Ohio Parent Trigger Pilot Program: Designed to Fail

Published January 7, 2015

Residents of Ohio may never know whether or not a parent trigger law works, even though Columbus has a pilot program at this very moment.

The reason is simple: The pilot program was set up to fail.

According to Greg Harris, director of StudentsFirst Ohio, the state and Columbus School District have made little to no effort to let parents know about the parent trigger pilot program. Twenty schools in Columbus are eligible for reform under the state’s parent trigger law. The law passed as part of the state’s budget in 2011, and it empowers parents to decide how to reform chronically low-performing schools.

Parent trigger in Ohio applies only to Columbus City Schools and allows changes such as schools becoming charters or replacing administrations. The reform process kicks in if more than 50 percent of parents in an eligible school district or schools within a district sign a petition demanding reform. A petition had to be submitted to the district by December 31 to force a change for the 2015–16 school year.

Harris says the lack of interest within eligible school districts is no accident.

“It’s almost like that is by design,” said Harris, noting the only effort to notify parents has been the addition of a parent trigger page online.  

Harris says the school district’s goal was for there to be no response, which would then lead to the unfair assumption there is no parent interest and the law is not effective and should be revoked. The eligible schools weren’t announced until late summer, and since then, the districts and state have not made an honest effort to notify parents of the possibility of reform, Harris says. The only way parents could have found out about the parent trigger pilot program in Columbus was if they already knew the law existed and looked it up online.

“You have to know about the law in the first place,” said Harris. “The school district should be notifying parents. If you want to make a sincere effort to notify parents, there are a lot of ways to do this: newsletters, sending something home with students, PTA meeting announcements.” 

Harris’ theory doesn’t seem farfetched.

Jeff Warner, communications director for the Columbus School District, said there are concerns the law could create problems for the district, including possible layoffs.

“Columbus has great schools to serve our students,” said Warner. “Since [the parent trigger is] part of state law, we have to abide by it.” Warner continued, “The biggest concern is making sure parents understand what we have available.”

Warner claims the real problem in low-performing districts is lack of parental involvement, and he says some of the state’s best teachers are in schools that could now be considered for the parent trigger.

“If we don’t get the parents involved, the performance is going to be the same no matter what,” said Warner.

Harris and other education advocates argue parent trigger laws inherently include parental involvement by requiring significant support for the law to go into effect.

“The Parent Trigger law gives parents leverage in a system that otherwise acts like it doesn’t have time for them,” said Harris.

It’s sad to know chronically failing schools will be allowed to continue to fail in one of the few states lucky enough to have a law that empowers parents to change the course of their children’s educations for the better. It’s a disservice to students, parents, and taxpayers.