Revise Michigan’s Parent Trigger Proposal

Published October 3, 2012

Michigan’s unusual legislative schedule means it is currently the only state considering a Parent Trigger bill as nationwide momentum for the concept coalesces thanks in part to a new Hollywood movie.

The Parent Trigger is a relatively new idea. It means parents whose children attend a failing school would have the power, by majority vote, to demand one of several reforms, such as conversion to a charter school, replacing most staff, or closure.

The drama ensuing after California passed the first such law in 2010 inspired a film showing in theaters right now, Won’t Back Down. The movie has inspired protests, scores of op-eds in notable publications, parents organizing in favor of the Parent Trigger in states such as Tennessee, a confetti of indignant teachers union talking points, and policy briefs from education reform greenhouses.

Largely because most other states begin legislative sessions soon after the New Year and end near summer, Michigan is the only legislature actually considering a Parent Trigger bill at the very moment public enthusiasm for the measure is strong. Two recent polls of likely voters both found 70 percent support the Parent Trigger.

Unfortunately, Michigan’s bill isn’t very good.

The Parent Trigger sections in Senate Bill 620 would allow 60 percent of parents whose children attend one of Michigan’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools to petition the state for one of four reform options. It would also let 60 percent of a school’s teachers, combined with 51 percent of the school’s parents, petition. The four options come from federal “turnaround” measures aimed at persistently failing schools: closure, conversion to a public charter school, replacing most of the school’s staff, or more professional development.

There are two central objections to this structure: First, there’s no real justification for a 60 percent majority over a simple majority of 50 percent plus one. Voters elect almost every state official by a simple majority, after all. Requiring a higher bar when the civic networking required to pull the trigger is difficult enough, particularly for communities that already lack social capital, will only make the law ineffective.

Second, most federal turnaround measures have a deeply pot-holed track record, and it would be a shame to give parents such weak options when better ones exist. Only about one-quarter of failing schools that adopted the teacher-focused turnaround reforms have seen any significant student improvement in math and reading, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The others? Still failing.

The charter school conversion and closure options have shown better results, and charter conversion is what parents pulling or considering the trigger so far prefer. The trigger route to that end, because it requires parents to pull together on a common mission to better their children, seems likely to jumpstart the parental involvement central to student success that so many failing schools lack.

Here’s the golden rule for any education reform proposal: Aim for giving parents and families the most freedom and responsibility possible. The farther bureaucrats take education decisions from parents, the less parents will get involved. Less parent involvement–as countless studies and common sense indicate–equals less student learning. Social capital is crucial to forming intellectual capital. If students don’t earn both of these, they get nothing out of school.

This is why the Parent Trigger is a good idea. It’s also why SB 620 needs revision.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.