The Case Against the Case Against the Parent Trigger

The Case Against the Case Against the Parent Trigger
April 22, 2011

Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk (b.boychuk.3@gmail.com) is a policy advisor for education at The Heartland Institute... (read full bio)

Empowering parents to turn around failing public schools terrifies teacher unions, administrators, and education bureaucrats—in short, everyone with a stake in preserving the disgraceful status quo and resisting innovative reforms.

If that isn’t reason enough to support Gov. John Kasich’s plan to adapt a groundbreaking California law for the Buckeye State, consider not only who opposes parent empowerment but their reasons why.

The program’s called the “parent trigger.” If at least half of the parents of children attending a failing school sign a petition, the local school district must undertake one of several prescribed reforms. Under Kasich’s proposal, options would include reopening the school as an independent community school; contracting with another school district or a nonprofit or qualified for-profit school management company; replacing 70 percent of the staff; or turning operation of the school over to the state department of education.

The Parent Trigger has powerful enemies, both in California (where the law was passed in 2010) and now in Ohio, where the proposal is part of Kasich’s budget. Here are four frequently heard arguments against parent empowerment—and four responses.

The Parent Trigger is unnecessary. Parents already have plenty of ways to get involved with their children’s schools, from the PTA to school-site councils and advisory groups. And they can always air their grievances with the school board, which is elected and presumably accountable to voters.

Those are all fine institutions, as far as they go. But the PTA is too often merely the parents auxiliary of the teacher unions. Likewise, school-site councils and similar advisory groups are easily co-opted by special interests. And school board elections rarely attract more than 5 percent of eligible voters in off-year elections.

Also, all of those groups have to balance the interests of parents and children with the interests of others—teachers, janitors, bus drivers, bureaucrats, and sundry “stakeholders.” The Parent Trigger places a check on those other interests by empowering the one special interest that matters most but rarely has a voice.

The Parent Trigger is too democratic. Giving parents a greater voice in education is fraught with peril, opponents argue, because parents don’t have the credentials and know-how to run a modern school.

“Passionate parents may want to take over a school but may lack expertise on how to run it,” state Rep. John Patrick Carney (D-Columbus) told the Dayton Daily News last month.

Jeffrey J. Mims, Jr., a new member of Ohio’s State Board of Education, was even more condescending. The Parent Trigger, he said, is “another gimmick” that would be “a waste of money, a waste of time, and a waste of the educational lives of children.”

Mims was until last year president of Dayton’s school board, where he served for three years. And how did Dayton’s schools perform during his tenure? The Dayton Public School District has been on “academic watch” since 2007, and 12 of the district’s 23 elementary schools are classified as “academic emergency,” the lowest possible state ranking.

If that’s what expertise delivers, bring on the parents!

The Parent Trigger isn’t transparent enough. California opponents of the Parent Trigger complained that the very low-income parents at McKinley Elementary School in the south-central Los Angeles city of Compton had professional help from a liberal activist group with ties to Green Dot Charter Schools and accused them of tricking dozens of parents into signing the petition.

In fact, the Compton parents’ petition specified a different charter management company, not Green Dot, the alleged misinformation and trickery were never demonstrated, and only a handful of parents rescinded their signatures from the petition.

Given the advantages school districts already hold, it’s tough to see why parent groups should be forced to be more transparent than school district employees. If parents are forced to file official notice they plan to engage in a petition drive to reform a failing school, it’s only fair that they be given access to the data and resources a district or its union surrogates might use to oppose them.

Districts should be held to tight deadlines for evaluating parent petitions, signature verifications should be straightforward, and the law should provide harsh penalties for public school officials who harass or intimidate parents from participating.

The Parent Trigger is divisive. So is democracy. Happy parents don’t sign petitions. They might or might not choose to “pull the trigger,” but when there’s a problem, they have a right to challenge the indefensible status quo.

A parent empowerment law can reframe the way parents and policymakers approach education reform. Ohio parents deserve that choice.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@hearland.org) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News. (Visit on the Web at www.schoolreform-news.org or follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/schoolreform.)

Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk (b.boychuk.3@gmail.com) is a policy advisor for education at The Heartland Institute... (read full bio)