Does Parent Trigger Cut the Gordian Knot?

December 8, 2010

(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.