Research & Commentary: Tennessee Parent Trigger

Published April 11, 2014

Tennessee 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 options, including its conversion to a charter, closure, and offering students vouchers with the school’s per-pupil funds.

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 Tennessee’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 a Tennessee Parent Trigger.


Panel Advances Parent Trigger Bill in TN House 

On April 2, 2014, legislation that would allow parents to decide the fate of struggling schools in Tennessee advanced to the House. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. John DeBerry, was approved in the House Education Committee. The proposal would allow parents of children in failing schools to petition for necessary changes such as converting it to a charter school or replacing administrators.

Tennessee Democrat Proposes Parent Trigger Bill

House Bill 77, a Parent Trigger Bill, is making its way through the legislature in Tennessee. Parents of children at a state school in the bottom 20 percent would be able to petition to change to a charter school or replace administrators and the principal. The proposed petition threshold is 51 percent of parents. The law would give parents political power in schools and serve as an important negotiating tool in improving public education in the state.

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 her strategy to pass the Parent Trigger into law.

Graduation in the United States: Tennessee

This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. Tennessee’s graduation rate is 77 percent. Fewer men graduate than women. Approximately 47 percent of American Indians drop out, as do more than 32 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Tennessee Math and Reading

Although Tennessee made progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress recently, most of its students are still not proficient on the well-regarded national test. Sixty percent of Tennessee fourth graders were not proficient in math and 66 percent were not proficient in reading in 2013. For minorities, the stats are abysmal: only 15 percent of African-American fourth graders are proficient in math or reading. Twenty-one percent of Hispanic fourth graders are proficient in reading and 22 percent are proficient in math. Even fewer students are proficient in these basic subjects in eighth and 12th 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.

Lessons for Tennessee from Florida’s Education Revolution

After the election of Jeb Bush in 1998, Florida embraced many educational reforms for the state’s K-12 education system. Through accountability standards, school choice, instructional-based reforms, and performance pay for teachers, Florida accomplished huge achievement gains. Conversely, Tennessee has experienced very little reform and improvement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows Florida achieved huge gains in reading levels for all children. If Tennessee lawmakers work to emulate these programs, the state could experience similar academic success.

Tennessee K-12 and School Choice Survey—School-Choice-Survey.aspx

The Tennessee K-12 & School Choice Survey project, commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and conducted by Braun Research Inc. (BRI), measures Tennessee registered voters’ familiarity with and views on a range of K-12 education topics and school choice reforms. The paper reports response levels and differences (using the term “net score” or “net”) of voter opinion, and the intensity of responses, regarding where Tennesseans stand on important issues and policy proposals in K-12 education.

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 include. 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 they were written. It also draws on experience with the young laws to suggest improvements.


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].