Research & Commentary: Missouri Parent Trigger

Published January 7, 2013

Missouri 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 state legislators in four states have stated their intentions to propose it in early 2013. A Parent Trigger allows 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.

The Parent Trigger empowers parents and increases 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 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 Missouri’s poor academic performance, particularly in urban school districts, 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 Parent Trigger requires these parents to work together, not against each other, and allows them to exercise their rightful authority. The Parent Trigger also gives them a bargaining chip to make school administrators take their concerns more seriously, making it less likely they’ll have to resort to the measure.

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


A Homegrown Charter School: Lafayette Preparatory Academy
The head of a new charter school in St. Louis discusses with the Show-Me Institute her motivations for starting a school that would meet the needs of families in her neighborhood. Susan Marino is a former teacher who found a group of nearby families with similar ideas about what kind of education they wanted for their children. They got together to start an extended-day, back-to-basics school that in Fall 2013 will open for grades K–1 and plans to expand one grade each year thereafter.

‘Parent-Trigger’ Progress
A mother who joined other parents to pull the Parent Trigger at a failing California school won an election to replace the school board president who opposed the parents’ efforts, reports the Wall Street Journal. The school will also become a charter school in accordance with parents’ wishes after two judicial rulings and months of union-led intrigue.

Gloria Romero: The Trials of a Democratic Reformer
The Wall Street Journal profiles a former California Senate majority leader and pro-labor Democrat who introduced the nation’s first Parent Trigger legislation. She calls education a civil rights issue: “If we don’t educate, we incarcerate.” The article describes her clashes with the state teachers union and the strategy she used to pass the Parent Trigger into law.

Graduation in the United States: Missouri
This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. Missouri’s graduation rate is 77 percent. Fewer young men graduate than young women. Approximately 40 percent of American Indians, African-Americans, and Hispanics drop out. As in most states in the past ten years, Missouri’s reported graduation rate has increased (from 70 percent in 1998), but it is still just slightly above the dismal national average of 72 percent.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Missouri Math and Reading
Fifty-nine percent of Missouri fourth graders were not proficient in math and 66 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 14 percent of African-American fourth graders are proficient in reading or math. Missouri’s average student test scores remained near the national average, but its minority student scores were well below the national average. Even fewer students are proficient in these basic subjects in eighth and 12th grades.

Children Trapped in Failing Schools Need Help
In testimony before the Missouri Legislature, Ashley Spaulding of the Show-Me Institute discusses how current Missouri law traps children in failing schools. Missouri parents who cannot pay both taxes and private tuition have few options if the public school system is failing their children. Approximately 200 Missouri school districts had a majority of students scoring below proficient on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) mathematics test in 2010. Also, 63 percent of school districts did not meet the 2010 target for Adequate Yearly Progress under federal law. Spaulding recommends the legislature pass a Parent Trigger law, where a majority of parents can vote either to close their child’s failing school, reopen it as a charter, or give its students vouchers to attend schools of choice.

Charter Schools: Rationale & Research
This Show-Me Institute policy study discusses why 41 states have allowed charter schools and what research says about them. It reviews the history of charter laws and economic principles behind giving parents choice in education. Charters provide free, publicly funded educational alternatives to traditional public schools, using competition as an incentive to encourage innovation, efficiency, and excellence in all public schools, the economist authors write. Charter schools also encourage parental involvement by expanding the options available to parents who cannot afford private schools. In addition, charter schools have a double incentive to perform well, because both the government and parents monitor students’ progress. Unlike traditional public schools, a charter school may be closed if it fails to attract students or perform well.

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 had yet to be implemented successfully in any school, notes Ben Boychuk in a Heartland Institute Policy 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. It 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 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 the previous reports were written. It also draws on experience with the new 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].