Research & Commentary: The Nevada Parent Trigger

Published December 6, 2012

Nevada 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 four states have stated their 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 conversion to a charter, closure, or offering students vouchers with the school’s per-pupil funds.

The Parent Trigger empowers parents and increases competition among schools, thus holding educators and school systems directly accountable for their performance.

Critics charge the trigger can 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 effectively, 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 Nevada’s abysmal academic performance, 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 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 the need to resort to the trigger less likely.

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


Nevadans Weigh ‘Parent Trigger’ Idea, Empowering Parents to Reform Failing Schools
Parent organizing nonprofit Parent Revolution filed a bill draft request in September for a Nevada Parent Trigger, reports the Las Vegas Sun. The bill would allow parents and teachers to petition school districts to execute one of several federal school improvement initiatives, including replacing the principal and half the staff, closing the school, or converting it into a charter school. Nevada is ripe for bottom-up education reforms because it ranks worst in the nation for education, bill proponents said.

Nevada Senate Bill 366, 76th Regular Session (2011)
This Parent Trigger bill was introduced in Nevada in 2011 and referred to the Senate Education Committee, where it has received no action yet. It would allow at least 51 percent of parents whose children attend a school designated by the state as “demonstrating need for improvement” to require one of three reform options: restarted as a charter school, closure, or giving the students vouchers to attend schools of choice.

‘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.

Graduation in the United States
This EPE Research Center report lists the latest graduation rates by state and student race. Nevada has the lowest graduation rate of all the states, at 44.3 percent. Fewer young men graduate than young women. Approximately two-thirds of American Indians, African-Americans, and Hispanics drop out. Nevada’s graduation rate has declined by 24.6 percentage points in the past 10 years, the largest decline in the country. Most other states’ graduation rates improved during that time.

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 nation. 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 for passing the Parent Trigger into law.

National Assessment of Educational Progress: Nevada, 4th Grade Math and Reading
Sixty percent of Nevada fourth graders were not proficient in math and 70 percent were not proficient in reading in 2011, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most respected nationwide test. Despite recent progress upward, Nevada still ranks in the bottom five states for academic achievement, and average student test scores are far below the national average.

Analysis Shows Little to No Correlation Between Education Spending and Student Achievement
While Nevada has nearly tripled inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in the past 50 years, its student achievement and high school graduation rates have plummeted, writes Victor Joecks in this analysis for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Even so, the state’s teachers union wants the state to spend more. These are the statistics behind the face of a schoolchild who is stuck in a failing school, year after year, and the broken-hearted parents who cannot afford to send their children to effective schools, he writes.

Back to Schools You Wouldn’t Choose
Families who live in low-income areas and have been zoned into failing public schools are most likely to benefit from greater school choice, documents Geoffrey Lawrence in a commentary for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Traditional public education’s failures amplify the cycle of poverty in those neighborhoods, and the statistics are against children from Nevada’s low-income neighborhoods. That’s why Nevada lawmakers should put school choice at the top of their legislative priority list, he says.

The How and Why of School Choice
Jurisdictions that allow families to choose their children’s schools have seen those families leave failing schools and embrace better options, writes Geoffrey Lawrence for the Nevada Policy Research Institute. As a result, those children have achieved more – graduating at higher rates, attending college, and more likely to avoid prison. These benefits have been particularly pronounced among students from low-income, minority, and failing-school-zoned families. Lawrence discusses the various kinds of school choice, including vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, noting the pros and cons of each.

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 it 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 new 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].