Parent Trigger Laws, A Bad Idea Whose Time has Come

Seven states have laws that allow the parents and/or teachers assigned to a traditional public school to petition to “trigger” changes that might greatly improve the school’s performance; for example, re-constituting the school’s staff, or converting to a chartered public school. Another dozen states are seriously considering parent trigger laws. This is an externally-driven, nuclear option for school reform without school system reform. That may be a key reason why Parent Trigger laws have passed, while externally-driven, school system change through school choice has remained politically infeasible. Some school staff reconstitutions and sporadic charter conversions do not seriously threaten the governance and funding status quo.

For reasons that I describe below, I hope we can quickly move on to far superior ways to address the urgent need to engage a far larger number of children in high value instruction. But, since we have yet to establish the key elements of high performing school systems (since there aren’t any), or achieve the political clout to implement them in any of the 50 states, we have to facilitate raids on the current system and escape hatches wherever we can; being careful that what we do in the short-run doesn’t undermine opportunities for desirable transformational change. Incredibly, a 2012 Gallup Poll indicates that 70 percent of respondents see such raids as a long-term education reform solution.

One of the parent trigger risks is “tyranny of the majority.” We know that instructional approaches that work very well for some children can work very badly for others (Sports Theme example). Suppose a school has instructional strategies that are working quite well for, say, 40 percent of a very diverse student body. The badly served 60 percent could demand changes that destroy the benefits of the other 40 percent. It would be far better to have vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts to finance enrollment in a different school for the badly served 60 percent, while the other 40 percent stay put, and probably see additional students like them come in from other areas.

Note that a Parent Trigger law empowers school-level coalitions, politically. Tuition vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts economically empower parents, individually. Pulling the trigger not only requires a lot of time and money for meetings and to win court challenges, all to put parents in the same position, at the school level, that they are already in on a larger scale at the school district and state level; having to agree on what schooling strategy will work best for a large number of diverse children. The charter conversion that will result from the only pulled trigger, so far, may produce better results than the district-school management combination that it replaces, but the charter operator is in the exact same difficult position the replaced regime was in. The charter operator cannot serve the diverse needs of a school attendance area with a specialized instructional approach. It will have to produce its own version of a comprehensive school. For that reason, and others, pulling the trigger one school at a time cannot yield the dynamic, diverse menu of schooling options that a diverse population of students needs to achieve high rates of engagement in high value instructional content.

Follow us

John Merrifield

John D. Merrifield is a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author of four books, including The School Choice Wars, School Choices and Parental Choice as an Education Reform Catalyst: Global Lessons. Dr. Merrifield is the Editor of the Journal of School Choice. He has also written 45 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and several book chapters in his primary teaching and research fields of education economics, urban and regional economics, environmental and natural resource economics, and public finance.
Follow us

Latest posts by John Merrifield (see all)

Comments (13)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Lucas says:

    “Empowered Families Can Transform the System”

    Exactly, more involved parents is exactly what needs to be happening across our country. It is sad the norm has turned into leave it up to the government.

  2. Lucas says:

    Completely inaccurate, just because the government is being paid to do something, does not mean they do it right. We all have an individual responsibility to fix what we deem is right.

  3. Ignacio says:

    I wish my children were in this system, I would not be as afraid for their future as I am now.

    • Tony says:

      Don’t be worried Ignacio. Just take the initiative to have intellectual conversations with your children. Studies show that this will greatly increase how smart you child will be.

  4. Joe Barnett says:

    Individual schools can become demoralized from the failure of leadership — ie, the principal — but it is more likely the other way around: inexperienced and problem teachers, and principals assigned to failiing schools. The factory model school can’t serve the needs of those kids most likely to fail, and schools made up mostly of those kids fail — and become dumping grounds for the teachers least prepared to deal with the problem. (Research into the assignment of teachers suggests this is true.) Then, they are identified as the cause, not a symptom. A better approach than the parental trigger would be to sell the school, and use the money to fund vouchers the children could take to schools of choice.