Research & Commentary: Oklahoma Parent Trigger

Published March 17, 2014

Oklahoma 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. A Parent Trigger typically allows a simple majority of parents at a school to “trigger” one of several reform options, including its conversion to a charter, closure, and offering students vouchers with the school’s per-pupil funds. The Oklahoma bill would offer parents the ability to petition the state to replace school staff and leaders at a low-performing public school and to convert it into a charter school.

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 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 Oklahoma’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 and only 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 an Oklahoma Parent Trigger.


School-Choice Push: Education Savings Accounts and a Parent Trigger Law

Four years ago, Oklahoma Rep. Jason Nelson challenged the status quo in education by authoring the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act. The measure allowed parents of special-needs students to use state dollars to pay private school tuition and other educational expenses. About 280 students are now participating. This year, Nelson is aiming higher. 

Point: Triggering Better Schools

Oklahoma Sen. David Holt describes a bill he has cosponsored that would create the Parent Empowerment Act, a version of a Parent Trigger that has been enacted in at least seven other states. It passed the Senate, but limited support in the House means it will be held over until the 2014 session. The bill applies only to schools that have received from the state Education Department a D or an F for the last two years or a D or an F for two of the last three years, provided the most recent grade was a D or an F.

The Trials of a Democratic Reformer

The Wall Street Journal profiles a former California senate majority leader and pro-labor Democrat who introduced the first Parent Trigger legislation in the country. 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 strategy to pass the Parent Trigger into law.

Inside Oklahoma Education: What’s Right, What’s Wrong, and How to Fix It

Education journalist Mike Brake describes his experiences and observations as a public school substitute teacher in a suburban Oklahoma City school district and provides insight into how the system needs to be reformed.

Oklahoma K-12 and School Choice Survey

The “Oklahoma K-12 & School Choice Survey” project, commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and conducted by Braun Research, Inc., measures Oklahoma registered voters’ familiarity and views on a range of K-12 education topics and school choice reforms. The report includes response levels and differences of voter opinion, as well as the intensity of those responses.

Graduation in the United States: Oklahoma

This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. Oklahoma’s graduation rate is 70 percent. Fewer males graduate than females. Approximately 35 percent of American Indians drop out, as do more than 40 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics. In the past ten years, Oklahoma’s graduation rate has barely increased (from 69 percent in 1998), and it is still below the dismal national average of 72 percent.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Oklahoma Math and Reading

Sixty-three percent of Oklahoma fourth graders were not proficient in math and 71 percent were not proficient in reading in 2013, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected nationwide test. For minorities, the stats are abysmal: only 11 percent of African-American fourth graders are proficient in math or reading. Fourteen percent of Hispanic fourth graders are proficient in either. Even fewer students are proficient in these basic subjects in eighth and twelfth grades.  

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. 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 earlier documents 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].