‘Parent Trigger’ Proposals Spread Across Nation

Published December 13, 2010

California’s “parent empowerment” law turns one year old in January, but it is already inspiring imitators and improvements across the country.

Legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia have introduced or are planning to introduce bills modeled after California’s law.

California’s version of the law lets parents or guardians whose children attend a failing public school “trigger” one of four school intervention models simply by signing a petition.

If more than 50 percent of eligible parents at a school sign, the school district must shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter school; or implement the “turnaround” or “transformation” models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) last January signed the parent trigger into law as part of a package of legislation aimed at improving the state’s chances at winning a piece of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top money.

California was not among the 11 states plus the District of Columbia to receive Race to the Top funding, but the parent trigger remains in place.

Bills Seek Improvements
Word of the parent trigger has spread to other states, in part due to a policy brief and model legislation drafted by The Heartland Institute and disseminated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Lawmakers are working on refining California’s law to simplify the bureaucracy involved, strengthen the charter school component, and substitute other options, including tuition tax credits or vouchers for parents to send their children to schools of their choice.

Draft parent trigger legislation in Indiana by State Rep. Cindy Noe (R-Indianapolis) would provide “tuition payments for students who wish to transfer from the school to another school corporation or a nonpublic school.”

Noe’s bill, which began circulating after Thanksgiving but had not been formally introduced at press time, also attempts to address California’s “expiration date” problem with a provision that once a school has been reorganized, another petition for reorganization may not be submitted for at least five years.

‘We Need to Shake Things Up’
In New Jersey, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) has introduced a bill that draws on the Heartland/ALEC model bill and elements of legislation from California and Connecticut. Kyrillos says his bill would empower parents, either by a 51 percent vote or petition, to demand new public school leadership, conversion to a charter school, school vouchers, or closure.

“There is no question there are a lot of schools that are failing, and we need to shake things up, not just by state policy but from schoolhouse to schoolhouse,” Kyrillos said.

An idea under consideration in Georgia, first suggested in a newspaper column by Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk, would expand eligibility to sign a trigger petition from parents to taxpayers generally and would apply to all public schools, not just schools deemed to be failing.

Bill Would ‘Start Discussion’
In West Virginia, Delegate Jonathan Miller (R-Berkeley County) says his version of the parent trigger, which he planned to introduce at the beginning of the 2011 session, uses the Heartland model as its template.

Miller is upfront about the bill’s limited prospects for success in a heavily unionized state, however.

“With the powerful, well-organized teacher unions ready to kill school choice legislation, the task of passing a bill like the parent trigger is quite challenging,” Miller explained.

“Given our state legislature’s strong opposition to school choice, I don’t expect this bill to pass this year,” he said. “My hope is to start the parent trigger discussion by introducing this bill.”

“If things go well, our legislature will take a closer look at this bill during the interim period between May and December 2011,” Miller said. “I hope after examining the parent trigger idea for about one year, the legislature will pass it in 2012.”

“Passing it in 2012 is still a very optimistic projection,” he added. “Our state’s teacher unions are on the prowl to pounce on any school reform focused on school choice.”

Mississippi Simplifies Options
Mississippi lawmakers in April passed legislation similar to California’s law, except stripped of all but the charter-conversion option.

“Our bill allows parents of children in underperforming schools to vote to petition to the state board of education to convert the school to a charter school, which was originally called ‘an innovative school,'” explained Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson), chairman of the Mississippi House Education Committee.

“At that point the parents would elect a management board for the school, composed of parents and hire their own principal and teachers or contract out the administrative functions of the school,” Brown continued.

Bipartisan Support Found
Indicating the parent trigger’s bipartisan appeal, California’s law was sponsored by former State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and won unanimous support from the legislature’s Republican caucus.

Brown says Mississippi’s law, which originated in the state senate as SB 2293, likewise enjoyed broad bipartisan support. “We were not opposed by teachers,” he said. “We included the teacher organizations and local community organizations in the meetings where the bill was drafted.”

The parent trigger has even made an appearance in the Chicago mayoral race, where 19 candidates are vying to replace six-term Democrat Richard M. Daley. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (D) unveiled his education platform in November, which includes the parent trigger as a central plank.

Chicago would be the first major city outside of California to adopt the parent trigger.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.