Heartland’s Parent Trigger Efforts Featured in Wall Street Journal

Published November 13, 2010

The editorial pages of this morning’s Wall Street Journal feature a story on the Parent Trigger, a bold new concept in education reform. The article discusses the background of the law and how it is poised to expand beyond California, where it was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in early 2010.

Heartland’s Bruno Behrend and Marc Oestreich played a major role in this story, discussing potential improvements to the law and states where it will be proposed and debated. Heartland will continue to inform the public and legislators about this innovative idea.

Links to Heartland publications on the Parent Trigger and the full text of The Wall Street Journal article are presented below.

For more information, or to find out how to bring the Parent Trigger to your state, contact Bruno Behrend at [email protected] or Marc Oestreich at [email protected]. Both can be reached by phone Monday through Friday at 312/377-4000; Behrend can be reached by phone today at 847/343-4250.


Jim Lakely
Communications Director

The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education

Here’s a Big Idea: A Washington, DC Parent Trigger

Research & Commentary on the Parent Trigger

The Radical School Reform You’ve Never Heard Of

With ‘parent trigger,’ families can forcibly change failing schools.

Debates about education these days tend to center on familiar terms like charter schools and merit pay. Now a new fault line is emerging: “parent trigger.”

Like many radical ideas, parent trigger originated in California, as an innovation of a liberal activist group called Parent Revolution. The average student in Los Angeles has only a 50% chance of graduating high school and a 10% chance of attending college. It’s a crisis, says Parent Revolution leader Ben Austin, that calls for “an unabashed and unapologetic transfer of raw power from the defenders of the status quo”-education officials and teachers unions-“to the parents.”

Parent trigger, which became California law in January, is meant to facilitate that transfer of power through community organizing. Under the law, if 51% of parents in a failing school sign a petition, they can trigger a forcible transformation of the school-either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright.

Schools are eligible for triggering if they have failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” according to state standards, for four consecutive years. Today 1,300 of California’s 10,000 schools qualify.

To California’s teachers unions, the parent trigger is anathema-a “lynch mob provision,” wrote the president of the California Federation of Teachers in his union’s publication. By contrast, to the law’s sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Gloria Romero, it represents “the power of a signature, the John Hancock in the hand of every parent in a school deemed to be failing.” (And, adds Ms. Romero, “to refer to mostly minority, low-income, inner-city parents as a ‘lynch mob’ is really unbelievable.”)

California’s example has already inspired legislation in Connecticut, although Hartford lawmakers ultimately passed a reform package that doesn’t give parents as much direct influence. That hasn’t stopped the idea from catching on elsewhere.

State legislators in five states-Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and West Virginia-tell me that they plan to introduce versions of parent-trigger legislation over the next six months.

“If it can pass in California, it can pass anywhere,” says New Jersey State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who plans to introduce his parent-trigger bill as soon as this month. Mr. Kyrillos is confident his bill will pass, especially since Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, committed in September to supporting the kind of parent-empowering reform that “was recently done in California.”

Even so, if what’s past is prologue, states considering parent-trigger laws are in for some rough battles. “It was brutal,” says Gwen Samuel, a mother whose State of Black CT Alliance led the push for a parent trigger in Connecticut. “Enjoy your family and prepare your strategy,” she warns other states, “because unions are going to come at you with everything they have.”

In California that’s meant, among other things, misinformation campaigns. Earlier this year, before a vote on whether to turn Los Angeles’s Gratts Primary Center over to a charter operator, a flier circulated warning parents not to support the charter option porque pueden ser deportadas-“because you might be deported.”

“They’re afraid to sign the petition,” said one Los Angeles-area mother who is collecting signatures for a charter conversion. “Some teachers, parents, principals have mentioned that if they sign the petition it’s gonna be for the school to be closed, which is not true.”

The growing popularity of parent trigger challenges the common assertion that schools fail primarily because they serve apathetic families. Like charter-school lotteries bursting with thousands of parents and students, trigger drives demonstrate that legions of parents actively reject their children’s failing schools.

The national spread of parent trigger will also demonstrate how the campaign for choice in education-once a predominantly conservative and Republican interest-has gone bipartisan.

The backers of parent trigger in California included Parent Revolution’s Mr. Austin, who served in the Clinton White House; the Democratic leadership in the state legislatures, including Sen. Romero; almost all Republican state legislators; the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson; and the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who was once a teachers union organizer. Also in favor is the California chapter of the NAACP.

Outside of California, the state legislators so far taking the lead are Republicans. And in Washington, incoming House Education Committee Chair John Kline (R., Minn.) says that he supports parent trigger, and that Congress “can make sure federal policy does not stand in their way.”

What unites all these people is the view that parents should be empowered to make choices about their children’s education. As Ms. Romero puts it: “We can wait for Superman, or recognize that Superman is us.”

Stay tuned: By Christmas, says Mr. Austin, one group of Los Angeles parents will announce that it’s reached 51% support for a charter conversion. The defenders of the status quo, no doubt, are readying for battle.