Research & Commentary: Parent Empowerment in K-12 Education

Published February 8, 2011

Many states—including Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are considering significant education reform initiatives. The Parent Trigger, allowing parents to petition for school-wide reform, is quickly spreading across the nation. Private and public school choice programs are being proposed, and charter laws are being reformed. Although the various proposals are unique to each state, they share one overarching concept: parent empowerment.

Previously implemented reforms have been stymied by bureaucracy. According to the Fordham Institute, only 1 percent of the schools deemed the worst-of-the-worst received the reforms promised under federal law. For example, many states place arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools that can open, who can open them, and how long the process takes.

Empowering parents has been proven to raise achievement, hold teachers accountable, and increase parental satisfaction with schools. Research at Tel Aviv University found that when parents were given a voucher to leave their public school, teachers responded with “open communication and transparency to boost parents’ confidence and trust in their teaching skills”—empowerment legislation forms closer parent-teacher relationships and puts pressure on teachers to produce.

Policy initiatives that empower parents are likely to increase parental involvement and satisfaction and raise student achievement by inviting parents into the process. In a study of 22 parent-empowering programs, Stanford University’s Barbara Goodson and Robert Hess found they all produced significant achievement gains and that it was the empowerment itself, rather than the content of the programs, that was responsible for the gains.

The Parent Trigger and private school voucher programs are the most empowering policies for parents. Instituting these reforms at the state level is thus likely to raise both student achievement and parental satisfaction.

The following documents offer additional information on parent empowerment and the Parent Trigger.

Are Bad Schools Immortal?
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s David Stuit finds that no more than 1 percent of all schools falling under the label “failing” get the promised reforms of either a turnaround or closure under the current system.

Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education
The Heartland Institute’s education team offers a substantive review of the genesis of the Parent Trigger in California and offers a prescription for a better Parent Trigger policy going forward.

ALEC Model Bill: The Parent Trigger
Written and introduced by The Heartland Institute, this American Legislative Exchange Council model bill outlines a recommended Parent Trigger policy. This is a useful guide in developing Parent Trigger legislation.

A New Model of School Reform: The Parent Trigger
This op-ed featured in several Indiana publications makes the economic and academic cases for bringing a Parent Trigger policy to Indiana.

Heartland Experts React to Indiana’s New Education Agenda
Heartland Institute scholars analyze the ambitious plans for reform announced by Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels. Bennett includes the Parent Trigger among his favored reform options.

‘Parent Trigger’ Proposals Spread Across Nation
The Heartland Institute’s Ben Boychuk reports on the rapid spread of Parent Trigger bills across the nation. He points out the draft Parent Trigger legislation in Indiana offered by state Rep. Cindy Noe (R-Indianapolis) would provide “tuition payments for students who wish to transfer from the school to another school corporation or a nonpublic school.”

Parent Empowerment and Teacher Professionalism: Teachers’ Perspective
In a study of Israeli school choice programs, Tel Aviv University professors Audrey Addi-Raccah and Rinate Arviv-Elyashiv find increased parent empowerment created a greater sense of accountability among teachers. “Teachers employed political means: open communication and transparency to boost parents’ confidence and trust in their teaching skills or diplomacy to avoid conflicts,” they write.

The Effects of Parent Training Programs on Child Performance and Parent Behavior
Stanford University’s Barbara Goodson and Robert Hess review several programs that empower parents. All the programs produced significant academic gains, and the content of the program itself was found to be of minimal influence. The authors find that the simple act of empowering parents produces measurable gains in student achievement.

School-Family Partnerships: Promoting the Social, Emotional, and Academic Growth of Children
This collection of essays by prominent researchers in educational psychology, including Herbert Walberg and Sam Redding, identifies a host of benefits from increased parent empowerment. Among the findings: “Parents with partnership-focused role construction tend to model the skills of communication and cooperation that are valuable in classroom learning. Actively involved parents are also likely to reinforce students’ valuing of active engagement in learning and to teach them to engage effectively.”

For further information on the subject, visit the School Reform News Web site at or The Heartland Institute’s Web site at

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. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, contact Marc Oestreich, legislative specialist in education, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].