Research & Commentary: Maine Parent Trigger

Published February 18, 2013

Maine legislators are considering an education reform that has garnered significant national attention: the Parent Trigger. The legislation, first passed in California, has been considered in approximately 20 other states, and legislators in five states have stated their intention to propose it in early 2013. A Parent Trigger would allow a simple majority of parents at a school to “trigger” one of several options, including conversion to a charter, closure, or offering students vouchers with the school’s per-pupil funds.

Maine legislators considered a version of the Parent Trigger during the state’s last legislative session, in 2011, but failed to pass it.

The Parent Trigger would empower parents and increase competition among schools, thus holding educators and school systems directly accountable for their performance.

Critics charge the measure would turn public schools over to private corporations, removing them from state requirements for public schools and reducing the transparency of how tax dollars are spent. They also say not all parents want the power to control schools, and that the law would pit parents against each other and teachers.

Proponents say decades of research have shown private enterprises consistently perform services more completely, less expensively, and with better customer satisfaction than government institutions do. Charter schools and private management have a relatively short track record but already have demonstrated better student achievement at lower taxpayer costs than traditional public schools. Given Maine’s poor academic performance, parents and children need all available tools at their disposal.

Choice proponents also note parental authority over their children’s education puts power in the hands of the people who care most deeply about the children involved. The trigger requires these parents to work together, not against each other, and allows them to exercise their rightful authority. The measure also gives them a bargaining chip to make school administrators take their concerns more seriously, making resorting to the trigger less likely.

The following documents offer more information about a Maine Parent Trigger.


Maine School-Choice Group Examines Policy Goals
Maine’s legislature has formed a working group to generate ideas for school choice legislation it will release in early 2013, reports the Portland Press-Herald. Participants are from various backgrounds, including homeschooling parents, think tank staff, principals, and union leaders.

Maine Residents Revolting against Rising Education Costs as Enrollment Shrinks
As Maine enrolls fewer K-12 students, its per-pupil costs have gone up while its test scores have remained low, reports the Bangor Daily News. This means more pressure on property taxes, which angers residents and frustrates school boards.

A Maine First: 60-Student Cornville Charter School Opens
Maine’s first elementary charter school opened in fall 2012, reports the Kennebec Journal. A group of parents and local residents in Cornville applied to open their own school that would teach everyday skills, including cooking, knitting, gardening, and woodworking, along with classroom lessons based on Maine’s Common Core of Learning. Parents and teachers are excited about the flexibility the new school offers them.

Maine Charter School Overwhelmed with Applicants
One of Maine’s first two charter schools opened in a town where previous public schools had shut down because of consolidation. So many parents want their child enrolled in the charter school that it cannot accommodate all the applicants, reports the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Parents and teachers are excited the school allows them to adopt learning philosophies and curriculum in a style they prefer, yet many parents worry their child won’t get a space in the school.

Maine Introduces Parent Empowerment Legislation
School Reform News reports on Maine’s 2011 Parent Trigger legislation, modeled after California’s 2010 Parent Empowerment Act, which would have required implementation of school-level reforms if half the eligible parents at a school designated “program improvement” for three years under No Child Left Behind “petition for the restructuring of a school that is not making adequate yearly progress.” Restructuring would include transferring students to another school, reopening the institution as a charter school, replacing school leadership and granting greater flexibility in choosing teachers and curriculum, or implementing a “turnaround strategy” with greater state oversight.

Graduation in the United States: Maine
This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. South Carolina’s graduation rate is 76.5 percent. Fewer men graduate than women. As in most states in the past ten years, Maine’s graduation rate has increased (from 71.6 percent in 1998), but one-fourth of its students still drop out of high school, severely limiting their futures.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Maine Math and Reading
Fifty-five percent of Maine fourth-graders were not proficient in math and 68 percent were not proficient in reading in 2011, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected nationwide test. For minorities, the stats are abysmal: only 10 percent of African-American fourth-graders are proficient in math, and 14 percent in reading. Fourth-graders from poor families also do worse: 69 percent are not proficient in math, and 80 percent are not proficient in reading. Even fewer students are proficient in these basic subjects in eighth and twelfth grades.

Confronting the Critics: Myths and Facts about Charter Schools in Maine
Stephen Bowen discusses myths about charter schools pushed by Maine opponents, including that they would increase costs, reduce local control, allow uncertified teachers, let schools convert to charters and thus ditch union contracts, and would be unnecessary because the state already allows alternative schools. He reiterates research demonstrating charter schools allow necessary flexibility and cost containment.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools also outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomize students studied through lotteries and account for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons—research considered the “most rigorous” by scientific standards.

The ‘Parent Trigger’ in California: Some Lessons from the Experience So Far
After nearly 18 months and despite a steady stream of publicity, California’s Parent Trigger has yet to be implemented successfully in any school, notes Ben Boychuk in a Heartland Institute Policy Brief. [That has changed since Boychuk wrote this Brief.] In 2011 at least 14 states considered some form of Parent Trigger. In defeating some of those measures, opponents cited California’s experience with the law. It’s far from clear, however, why opposition from vested interest groups should discredit the Parent Trigger or prove it’s unneeded. This paper shows the Parent Trigger concept remains as sound as ever and argues the Golden State’s experience suggests how the law and accompanying regulations should be strengthened to make it a more effective reform mechanism.

A Parent Trigger for New York: Empowering Parents to Reform Their Children’s Schools
This comprehensive Parent Trigger report from the New York Foundation for Education Reform’s B. Jason Brooks discusses and clarifies the complexities of parent-driven school overhauls, summarizes the experiences and best practices in other states, and offers guidance for a model Parent Trigger law that would allow significant school reform. The report also includes a brief history of the Parent Trigger movement, arguments made on both sides of the issue, and an analysis of the five key features that every piece of Parent Trigger legislation should contain. In the end, the ideal Parent Trigger law combines true parental empowerment with responsible foresight and planning to ensure that it can deliver effective reforms for improving student achievement.

The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief presents the rationale for empowering parents with Parent Trigger legislation and offers design guidelines for parents and elected officials interested in crafting legislation for their city or state. Authored by Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast and Research Fellow Joy Pullmann, it is a companion piece to two earlier reports Heartland published on the Parent Trigger, and it carries the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since they were written. It also draws on experience with the young laws to improve on earlier ideas.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].