If a bill before the Michigan House passes, parents whose children attend the state’s worst public schools could require one of four potential reforms by signing a petition. Senate Bill 620 would allow a petition consisting of signatures from either 60 percent of the school’s parents or 60 percent of the school’s teachers and 51 percent of its parents to trigger the changes.
Parents could require that the school be converted into a public charter school, adopt new teaching strategies, remove the principal and half the teachers, or shut down.
The bill, known nationally as a Parent Trigger law, passed in the Michigan Senate in June. It would apply only to children attending the state’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
“[The bill] fits with our desire to create more choice and opportunity for parents and students,” said state Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The thinking with the Parent Trigger is … to get the schools that have been continually [among] the lowest performing schools in the state and [create] a pathway for parents and teachers to reconstitute the school to what the parents and students need.”
Five states currently have Parent Trigger laws. The issue has received national attention since the idea first became law in California in 2010 and a Hollywood movie centered on the concept came out September 28.
Criteria for Failure
Restricting the trigger to the lowest 5 percent of schools gives those schools an incentive to improve before parents pull the trigger, Pavlov said.
“I would hope that if you’re on the bottom 5 percent list, you are working very diligently to get off that list,” he said. “It doesn’t require a whole lot of improvement to move from 5 percent to 6 percent.”
“If they are serious about [reform], they would not be on the low list,” he added.
If school choice concerns lawmakers, the law shouldn’t be limited to just the lowest 5 percent of schools, said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
A school just above the 5 percent line would not be subject to the trigger under the proposed bill, giving children who attend it few options despite their school’s also-poor performance, he said.
“You might have parents in schools just above that threshold, or farther above that threshold, that are extremely unsatisfied with their schools,” Van Beek said.
The lowest performing schools tend to serve lower-income students, and socioeconomic status has a large impact on academic achievement, he noted.
This means states should allow parents at any public school to pull the trigger, he said.
Prefers Simple Majority
Of states with Parent Trigger laws, none requires as many as 60 percent of parents on board, notes B. Jason Brooks, director of research for the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. He says he is also skeptical of the option for teachers to trigger reform.
“I don’t see teachers ever voting in favor of pulling the trigger. Maybe they put it in there to make it more palatable to the union, but I think [the union] will see through it,” Brooks said.
Choice Bests Turnaround
The bill’s two federal “school turnaround” options—shifting teaching strategies or replacing staff—have poor track records, Brooks said.
Only 4 percent of schools marked for turnaround made progress over a three-year period, he noted, and “progress” could mean merely increasing reading proficiency from 20 to 25 percent of students.
“The best option would be shutting down the school and opening a new charter school in its place that’s not required to have the teachers union,” he said. “If you really want to improve student achievement, you have to include things like vouchers; give the students options to attend other schools.”
Most parents cannot afford private school tuition, he noted, meaning those schools have the capacity to ably serve more children through vouchers.
Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland.