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Anne Foster: Parent Trigger Laws

One of the newest ideas for how to reform failing schools is called “parent trigger laws.”  Commentator Anne Foster has long pushed for more parental involvement, but she questions this approach.

The first parent trigger law was enacted in California in 2010.  Basically, it states if a majority of parents in a low-performing school sign a petition, they can take over a failing school and reconstitute it, including the option of turning it into a charter school. Texas passed a weakened version of a parent trigger law in 2011. Senate Bill 738 leaves the decision up to the Commissioner of Education until a school has an unacceptable performance for three years. The law then gives parents some say in choosing among pre-existing options for sanctions. Texas may have wisely injected caution in this more limited legislation.

These laws apparently have been easier to pass than to execute.  However, one scenario is currently playing out in California at the Desert Trails Elementary School, where two-thirds of children failed the state reading exam. A judge ruled in favor of parents who pulled the “trigger” after a challenge by the school district. While it’s too late to create a charter school before school starts, this will be a case to follow closely over the next year.

No one can blame frustrated parents for wanting to do something about a failing school.

But while I believe parents have both a right and a responsibility to be engaged with their children’s schools, the parent trigger option has some troubling implications. It can pit one group of parents in a school against another group who don’t agree with the action.  It eliminates the involvement of the larger public – the one who also pays taxes for schools and has an interest in their results.  It places major education decisions in the hands of parents and not professional educators.  As such, it can cause the firing of teachers in low-performing schools who may not have the support, resources, and professional learning it takes for successful results.  Parent trigger laws also bypass locally elected school boards.

Well-intentioned parents may not understand that their neighborhood school could also be turned into a charter school, a change which they might or might not support.  Parents do not necessarily have all of the relevant information needed.

I believe parents can play a more appropriate and ultimately more powerful role as  authentic partners with schools for student achievement. That means educators intentionally include parents in looking at data, assessing challenges, creating school improvement plans, and monitoring results.  Schools must get rid of bureaucratic barriers and bring parents into the school decision-making process.  Engaged parents can impact the performance of schools. If they have the information they need, they can hold educators and schools accountable to statistically change student performance.  Parents should take concerns to their school boards and work closely with school boards to implement reform strategies that show the most promise – smaller classes, increased professional learning for teachers, strong instructional leadership, a positive environment, parent and community support, adequate financial resources, safe and clean facilities – all components that most failing schools do not have.

What we do not need are knee-jerk reactions based on something that feels good for the moment, is divisive and is not sustainable. Parents can’t be blamed for signing a petition that promises to “improve their neighborhood school.” The problem is that it just may not.

Anne Foster is a former Richardson school board president and is currently National Executive Director of Parents for Public Schools.