Education politics is full of enacted and proposed glamour policies that draw people in because they are just so dang intoxicating. Class size reduction is such a policy, who could be against small class sizes, no matter what the research says? The 75% solution, which argues that 75 cents on every dollar should be spent in the classroom, is another glamour policy. After all, who cares who decides what counts as classroom spending or that many districts already meet this threshold if the optics are good?
The parent trigger is another glamour policy receiving attention these days. Former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst advocacy organization recently sponsored a showing of a new film, “Won’t Back Down” that dramatizes a parent’s attempt to take advantage of a parent trigger law. Under the parent trigger concept, a majority of a school’s parents can sign a petition that automatically triggers a school reorganization such as a charter conversion or staff replacement.
It is easy to see why policy makers find parent trigger laws enticing. It is much easier to defend legislation that forces changes to schools only when demanded by parents than it is to pass broader education reforms. Easier or not, parent trigger laws make little sense.
Foremost, there is nothing to suggest that simply reorganizing a school will improve student outcomes. Charter schools are good policy because they first create mission buy-in both from those running a school and those authorizing it, and second establish clear mechanisms for academic accountability. Converting a school to charter simply because parents did not like the old school does not create such buy-in and is unlikely to lead to a substantially improved school.
Tacitly the parent trigger is also problematic. Education reforms, particular those that empower parents, are huge political fights. In Milwaukee for example we have had vouchers for over twenty years and every tweak to the program requires a political battle. Imagine if a similar battle occurred not in a statehouse but in a school community. And imagine if it occurred multiple times every year instead of once every few years. The parent trigger will mean many battlefronts and much division, two things that are not conducive to widespread positive reform.
A smarter alternative to the parent trigger is school choice. Policy makers should pursue policies that give parents the power to choose, and policies that encourage quality and academically accountable private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Such policies are politically difficult to enact, but have infinitely more promise than the latest in a long line of ideas that seem too good to pass up.