In defense of the Parent Trigger

Joy Pullmann Managing Editor, School Reform News
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It’s a curious paradox that people and organizations professing concern for the poor often support the very policies that prolong their misery. A new Annenberg Institute paper attacking the Parent Trigger repeats this pattern.

The Parent Trigger is a law in seven states and has been considered in 17 others. It lets parents whose children attend a failing school insist the school’s board implement one of several reform options. These include converting the school to a charter, closing it, or replacing most of the staff.

Annenberg focuses on urban education. Considering that urban schools are consistently awful, logically Annenberg ought to join the nation’s mostly urban mayors and left-right coalitions in heartily supporting the Parent Trigger. The law’s biggest beneficiaries so far, and by design, are poor kids otherwise slotted to receive schooling that does not deserve the name.

In the best-performing urban districts measured by the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress, approximately half to two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient in math or reading. These kids can hardly multiply two-digit numbers or read simple books. Most students that far behind, that early, never catch up. Dropout rates in urban districts are near 50 percent. This is a crisis.

The Parent Trigger gives families a way out of schools that persistently fail their children. It is not perfect — the ideal system would let any family opt out without having to convince a majority — but it’s an opportunity.

The two unnamed authors of the Annenberg brief discuss the two California instances where parents employed the law, taking care to point out how divided parents became, but not mentioning that union officials and the school establishment harassed them at every step.

The Wall Street Journal found, for example, evidence of falsified petition documents, intimidation of immigrant families, and a misinformation campaign in Adelanto, California. In both cases, unions filed lawsuits against the poverty-stricken parents. This is strong evidence the “bitter, divisive” process the Annenberg brief highlights is not intrinsic to parent control but a matter of establishment figures wanting to maintain their grip on other people’s kids.

“Research does not support the elements of Parent Trigger laws,” the brief states. This is deceptive at best. Yes, research has consistently shown school “turnaround” efforts rarely work. (Interestingly, this weak response is an option the establishment appears to prefer.) However, the best studies and the overall research on charter schools both show students in charter schools learn more. And The Heartland Institute — whose work is clearly known to the Annenberg Institute because their brief linked to us — has consistently advocated that Parent Triggers include the best-proven school reform option: vouchers. Of all the gold-standard studies on vouchers, ten show they improve student learning, one shows they have no effect on kids, and none shows they do any harm.

Annenberg says giving parents the power to make changes in their child’s education would undermine local control. Well, how much more local does control get than moms and dads? They’re every child’s nearest guardians. Parents determine health care, nutrition, home safety, and family values, all crucial elements of a child’s upbringing. They should also be allowed to determine their child’s education.

The Annenberg brief spends much time arguing parents should be considered only partners of the government in reforming schools, and never — oh, the horror! — given real authority. The result: failing schools from which parents are eager and indeed desperate to liberate their children.

For the poor just as anybody else, we get better results when we leave the most important decisions about children to their parents, not the blunderings of a self-serving nanny state.

Joy Pullmann (jpullmann@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. You can read more about the Parent Trigger on Heartland’s Parent Trigger page.