Research & Commentary: South Carolina Parent Trigger

Published January 31, 2013

South Carolina 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 announced their intentions to propose it this year. A Parent Trigger would allow 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.

This is more advanced than current South Carolina law, which says when two-thirds of the legal guardians of students attending a school and two-thirds of the staff at the same school sign a petition demanding school conversion, the school can be converted to a charter.

A 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.

Parent Trigger proponents note 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 South Carolina’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 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 South Carolina Parent Trigger.


A Tale of Two Charter Schools
Richland 2 School District denied 400 parents’ request to open an elementary charter school on the same day it approved a request to start a charter school for a small number of at-risk high school students, reports The Nerve. Both applications had been approved by the state’s Charter School Advisory Committee, but district officials feared the loss of students to the elementary school. Now the two sides are lawyering up.

Improved Access No Excuse for Lower Scores: How S.C. Compares to Other States
The data reveal the cause of South Carolina’s second-lowest-in-the-nation SAT scores is not because the state increased the number of students taking the test, reports Simon Wong for the South Carolina Policy Council. Participation actually has dropped, and increased participation does not correlate with reduced average test scores in any case. The conclusion is clear: South Carolina’s students do not graduate ready for college or work.

Viers: Why S.C. Should Look at School Choice
This video shows state Rep. Thad Viers explaining why, despite some good school districts, South Carolina’s education system is in desperate need of help. He notes that nearly half of South Carolina freshmen do not graduate in four years and calls attention to the state’s rock-bottom test scores and high spending. He calls the situation “immoral to the children of this state.” He says bloated bureaucracy is the reason for the problem and argues private school choice and competition will help address it.

What’s the Point of School Choice?
South Carolina dad Jeffrey Betsch explains why his daughter desperately needs school choice: She is mercilessly bullied by her elementary school peers. The outgoing, school-loving 10-year-old has become sad and nervous, and her teachers and administrators are offering no relief. The environment has become so toxic Betsch wants to enroll his daughter in a private school, but he cannot afford the tuition.

South Carolina State Policy Report Card
Under the “empower parents” tab of this Web site, education policy group Students First discusses South Carolina’s policies. It notes South Carolina allows parents to participate in a school turnaround: When two-thirds of the legal guardians of students attending a school and two-thirds of the staff at the same school sign a petition demanding conversion, the school can be converted to a charter. This offers an outlet for parents, but it isn’t enough to be meaningful. South Carolina should allow a Parent Trigger when the majority of parents with students enrolled in a school sign and submit a petition, the group says.

‘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. Also, the triggered school will become a charter school in accordance with parents’ wishes after two court rulings and months of union-led opposition.

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.

The Administrative Gravy Train Rolls On
Many South Carolina school districts are increasing spending on administration faster than on instruction, notes this article from the Voice for School Choice about the Office of Research and Statistics 2011’s “Local Government Finance Report.” It cites five counties for wasteful spending: Greenville, Charleston, Horry, Beaufort, and Jasper.

Graduation in the United States: South Carolina
This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. South Carolina’s graduation rate is 57 percent. Fewer men graduate than women. Approximately 40 percent of Asians and Hispanics drop out, as do 50 percent of African-Americans. As in most states in the past ten years, South Carolina’s graduation rate has increased (from 51 percent in 1998), but it is still far below the dismal national average of 72 percent.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: South Carolina Math and Reading
In 2011, 64 percent of South Carolina fourth graders were not proficient in math, and 72 percent were not proficient in reading, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected nationwide test. For minorities, the stats are abysmal: Only 13 percent of African-American fourth graders are proficient in math, and 12 percent in reading. South Carolina’s average student test scores remained below the national average. Those numbers are 28 and 20, respectively, for Hispanic fourth graders. Even fewer students are proficient in these basic subjects in eighth and 12th grades.

More Money = Better Outcomes?
The South Carolina Policy Council analyzes whether higher spending correlates with higher student learning in South Carolina school districts. It plotted district spending versus several measures of student achievement, such as dropout rates, test scores in math and English, and adequate yearly progress as measured by the federal No Child Left Behind law. In every instance it found that more spending does not correlate with better outcomes.

Test Scores Show Most S.C. Students Struggle with History, Constitution
Of the middle and high school students taking South Carolina’s most recent end-of-course exam in U.S. history and the Constitution, 47 percent failed, and nearly half of the students who passed did so with a D, reports Shawn Cetrone in The Herald. The failure rate is roughly double that of the other three exams students must take, in English, biology, and algebra. South Carolina government and history professors say incoming students know very little about U.S. history and government, while middle and high school teachers expressed frustration at the test’s scope.

School Choice: Let Your Taxes Follow Your Child
School choice allows parents to use tax dollars to decide the best school fit for each of their children, notes Kevin Thomas in the Herald Independent. South Carolina’s towns desperately need to improve education both to build children’s minds now and to attract the businesses that can sustain communities once children grow up and look for work. Everyone, not just the political and economic elite, should have the opportunity to decide where and how to educate their children, he writes.

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 chosen 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
In the law’s first 18 months and despite a steady stream of publicity, California’s Parent Trigger was not 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. Boychuk 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. The ideal Parent Trigger law combines true parental empowerment with responsible foresight and planning to ensure it can deliver reforms effective in 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. Written 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, carrying the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since the first two studies 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].