Research & Commentary: Oklahoma Parent Trigger

Published December 14, 2012

Oklahoma legislators will soon consider 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 four states (including Oklahoma) have stated 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 its conversion to a charter, closure, or offering students vouchers with the school’s per-pupil funds.

The Parent Trigger would empower parents and increase competition among schools, holding educators and school systems 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 already have demonstrated better student achievement at lower taxpayer costs than traditional public schools. 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 those children. The trigger requires parents to work together, not against each other, and only allows them to exercise their rightful authority. The measure also gives parents a bargaining chip to make school administrators take their concerns more seriously, making it less likely they’ll have to resort to the trigger.

The following documents offer more information about the Oklahoma Parent Trigger.


Senator David Holt to Introduce ‘Parent Trigger’ Legislation
Oklahoma state Sen. David Holt will introduce Parent Trigger legislation in the 2013 session, his office announces in this press release. Holt says he supports local control in education, and that parents are the best example of it. His goal is to give parents a tool they can use to “fundamentally change” their children’s education. Before the session begins, Holt is meeting with stakeholders to help generate the best ideas for the bill

Oklahoma’s ‘Best’ School Districts Are Mediocre
Although many Oklahomans know the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts perform poorly, many don’t know the state’s affluent suburban districts also badly need improvement, write Jay Greene and Josh McGee for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Suburban school districts may perform much better than their urban neighbors, but they barely keep pace with student achievement in other developed countries. This puts students at a disadvantage in the global competition for jobs. The authors examine several of the state’s affluent districts to demonstrate their point.

Let’s Trigger Parental Choice
The very best kind of Parent Trigger will incorporate not just public school options but also private school choices, writes Brandon Dutcher for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. This gives parents a true array of choices, particularly since private school choice has a stronger track record of improving academics and satisfaction than public school choice.

Triggering Necessary Change
Oklahoma Superintendent Janet Barresi explains why she supports the Oklahoma Parent Trigger legislation: Students in low-performing schools deserve the opportunity to attend a school that better meets their needs. Children who live in poverty should have the same opportunities as those who live in wealthy neighborhoods, she writes. Having access to the best education possible is the only way out of poverty. When parents have a choice, that can happen.

‘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 triggered school will become a charter school in accordance with parents’ wishes after two judicial rulings and months of union-led intrigue.

It’s Time to Tear Down Education’s ‘Berlin Wall’
Former teacher and union president Doug Tuthill explains his favorite analogy for school reform: East Germany and West Germany. Public school reforms represent ways to fix East Germany, a monopoly system that depends on keeping people in, against their will. Private school choice reforms represent refuge in West Germany, a way to allow people to flourish through freedom. Defenders of our current system of public education argue allowing families to leave will destroy public education, he writes. But tearing down the Berlin Wall made life for the people in East Germany better, not worse, and the same thing will happen with education choice.

Do Parents Know Best?
Many legislators and members of the education establishment believe they, not parents, know what is best for children, writes Brandon Dutcher for the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs. But people motivated by love make it their business to know what’s best for the objects of their affection. And if parents can’t be trusted to choose appropriate schools for their kids, he writes, how can they be trusted to choose legislators who represent them in government?

Graduation in the United States
This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. Oklahoma’s graduation rate is 70 percent, less than the national average. Fewer young men graduate than young women. More than two-thirds of American Indians, African-Americans, and Hispanics drop out. Oklahoma’s dropout rate has barely budged in the past 10 years, but over the same time period most other states’ graduation rates increased.

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 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.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Oklahoma, 4th Grade Math and Reading
Sixty-seven percent of Oklahoma fourth graders were not proficient in math and 73 percent were not proficient in reading in 2011, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected nationwide test. Those figures remain and even worsen for eighth-grade students, and for both fourth and eighth graders in science and writing. Oklahoma’s students, on average, score below the national average on these various measures of basic academic proficiency.

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.

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].