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The Debate Over Parent Trigger Laws

Photo by Flickr user dheuer (CC Licensed)

The recent “Parent Trigger” laws passed in California and Connecticut give parents the legal power to try to reform troubled schools. Here's how it works: If at least 50 percent of the moms and dads whose kids go to a failing school sign a petition, they can demand that the principal and half the staff be replaced, or that the school be turned into a charter, or that it be shut down entirely. New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, and West Virginia have legislation pending in time for September. Anything that shakes up the status quo this much is bound to inspire controversy. We weigh both sides of the issue:

Why We Need the Parent Trigger

Gwen Eaddy-Samuel, Mom Congress delegate who spearheaded the legislation in Connecticut

It gets parents involved. The idea of having a say in how their kids' school is managed was such a strong incentive that parents came out of the woodwork to attend meetings, says Eaddy-Samuel. Why? “Trigger laws basically tell parents ‘We validate your concerns and your experience,’” she says.

It gives parents legal rights. When school boards won't listen or seem unwilling to change, “the trigger is like a parental lever that initiates the process of improving a school. It says ‘You don't have to take this anymore,’” explains Eaddy-Samuel. And even critics agree that empowering parents is always a good thing.

It puts bad schools on notice. Knowing that moms and dads have the right to shut down a school may be the kick in the pants bureaucrats need. In Connecticut's version of the law, governing councils made up of parents and teachers must give low-performing schools three years to improve before they decide how to change it. All that scrutiny raises awareness, so solutions can be found before it's too late.

Why It Won't Work

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers

The focus should be on prevention. The original trigger law passed in California allows parents to take immediate action. But “waiting until a school is failing is far too late in the process,” says Weingarten. She recommends a more collaborative effort like the Connecticut law, in which parents and teachers work together to oversee schools on an ongoing basis.

Gradual change may be better. The data on schools that completely start over aren't very comforting: Only one third of them actually succeed. A better way to turn schools around is through incremental steps. For example, instead of firing an entire staff, bring in a new principal who can then deal with the problems.

Parents might not be prepared for what's ahead. If the parents involved lack the knowledge to make informed decisions, then they may be exploited by the many charter school management programs springing up. While some charter schools are excellent, research shows that more of them fail than succeed. Another troubled school won't do children any good.