There’s a better way to unlock parent power than the parent trigger
It’s hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind the parent trigger. Here’s a mechanism that empowers disadvantaged parents to force speedy and transformative change on schools long considered dysfunctional. It upends the stasis that pervades so many urban districts: the veto power that teachers unions and other adult interests hold over all decisions; the culture of low expectations that blames social factors (and the parents themselves) for poor student achievement; the slow pace of reform that subjects yet another generation of students to failure while the system struggles to get its act together.
For these reasons and more, it’s worth experimenting with the parent trigger. But I strongly suspect that the experiment will fall flat, at least most of the time and at least when it comes to turning around failing schools and/or forcing significant reform on the part of failing school districts. Three factors come into play here. First, the parent trigger mechanism itself will continue to get bogged down in lawsuits and other blocking tactics, as has been the case to date. Second, if and when the trigger gets pulled, the resulting school turnarounds won’t generally amount to much. And third, empowering parents via the parent trigger (creating a “bargaining chip”) won’t be enough to force larger changes in dysfunctional districts—because nothing will force such change.
The Lawyer Trigger
Parent Revolution has launched parent trigger campaigns in two California schools: McKinley Elementary in Compton and Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto. (As this article went to press, Parent Revolution helped parents pull the trigger in a third school, 24th Street Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and a fourth campaign is underway.)
The campaigns in McKinley and Desert Trails were characterized predominantly by lawsuits that revolved, first, around the parent signatures on the trigger petitions. In Compton, district officials demanded that signatures be verified in person and with photo identification (reminiscent of the wave of Voter ID laws passed by Republicans in 2011–12). A judge issued a restraining order, ruling that such requirements were illegal. Compton was allowed to crosscheck signatures with student records, however, and to reject those that did not match. Compton also wanted to allow parents to rescind their support for the petition, arguing that they weren’t truly aware of what they were signing. These strategies eventually succeeded: The effort fizzled, and Parent Revolution lobbied the state board of education to tighten its regulations in an attempt to prevent such tactics from prevailing the next time around.
The story started out much the same in Adelanto. Parent Revolution organized a trigger petition and obtained signatures from a majority of Desert Trails’ parents. But the school board then allowed parents to rescind their support for the petition (ninety-seven did so), causing it to fail. Parent Revolution sued, and a county judge ruled that the board’s action was illegal; it could only verify signatures, not give parents a chance to remove them.
Soon afterward, the Adelanto school board voted to accept the parents' petition but not their preferred course of action (turning the school into a charter school). So the parents went back to court, and a judge ruled again in their favor.
Finally, the school board (which had experienced significant turnover in the November 2012 elections) agreed to hear a proposal from the parents’ chosen charter operator, which hopes to take over the school in the fall.
While the Adelanto outcome is better than what happened in Compton, the story indicates that successfully pulling the parent trigger is going to be a slow, expensive slog anywhere that school boards choose to resist. Nor should that be surprising. We’ve known forever that when institutions face external threats—via competition or otherwise—they respond first by using their power to crush the opposition and quash the threat.
Macke Raymond, director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), and an expert on monopolies in the public and private sectors, made this clear at a 2006 forum organized by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Change is the last thing districts will do,” Raymond said, with regard to competition from new schools. When threatened, Raymond argued, monopolies
…launch a series of wars. First is the war of entry: prohibiting new entrants into the market. They try to set high barriers through law and regulation. In general, the monopolist is dismissive of potential entrants. The second war is of survival—they launch games of irritation. These include delaying tactics, non-responsiveness, and nonpayment. They try to limit the discretion of the new entrants. The public relations strategy is to smear the new opponents, often personally. Third is the war of containment. They will heap on as many costs as possible to wear you down, such as more reporting requirements and cost studies. The public relations battle becomes more aggressive and organized. Fourth is the war of elimination; the biggest indicator is the legal challenge. The opposition forms into coalitions designed to destroy the new entrants. After all of these wars, you will see change. But you have to survive first.
That, I predict, is what the future holds for other communities that want to pull the parent trigger: more lawsuits, more “delaying tactics,” more smearing. But will it be worth it if the parent organizers survive these wars? Probably not. That’s the second problem.
Conversions: A Recipe for More Failure
Let’s suppose that parent advocates run this gauntlet and manage to force a turnaround at a given school, as appears to be happening at Desert Trails. What are the chances of success? If the history of charter school conversions and district school turnarounds is any guide, the answer is: very low.
Ever since the beginning of the charter movement twenty years ago, most state charter laws have included a “teacher trigger” of sorts. A majority (or sometimes supermajority) of teachers could vote to turn their district school into a charter. And in the early days many did.
Yet enthusiasm for these charter conversions soon fizzled, partly because they were seen as “faux charters.” Legally, they typically remained part of the school district; often their teachers continued to be covered by the district’s collective-bargaining agreement. They gained a few operational freedoms but not enough to make much of a difference.
School districts—and boards—generally haven’t known what to do with these charter schools. Usually they end up either micromanaging or ignoring them. The latter might sound good to advocates for greater school autonomy, but it has created many problems in terms of charter school quality. In fact, many of the charter sector’s quality headaches stem from school boards that abdicate their responsibilities as charter school authorizers, a role they probably never wanted to play in the first place. Recent research, again from Raymond’s CREDO, demonstrates that charter schools that start out mediocre rarely improve. One could imagine a similar dynamic playing out in charter schools created via the parent trigger.
Of course, the parent trigger can be used for more than just charter school conversions. Turnarounds or “transformations,” in the current lingo, are options, too. But there’s plenty of reason for skepticism on that front. As Andy Smarick wrote in Education Next a few years ago (“The Turnaround Fallacy,” Winter 2010), “school turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations.”
And most of those turnarounds were initiated, at least somewhat enthusiastically, by district officials. The people in charge of making them succeed wanted them to succeed. How likely is it that school boards and district officials will jump onboard a turnaround process after spending months trying to stop it? Turnarounds are difficult, if not impossible, under the best of circumstances. Turnarounds forced upon districts by angry parents seem destined to fail.
Can the Parent Trigger Change Local Politics?
Some advocates of the parent trigger acknowledge the concerns raised above, but still believe it to be a useful tool in forcing recalcitrant districts to change their ways. As Ben Austin of Parent Revolution argues, “There are parents right now who are organizing at schools around the parent trigger without really the intent to pull the trigger. They are organizing in order to have bargaining leverage, to basically say, ‘look, there are things about our school that we like, but there are things about our school that we are unhappy with and nobody has listened to us until now. Well, I represent 51 percent of the parents. We now have the power, for all intents and purposes, to fire you. So fix these things within x number of days. Otherwise we’re going to fire you.’”
This mirrors the longtime optimism among school choice advocates that the exodus of students and money—the threat of competition leading to hemorrhage, leading to downfall—would change power relationships inside school districts. Reform-minded superintendents and board members, in particular, could force intransigent teacher unions to make concessions that would make their district schools more attractive to parents and thereby stem the losses.
Evidence of this happening in the real world, however, is quite thin. Perhaps a few cities have seen major, positive changes because of competition (Washington, D.C., comes to mind). In most, however, district dysfunction and union intransigence continues. (Think: Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, and Oakland.) And that’s even after losing tens of thousands of students and hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools.
It’s hard to imagine, then, that the threat of a parent trigger at a single school is going to force school board members, district bureaucrats, or union officials to the bargaining table. Sure, it could happen. But if CREDO's Raymond is right, it will be a long time coming.
“Parent power” is a critical component of education reform; there’s little doubt that many of the problems in American education come from the mismatch in power between the workers in the system and its clients. To the degree that the parent trigger helps reformers to organize and empower parents, it should be embraced wholeheartedly.
But as a strategy to change schools or districts, it seems likely to fail. A more constructive approach is the road we’ve been traveling for twenty years now: expanding school choice via new, high-quality options; more independent charter schools; additional opportunities for private school choice via taxpayer-funded scholarship programs; digital learning; and so forth.
Perhaps school choice, at scale, will finally force districts to improve. But even if it doesn’t (as I suspect will be the case in many cities), we will be left with lots more excellent options from which parents—as consumers—can choose. We might even put districts out of business altogether. Now that’s power.
A version of this article originally appeared in Education Next as part of a forum on parent-trigger laws. For another take, please see “Empowered Families Can Transform the System,” by Ben Austin or "For Pete's sake, let's try it," by Chester E. Finn, Jr..