A New Model of School Reform: The Parent Trigger

Published August 21, 2010

California may have stumbled onto the best idea in education reform since Milton Friedman’s voucher plan. Of course, in typical California style, a great idea quickly became muddied with bureaucracy and watered down with the language of interest groups.

Nevertheless, the Parent Trigger, as it is called in the Golden State, could provide the key to educational success in Indiana and will undoubtedly save Hoosiers money.

Built on the framework of choice and democracy, the Parent Trigger restores power to parents and flexibility to localities in education. When a school is failing (in the bottom 10 percent of the most recent achievement numbers) parents can, with a simple majority petition, opt to usher in one of several reforms: (1) transforming their school into a charter school, (2) supplying students from that school with a 75 percent per pupil cost voucher, or (3) closing the school.                                 

While Indiana’s public schools compare fairly well in achievement to other states, there is room for improvement.  Charters and vouchers have proven to raise achievement, parental satisfaction, and graduation rates. In Washington D.C. for instance, charter school graduation rates were more than 10 points higher than traditional public schools. And almost all the Indiana high schools making the list of best in the nation were charter schools.

The second trigger-able option, school vouchers, introduces competition to a public monopoly and increases achievement. The voucher option gives any kid in a failing school a check for 75-percent of the money to be spent per-pupil in that school. In Indiana this equates to around $7,500 – or more than $1,000 more than the average cost to attend private school. And the money saved in tuition each year could be applied to an education savings account (ESA), which parents can use for other expenses, such as additional tutoring or saving for college or a trade school.

Operating at 25 percent less cost, and with far fewer layers of bureaucracy, charters and vouchers tend to save their state’s sizeable sums of money. While U.S. students’ test scores have been stagnant, per-pupil spending increased by more than 65 percent over the past 25 years in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Meanwhile, Indiana ranks among the lowest states in terms of efficiency in education. Hoosiers spend far more than the national average per graduate. And, in perhaps the most telling number, are second to last in a measure of bureaucracy – with more non-educators on staff than teachers.

With their hands on the levers of control, parents can pressure schools to operate efficiently and in their interests. The lowest achieving 10 percent of schools in Indiana represent right around 100,000 under-served kids. If parents triggered a reform (either a voucher program or charter operator) for just one-quarter of those kids, we would see 64 million taxpayer-dollars saved.

Compare that savings to the cost per-student the federal government spends to institute its reform options in the lowest-achieving 10 percent of schools – a cost of more than $420 million.

For too long, the distance between parents and power has been growing as layers of bureaucracy, special interests, and government control have piled up. When it comes picking a babysitter, for instance, parents have endless choices. This is true for parents when it comes to pencils, crayons, books, movies, early childhood education, cribs, essentially every product or service that their child will use as they grow up.

But this choice is curiously absent from that one decision that arguably affects our children more than any other: schooling.

The Parent Trigger can give parents choice, improve education, and save money. Indiana stands in a position to be a leader not just in reform efforts, but in reform outcomes. And the Parent Trigger is the tool to do that.

Marc Oestreich ([email protected]) is the education legislative specialist at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.