround methods from the No Child Left Behind legislation, such as replacing the principal or closing the school. In Mississippi, the school must convert to a charter school.

The parent trigger law is not without its critics. It is difficult to ensure that all parents get the same information even though in many states with parent trigger laws, parents who organize the “trigger” must disclose whether or not they are paid to organize other parents. Additionally, the laws are still in their infancy, and there isn’t a track record yet of how effective schools that have made fundamental changes because of the “parent trigger” are at demonstrating measurable gains in student test scores or other measures of school success.

Charter school management organizations have a particular incentive to engage in parent triggers because transforming a failing school into a charter is listed as a possible intervention in six out of the seven states that have passed “parent trigger” laws. Groups opposed to the parent trigger claim that the law does not embody the true spirit of parent empowerment and can create more problems than solutions. For example, while parents are the ones in a sense “pulling the trigger” to set reform in motion at the school their child attends, the parents aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be included in the decision of what reform option is best. After the transition of a school through the parent trigger it is uncertain what changes will take place and how the changes will affect students. Many have expressed particular concern with charter schools taking over because some charter management organizations have taken heat for not serving the most high-needs students.

Overall, education reform is a slow process and increasing parental power could be one of many necessary ingredients to improve schools. The next step is to rigorously evaluate how the parent trigger law plays out in states by watching test scores and other school outcomes carefully. The first school to open its doors after a parent trigger, 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, began its first school year last moth. Everyone will be watching what happens next.

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