Does Parent Trigger Cut the Gordian Knot?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The editorial in yesterday’s Journal covering the “parent trigger” earthquake in Los Angeles – at McKinley Elementary in Compton – argues that this could be a revolutionary new mechanism for advancing parental control of schools:

The biggest obstacle to education reform has long been overcoming the inertial forces of unionized bureaucracy. Parent trigger is a revolutionary shortcut, and bravo to the parents in Compton for making the leap.

The model is set to spread, argue the editors:

Parent trigger has support from Democrats including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee and even Rahm Emanuel now that he’s running for mayor of Chicago. Legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland tell us they will introduce versions of parent trigger in the coming months.

Last time I looked in on the state of school governance reform in LA, I was skeptical. But that was more than a year ago, when the parent trigger mechanism wasn’t yet a part of the reform package. Last fall they were setting themselves up to have the public system hire private managers – which hasn’t worked in the past.

The parent trigger model is different. At a school that hasn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress ™ four years running, get a majority of parents to sign a petition and you can close the school, change administrators, or turn over the school to charter operators. The key difference is that the parents signing the petition decide what happens.

The district will fight them in court, of course, and they may win on a bogus technicality. As we learned in Florida in 2006, when the unions demand obeisance from their slaves you can’t count on a court to follow even the most tranparently clear meaning of the letter and spirit of the law.

But that’s not really relevant to the real policy question. All school reform policies are exposed to the naked assertion of thuggish power from union-bootlicking judges, and I don’t see much reason to think this one is more exposed (at least in principle) than any others.

So, that aside, is the Journal right that parent trigger is a way to cut the Gordian knot? Here are the advantages and disadvantages as I see them.

Advantages:

  1. School choice as a consequence of school failure is a proven way to improve public school performance. Even where the threat is never actualized, the mere threat produces clear gains.
  2. The parent trigger system may overcome the serious procedural obstacles that have dogged other “failing schools” models. The system for activating choice is (with an exception I’ll discuss below) simple, clear and not under the control of the government bureaucracy – and informing parents about their choices is easier because the system for creating choices involves getting parents informed and involved.
  3. The system is politically attractive, and partly for the right reasons. If a majority of the actual parents in the school want the school handed over, it’s really hard to be the people who say it shouldn’t be handed over.

Disadvantages:

  1. For the moment, the system is only promoting management change, at best involving charter operators, which is an improvement but is inadequate. But that’s less important because you could always use a parent trigger to activate vouchers.
  2. Petitions carry some problematic issues as a vehicle. Phrasing can be unclear, and/or people may not understand what they’re signing. Worse, the blob could organize its own counter-petitions to create confusion. It’s unlikely they could actually seize control of a school this way, but they could disrupt the process.
  3. More seriously, the system is only available at a small number of schools (those that don’t make AYP four years running). You could always fight to expand that, but the question is how far you could expand it. In theory you could do a parent trigger everywhere, but it’s not clear whether that would be politically viable. Maybe it would be if you did it in the right state. The larger question here is how wedded we are to a “failing schools” model that assumes schools are only failing if they’re populated by kids who are poor and dark-skinned. It’s an important question whether the parent trigger could be used to transition to a “failing schools” model that says any school repudiated by its parents is a failing school, or if it only reinforces the worst of our existing prejudices about what constitutes educational failure.
  4. Along a smiliar line, in its current form the parent trigger (like all previous “failing schools” models) reinforces government’s right to decide what constitutes a good education, because it relies on state testing as a parent-choice gatekeeper. In addition to my recent movement toward stronger critique of accountability testing for what are essentially pedagogical reasons, on an even more basic level it’s imperative that we not validate the idea that a good education is what government says it is. This, and #3 above, are what I meant when I said that parent trigger is politically attractive “partly” for the right reason. 
  5. Carrying on the theme of #3 and #4, most Americans wrongly believe there’s nothing wrong with their own schools; after all, the kids are middle-class whites and the schools are run by the government – nice, clean suburban government, not those icky urban machines – so how bad could they be? So suppose you give everyone a parent trigger and don’t get enough schools where you overcome all the obstacles of perception (to say nothing of the logistics) and get a majority to sign off. That would only validate the illusion that the status quo in the great suburban Middle America is A-OK.

So color me ambivalent. Parent trigger is certainly an improvement over Florida’s A+ model, where near-insuperable bureaucratic obstacles stood between parents and the actual excercise of choice. And I see some potential to use this as a path to making parents’ judgments the standard for what counts as a good school. But there are serious dangers here as well, if we don’t take seriously the omnipresent temptation to slide back toward liberal paternalism.

5 Responses to Does Parent Trigger Cut the Gordian Knot?

  1. Ben Boychuk says:

    Good stuff, as always, Greg. A couple of few thoughts.

    On the advantages of the “parent trigger,” it’s always seemed to me California provides a useful starting point. You note, correctly, that a well-constructed trigger could activate vouchers. California doesn’t do that, obviously, but it appears as though some other states will be considering legislation that will do precisely that.

    There are other disadvantages about the trigger in California that other, more imaginative states could remedy. Here are two:

    First, organization is amazingly difficult. There is no list for parents to go pick up from the central office to make signature gathering easy. The Compton group was aided by people with backgrounds in political organizing. I’m aware of another petition effort that is struggling for lack of proper organization. It’s a fair bet, then, that amateurs will get rolled.

    Second, “triggered” schools have an expiration date problem. There is no guarantee under existing law that a district couldn’t come back in a year or two and renege on one of the less potent turnaround models. Charters can be revoked, too, of course. Some of the legislation circulating in other states would bar a triggered school from being subject to another petition for at least five years. That would prevent the Blob from mounting a counter-petition drive, as you mention. But it could also have other, unintended consequences.

    At its best, the parent trigger is another weapon in a growing arsenal of choice. I agree with you that we should be watchful that it not be co-opted. I’m happy to see other states building on what California has already done. And I’m cautiously optimistic that California’s parents can overcome some of the shortcomings of the law and do some real good here.

    There are no guarantees a district won’t

    • Ben Boychuk says:

      “A couple of few…”? I can tell I wrote that on less than a cup of coffee. Yikes!

      • Daniel Earley says:

        No worse than my agreeing that the parent trigger “are” no silver bullet. Thanks for reminding me though; it’s time for my afternoon Diet Coke.

        BTW… good seeing you here, Ben.

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    I agree that the parent trigger, like all “failing schools” models, are no silver bullet. As you noted — “it’s imperative that we not validate the idea that a good education is what government says it is” — especially for pedagogical reasons. The trigger may help raise the level of public consciousness a bit (which is always good) but I’m not expecting more.

  3. Patrick says:

    Why was Edison such a financial failure? If I had to guess (this is based on Nevada law though) Edison ran into regulatory trouble that created expensive compliance costs. That or having the subsidy dulled their entrepreneurial ability to generate a steady profit.

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