‘Trigger’ Law Would Spur School Reform

Published December 9, 2010

Imagine a simple law that would serve as a template for what’s achievable in states and school districts across the nation where students languish in failing schools. The law could spur grass-roots “regime change” in public education by giving parents the power to force recalcitrant school administrators to adopt reforms.

Best of all, the law already exists.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last January signed special legislation, part of a package of laws aimed at improving the state’s chances at winning a piece of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top money. The new law lets parents or guardians whose children attend a failing public school trigger one of four school intervention models simply by signing a petition.

California didn’t get the money, but it still has the parent trigger. Now, if more than 50% of eligible parents at a school sign, the school district must shut down the school and let students enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; convert the school into an independent charter school; or implement the turnaround and transformation models of reform set forth by federal Race to the Top regulations.

California’s law is barely a year old, and no school has been triggered. The state board of education passed emergency regulations in August and September clarifying how the law would be enforced.

But the parent trigger’s impact is already being felt across the nation. Connecticut lawmakers quickly passed a trigger law in the spring. Now legislators in several other states, including Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia, are preparing parent trigger legislation for the upcoming session.

The trigger lets parents decide the management of the schools their children attend. The threat of shutting down the school entirely is important in convincing school officials to take parents seriously. No school is closed or converted into a charter school without a majority of parents approving the change. And including the charter option in effect lifts the cap that many states impose on the number of charter schools.

Naturally, teacher unions hate the idea, spreading disinformation and going so far as to call it the “lynch mob” law. (They walked back from that one when it became apparent the people who would benefit most from the law are low-income black and Hispanic families.) The unions worry the law will further erode their power by strengthening charter schools, which are generally not unionized.

It’s telling that one of the first petition drives in the Southern California suburb of Sunland-Tujunga seeks only to replace the administration at a troubled middle school, not convert or close it.

Other states could improve on California’s model by simplifying the trigger to let a majority of parents compel a school district to bring in a charter manager, offer all students vouchers or close the school altogether.

Congress could embrace the concept as well. A change in leadership of the House of Representatives and Republican gains in the Senate pave the way for reviving Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), which the Obama administration phased out last year. Democratic leaders quashed a bipartisan effort earlier this year to resurrect the program.

California’s parent trigger is groundbreaking, just as D.C.’s parental choice program was when Congress established it in 2003. What if these two reform ideas were combined? What if the third option given to parents wasn’t the turnaround and transformation models, but automatic admission to the DCOSP, letting them choose public or private schools for their children? The parent trigger may be the right vehicle for a successful rescue attempt.

A D.C. Parent Empowerment and Choice Act designed this way would expand enrollment in the city’s voucher program, but only if parents really wanted the program to grow. It almost certainly would expand the number of charter schools in the city, which already has a robust charter law. And it would be fiscally responsible by reducing spending on K-12 schools every time a parent chose a voucher for his or her child.

By itself, the parent trigger may not turn around the nation’s low-performing schools, but it can help reframe the way parents and policymakers approach education reform.

It’s one more choice. And it strengthens the only special interest that matters: parents and children.

Boychuk is managing editor of the Heartland Institute’s School Reform News and a contributor to Heartland’s forthcoming “Seven Big Ideas for Congress.”