Give Needy Parents the Power to Fight for their Kids

Published March 3, 2014

Assigning children to schools by ZIP code especially disenfranchises the poor and needy, because they have the least ability to buy their way to better schools either by moving to another neighborhood or paying for private tuition.

A new bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, would give currently powerless Oklahomans a chance to change that. It’s called a Parent Trigger, and it would give parents of kids attending low-performing schools the ability to change the school’s leadership either directly or by choosing a different organization than its district to improve the school.

Every parent knows that bad situations with kids often demand tough love. Fixing a bad situation requires honesty. A Parent Trigger is a tough but necessary way to acknowledge some schools just don’t do right by the kids they’re supposed to teach. The most recent state report card grades 163 Oklahoma schools “F” because of students’ low academic achievement, attendance and dropout rates, advanced course-taking, and so forth. Most low-performing schools have been bad for many years and have resisted numerous reform attempts.

Parents and voters know this. A January poll found three in five of Oklahomans overall, and also in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metro areas, think their public education systems are fair to poor in quality. Fifty-six percent of those polled said education has gotten “on the wrong track,” and 65 percent of parents with kids in schools said the same.

Acknowledging a problem is the first step toward solving it, as addict recovery programs have shown. The first step is also often the hardest, which is why a Parent Trigger is so contentious, Nelson says.

“If parents were to do a petition, that’s obviously a more public event than a few parents here and there around the state choosing to go to a different school,” he told Oklahoma Watch. Understandably, those responsible for the disasters would rather keep the skeletons inside the closet. Move along, nothing to see here. But when those skeletons are not dry bones but instead living children who deserve the best chance we can offer them, it’s not right to keep government employees happy at their expense.

Every teacher will tell you schools do worse in proportion to the lack of parent involvement. Piles of research back up this common-sense observation. A Parent Trigger is a way to turbocharge family involvement and give parents a real opportunity to effect serious changes, instead of offering them booby prizes such as being allowed to run bake sales or have a 15-minute meeting with an administrator. Parents and the people running the schools often are both at fault for bad academic performance, so the Parent Trigger reaches the adults on both sides of the child. It doesn’t place all the blame on teachers and school administrators or ignore the big influence families have on children’s academic achievement.

That makes a Parent Trigger a win-win for kids, because it reminds parents they are the ones ultimately responsible for making sure their kids get a good start in life, and it offers parents a chance to make good on that responsibility. Right now, many parents—especially the low-income parents who need this ability most—often cannot change their kids’ poor education situation even if they want to. Give them the freedom to step up and fight for their kids. As parents in the other seven states with Parent Trigger laws have shown, they will.