Responding to Jay Mathews: Is the Parent Trigger a ‘Waste of Time’?

Published August 4, 2011

Editors’ Note: In response to Jay Mathew’s Washington Post musings on the Parent Trigger in light of teachers union documents detailing a strategy to derail the parent empowerment legislation, Bruno Behrend, director of the Center for School Transformation, and Joy Pullmann, education research fellow and managing editor of School Reform News, both at The Heartland Institute, opine. 

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews has re-declared the Parent Trigger “a waste of time,” because “firing on [the education establishment] with the parent trigger is like attacking Fort Bragg with a pea-shooter.” Ok, so argument one against the trigger is its opponents are too strong, so best give up? I’m really glad Winston Churchill took that line in the dark days of World War II. What a difference it made to the British populace.

 “Local officials who don’t want us good-hearted naïfs stealing their power have many ways of stopping us,” Mathews writes. “They can get us fighting over which option to choose or buy some of us off with promises they don’t keep.” Sounds like this gentleman indulges in a bit of education policy despair, apparently excusable because he covers it with a pleasant tone of reasonability.

In cases of injustice and petty tyranny, which run rampant in America’s schools, true champions don’t have time for dark diagnoses like these. Instead, they pursue those evil giants as doggedly as little David with his five stones. It’s the only moral, compassionate, and just course to take. 

Which brings us to argument two from Mr. Mathews: parents don’t know what’s best for their children—experts do.  

“The job must start not with us parents, but with imaginative educators…who are willing to stick with their ideas and their school for the long haul. Even if by some miracle we trigger a change in our local school, when our kids grow too old for that place we are gone. The parent trigger people will then have to explain their admirable but unworkable idea to a whole new group of us, just as confused and even less certain we have time for this.”

Here Mathews not only reveals his distrust of one of the deepest of societal relationships—parent to child—but also that he has adapted selfishness as his criteria for personal involvement, just as have self-interested teachers unions and establishment buzzards. 

The Parent Trigger may be small, and so far widely stymied and accused, but the very vehemence of attacks against it suggests this small idea presents a great threat to failed schools and a great opportunity for parents and children trapped in them. –Joy Pullmann


Jay Mathews is just plain wrong about the Parent Trigger and parental empowerment, and his article exposes the weakness in his arguments. First, his headline exposes his bias (shared by many who don’t really understand necessary reforms) about “saving schools.”

Nothing about education reform should be about “saving schools.” It should be about immediately saving kids from having to attend bad schools. The horrible bias in nearly ALL education debates is that we actually care about the “system,” when that system has failed.

Amazingly, Mathews actually writes, “Local officials who don’t want us good-hearted naïfs stealing their power have many ways of stopping us,” arguing that citizens should therefore just put up with the corruption of the existing system and its schemes to disempower parents and citizens.

Yes, Mr. Mathews, let us sit back and wait decades for the “system” to run through even more payroll-expanding schemes to spend tax dollars while entire generations of disadvantaged and poor get a substandard education.

Are you NUTS? The roadblocks and wall of lies put forth by the “Government Education Complex” is the BEST argument FOR the Parent Trigger. Why? Because it exposes the existing education system for the useless, malignant, and greedy bureaucracy that it is.

The Parental Petition is the functional equivalent of Rosa Parks keeping her seat. It is time to send the bureaucracy to the back of the bus, and if they don’t like it, they can get off the bus entirely.

Lastly, Mathews, like Lucy with Charlie Brown, asks that we trust the failed and ossified “system” one (or maybe the thousandth?) more time. To heck with that. Let “imaginative” educators work for more independent and dynamic schools, flipped into independent status by parents exercising long overdue power against a failed system.


Folks, it is time to tell all the apologists for the existing system that they’ve had 50 years and billions of dollars to get it right, and they’ve failed utterly.

The Parent Trigger is not only “workable,” but an important tool for doing what needs to be done, which is to dismantle a failed Government Education Complex and replace it with an open-source learning network of independent education providers. (Charter schools, tutors, digital charters, and vouchers for new and existing private schools.) This system is beyond reform. Fund Children, not systems. –Bruno Behrend 

Image by Ryan M.