What are 'parent trigger' laws?
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in the pro "parent trigger" film "Won't Back Down."
October 2nd, 2012
01:06 PM ET

What are 'parent trigger' laws?

By Jamie Gumbrecht and Donna Krache, CNN

 (CNN) – The movie “Won’t Back Down” squeaked into the box office Top 10 last weekend, reloading debates around the country about so-called "parent trigger" laws.

Haven't heard of them? These are laws that allow parents whose kids attend failing schools to band together and "trigger" a change - usually by gathering support from more than half the parents, then changing who's in charge.

"Won't Back Down" is a dramatic retelling of how the laws might work, a Hollywood version "inspired by actual events" that stars Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. They play moms who overcome their own challenges to change a failing Pittsburgh school, despite pushback from union leaders and teachers. Reviews are mixed - it's gained the support of education reformer Michelle Rhee and politicians like Jeb Bush, but was panned by teachers groups. Oh, and film critics: Some lauded the acting and emotion, but more knocked it for “grossly oversimplifying” the issues, for serving as a "propaganda piece"  and loading its cast of big Hollywood names with a story of “Hollywood clichés.”

The film "represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future," education advocate Sam Chaltain wrote on CNN's Schools of Thought blog.

So what do these laws and situations look like off the big screen? Here's a run-down of how parent trigger laws work, and whether they could affect your schools.

How do parent trigger laws work?

State proposals and laws vary, but in essence, if a school’s students fail to reach predetermined academic benchmarks – test scores, for example – a majority of parents could decide to dismiss some or all teachers and administrators. New staff would then be brought in or students would receive vouchers to attend other schools. Some state’s trigger proposals say parents could close schools altogether, or hand over a school’s management to a private corporation or group that would re-open it as a charter school.

Where are the parent trigger laws?

Seven states have enacted some version of the laws: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. In  Pennsylvania, where "Won't Back Down" was based, a majority of parents and teachers must sign a petition to change a school into a charter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. A parent trigger law was proposed in Pennsylvania last year.

As of June 2012,  more than 20 states have considered parent trigger legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A trigger law narrowly failed in Florida earlier this year, and the legislature is expected to take it up again.

Why do people want them? Or not?

Proponents of parent trigger laws say that they empower parents, especially those with students in low-performing schools. Often, they say, those parents lack means to get their kids into better public or private schools, and parent-trigger laws give parents and option few currently have.

Parent trigger opponents often argue that parents aren’t in the best position to decide education policy. They maintain that it’s easy to get parent signatures on a petition, but parents might not agree about what to do with the school afterward, nor help it go through the transformation they triggered.

Others argue that parent trigger laws hand public schools to for-profit management groups that will run them as charter schools, "privatizing taxpayer buildings," Republican Florida state Sen. Nancy Detert said of that state's last trigger proposal in the Orlando Sentinel.

Who's for parent trigger laws?

In January, 2010, California became the first state to pass a parent trigger law. The force behind it was the non-profit Parent Revolution, which was first led by a charter school operator. The group promises on its website: “Organize half the parents at your children's failing school to demand change, and we will stand with you and empower you to fight for the great school your children deserve.” The group is funded by several high-profile philanthropic organizations, including the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Won't Back Down" was produced by Walden Media, which is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who supports charter schools. Walden Media also produced the pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for Superman." (It's not all education policy movies - Walden co-produced "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," too.)

Michigan's legislature is currently considering a trigger law that could affect schools performing in the bottom 5% in the state, Mlive.com reported.

“This parent trigger gives families leverage where they do not otherwise have it by increasing pressure on districts and others in charge of failing schools," Republican state Sen. Dave Robertson said last month.

Who's against the laws?

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote a letter to criticize the film after it screened at the Republican National Convention. (It's screened at the Democrats' convention, too.) She argued that the laws don't empower parents and teachers, but rather, companies that run charter schools.

"Real parent engagement means establishing meaningful ways for parents to be real partners in their children’s public education from the beginning — not just when a school is failing," she wrote.

Support isn't always along party lines. In some states, a mix of Democrats and Republicans have supported or criticized the proposals. In Florida, the Parent Teacher Association and League of Women Voters also came out against it. In New York, the Coalition for Educational Justice stands against it, too.

The union-backed nonprofit Parents Across America has been a vocal opponent, too: "Power and money are being harnessed to push a fad with no track record, in pursuit of dubious turnaround strategies, like charter schools," founder Caroline Grannan wrote in The New York Times.

Have parents taken over any schools?

In California, the first state to adopt the law, the trigger law has been applied twice.

Last year, more than 60% of parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, California, signed a petition demanding it be converted to a charter school because a majority of students did not meet state standards in math and reading. The school challenged the petition, saying that many signatures were not valid. A bitter court battle ensued, with the California Federation of Teachers calling the trigger law “lynch mob” legislation. In the end, the trigger wasn't enacted and the charter school operator designated to take over the school opened a campus nearby.

A majority of parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, signed a petition demanding sweeping changes to the failing school, last year, too. The decision has been stuck in courts, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"The superintendent at the time...his solution to me was only ever 'If you don't like the school or you don't like the teachers, you can change schools,'" said Doreen Diaz, a mother who led the petition drive.

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Hugh Jass

    Just another way to make sure everybody's kid gets an A or else. Education died in this country in the 70s when they decided we were too smart and dumbed it down. I was taught to think for myself, but my brother was taught to accept the first answer always. It makes a difference in how you see the world.

    October 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  2. NODAT1

    just as long if the change is not because of culture, language or religion

    October 4, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  3. fiftyfive55

    If they want to start using taxpayer dollars now to pay for private schools,I WANT A REFUND FROM THE GOVERNMENT FOR ALL THE MONEY MY PARENTS PAID FOR MY PRIVATE EDUCATION TO BE RETURNED. It's not fair when we pay for public education for people that cant afford their kids ,and then are told that while we struggle to pay for a private school out of our own pockets in addition to our taxes also paying for empty seats our kids dont use.Public schools are funded by us whether or not our kids use them or not so there are a lot of seats paid for that are not used meaning there should actually be an overabundance of funds being used by the school districts and not a shortage like they claim.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  4. Angela

    I have many family members who are teachers all across the country. They complain that their hands are tied by many laws and mandates that don't allow them TIME to prepare and teach. All they do is fill out forms. My cousin teaches kindergarten. At a recent parent-teacher night- she had one set of parents out of 25 show up. They got almost no attendence at a math night designed to let parents and students do fun math projects and learn together- that is until they started serving pizza- then the numbers skyrocketed! Parents who blame the teacher because their child is not doing their homework, the child has a mental illness or personality disorder, they didn't prep their children for school at the preschool level, or because the chaos in their own lives spills over into their child's day in the classroom have no right to complain.

    October 4, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  5. CP

    Part 1 -
    Ok if there are going to be "parent-trigger" laws that overthrow teachers and schools then I want a "teacher-trigger" law where we can overthrow parents. Then the state and parents have to find a new place for the kid and fix all that stuff. I mean really we are going to have idiot parents who think they know something when they are white trash ghetto parents who can't even spell their own kids name telling us how to run our schools. That is the most ridiculous thing ever and if it EVER reaches Nebraska I will quit my job the day the law passes and file for unemployment just like all these loser parents who think they can mooch off the government and tell ME how to do MY job. Who is gonna pay for these so called "charter" schools they are going to "reform" the public schools into? I guarantee the next thing those parents whine about will be why are their taxes being raised? So they can afford to have a charter school in the first place...duh!

    October 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • peggy p.

      CP, sounds like you've been teaching too long. your strong opinions against parents must come thru to your students and that is not acceptable.

      October 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Jerry Browning

      I agree...If this is your views on the parents I am prone to question how you can effectively teach their children. Perhaps teaching isn't the profession for you.

      October 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
      • A teacher

        Hey Jerry, yeah CP comes off as a bit more than "hot under the collar" but honestly, wiith how schools (more so teachers) are being attacked, I can hardly blame her. See, I teach in a ghetto school, too. And struggle daily with the parents who have failed to feed, wash, cloth, nurture their kids. I struggle with their value as a parent ... their child, their flesh and blood does not necessitate their time and love. SOMETIMES this happens because that parent doesn't have a good paying job and has to work 2 or 3 of them. SOMETIMES this happens because that parent is a piece of >>><.

        And I see it, Jerry, I see it all the time. But that is a boundary that NO OFFICIAL is willing to address. I get a child for 45 minutes once a week, maybe twice. And you can bet that I put 110% into that 45 minutes. I LOVE teaching, I love learning, I love helping people. MOST teachers are the same, there are a few craptacular ones, but there are a few of those in every profession, so let's not demonize teaching. We are the people who said to ourselves in college, "Ok, it will never be a 6 figure job, but I know that Ill be helping people, raising little Einsteins ... teaching the treble clef to little Mozarts" ... I SAID that ... to myself. And I still love what I do, but dang, people who make laws like this and people who've never set foot in a classroom have NO clue what goes on beyond teaching the actual material. Classroom management, hungry kids, kids who could care less of they pass, kid who come into my classroom completely stoned and talk about it openly, kids who get pregnant, kids who bring knives to school, kids who bring booze in a bottle to a band concert.... yep I've seen ALL of that. Now, tell me .... who is failing? Me? My co-workers? .... Rhetorical question for you to chew on. CP may be harsh, but I'm sick of hearing how I'm the one failing, too.

        October 9, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  6. CP

    Why hasn't my comment posted?

    October 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  7. changemaker

    The movie was terrific, but only scratches the surface of what is going on in Adelanto, California and Desert Trails. The comment made by the former superintendent of that district to Doreen Diaz sounds just like him. It was his way or the highway, and his methods were dragging the schools down further.

    October 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. kita

    Nice to know. My whole entire district is a failure seriously...

    October 3, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  9. Khem

    If parents need a trigger to turn around a failing school then it should be pulled on the school board and state eduation department. Parents and communities need to stay engaged before schools become failing. Where are these failing schools that are clamouring for a trigger law? No matter what the reform measures they all lead to charter schools. Can we pull the trigger for a tax-paid semi-private school. Let's get more creative with the triggers. Can we fire superintedents and these so-called education mayors who have decided that turning our public propperty over to privateers is o.k. Oh yeah their usually their friends. I hope this movie goes away. If parents need a movie to inspire them to take action about their children, then something is terribly wrong.

    October 2, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  10. James Anderson

    I think these trigger laws should only be used if half the parents meet with the teachers when requested. From the schools I've attended or visited, that isn't the case.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • SR

      I agree. Parents need to be involved with their child's education from the beginning. All my kid's teachers have email & I can talk with them & ask questions, find solutions BEFORE there is a huge issue.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:53 am |