Five minute primer: Parent trigger laws
March 14th, 2012
06:10 AM ET

Five minute primer: Parent trigger laws

by Donna Krache, CNN

(CNN)  Last Friday, Florida’s state senate narrowly defeated a proposed “parent trigger” bill.  In more than 20 states, legislatures are considering or have taken action on parent trigger bills, which are designed to empower parents to take action on failing schools by firing staff, transferring students or creating a new school.

How do parent trigger laws work?

State proposals and laws vary, but in essence, if a school fails to demonstrate academic achievement among its students according to predetermined benchmarks (for example, test scores), under parent trigger laws, a majority of parents could determine that some or all teachers and administrators should be dismissed and new staff brought in.  Under some state proposals, action by a majority of parents could close the school altogether or hand over management of a school to a private corporation or organization and re-establish the school as a charter school.

The pros

Proponents of parent trigger laws say that they empower parents, especially those of students in low-performing schools, to be able to turn schools around and provide their children with the best opportunity for a good education. They say it gives parents an option that they currently do not have. Often these parents lack the means to provide other options, such as a better public school or a private school for their kids, they say.

California was the first state to pass a parent trigger law, in January 2010.  The primary force behind its passing was Parent Revolution, which, according to its website, makes this promise to parents: “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.”

Parent trigger bills are usually, but not always, supported by legislators who advocate for school choice. The Florida bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who told her colleagues that the law was needed to make sure that "every one of our schools is as great as the schools where your grandchildren go... where your children go."  She added, "We shouldn't rest until every school is at that level."

The cons

Some oppose parent trigger bills because they believe that parents are not in the best position to decide education policy. They believe these decisions should be left to elected school boards and local officials. They maintain that the easy part is getting parent signatures on a petition, but after that there is little parent organization to take action on what to do with the school and how to run it. Other opponents of parent trigger laws are against handing over public schools to private corporations, which then turn the school into a charter school and take over its operations.

In Florida, the debate over parent trigger laws has spawned some unusual alliances.  Opponents of the bill included the Florida PTA and some Republican state senators, including Sen. Nancy Detert who called it “an assault on public education” and said it would allow for “privatizing taxpayer buildings.” "The charter people will walk right in and take over our buildings… and I don’t know how you’re going to explain that to our taxpayers,” Detert said in the Orlando Sentinel. 

The League of Women Voters and Parents Across America are among other organizations that opposed the Florida bill.

Testing the law

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

Last year in Compton, 62% of parents at McKinley Elementary School signed a petition demanding that the school be converted to a charter school when the majority of students there were not meeting state standards in math and reading.  The school challenged the petition, saying that many signatures were not valid. A bitter court battle has ensued, with the California Federation of Teachers calling the trigger law “lynch mob” legislation.

A similar scenario is developing in Adelanto.  A majority of parents at Desert Trails Elementary School signed a petition demanding sweeping changes to the failing school, but the local board unanimously rejected it based on the claim that one-fifth of the parents who signed it have since revoked their signatures.  Parent Revolution says that rescissions are not allowed and the organization is threatening a lawsuit.  The debate there has been contentious, as well.

Other states are watching California to see how these two cases will evolve.

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Greg

    Of course there are a lot of teachers who are incompetent....but i'll tell you what plenty of people in other jobs who are plenty incompetent too. Doesn't mean having incompetent teachers is good but letting parents, who really in most cases do not understand what really goes on in a classroom, decide on these things is crazy. As a teacher, I've come across several parents who are frankly nuts because their kid didn't get a good grade on something they didn't study for. Those could be the same parents who look for every opportunity to find a way to get some teachers out regardless of how effective they are. Teachers that actually challenge their kids and therefore have lower class averages would be pushed out due to scores rather than are the kids learning. I didn't have the best grades in my Bio AP class in high school but boy did I learn and boy did it stick. I just feel like letting uninformed parents make decisions will only lead to a further divide in this country and once again teachers will be the complete scapegoat when in fact the blame lies on everyone. There is too much emphasis on tests, too few people high up who have taught, not enough parenting. The list goes on. Kicking teachers out year to year wont solve anything. If i felt it would i truly would support something that could even threaten my job security. I want this system to work and I want it to move in the right direction because we desperately need it when I'm getting asked where the sun goes at night.

    March 27, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  2. julie

    i believe parents already have these options. PTA. mayors and city council, superintendent of the school district. there are many ways to report your dissatisfaction with your child's school.

    March 26, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  3. Ada Hardwick

    Until they return discipline to schools..nothing.. I mean nothing will fix the situation.

    March 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • HenryMiller

      And Step One of that is to get rid of disruptive kids.

      My kids started high school this year–and I was astonished to discover that the school was patrolled during the day by half a dozen armed cops. From my kids, I've learned that, frequently, teachers are afraid to discipline some up to twenty-year-old "kids" with criminal records, including some with records of attacking teachers.

      How can anything be taught when there's a "kid" who's plugged into his iPod blasting rap loud enough to be heard throughout the room and the teacher is afraid to tell the kid to, if not pay attention–pointless–at least shut the noise down?

      March 23, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  4. Tuff in Texas

    Teachers have students for a total of less then 8 hours a day about 180 days a year, but somehow they are completely responsible for their failure on standardized tests. Parents have them for the rest of the time, hmmm, seems to me if more parents were doing their job the education systems wouldn't be in this mess. How in the world do you not know that your 8th grader can't read? Case in point!

    March 18, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  5. Robert

    Excellent summary of the status of Parent Trigger legislation.
    Robert with Texans for Parental Choice in Education

    March 16, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  6. homeschoolmom

    When my child couldn't read by 8th grade, he couldn't even read HOP ON POP by Suess, the school said he could read fine. HAH. They had him in BD classes when he was tested for that, NOT. He was dyslexic and the school refused to recognize that and place him in the proper class. They would miss out on their funds for BD kids. I have several with LEARNING disabilties. I have Homeschool now for 17 years. They are going to VO TECH Schools now Except foty 1 still beibg Schooled at home. They is something wrong with the school System in Georgia. We have had teachers teach English that can't Speel and teach Math that cant do Math. (i PROVE THAT TO sCHOOL bOARD)

    March 15, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • mrt

      How did your child get to the 8th grade without YOU realizing that he couldn't read "Hop on Pop?" I had my kids reading that book before they started school. There IS something wrong with schools in Georgia and elsewhere: lazy, self-involved parents who let the TV and internet babysit their kids.

      March 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. sparky_the_dwarf

    Good, the parents pay taxes to the school and some are forced to send their children to public school because of financial constraints. They should get a say in what happens.

    March 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Dianne the Teacher

      This is insane. Does the parent have a master's degree in education or in the subject area? Will teachers be fired because the parents don't "like" him, regardless of whether he is a good teacher or not. Parents have a voice via voting for the school board or for approving school budgets. Parents should be educating their children in the homes and leave the classroom teaching to the professionals.

      March 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
      • Erin

        While I sympathize with the obstacles many techers have to overcome to teach their students, there are too many teachers that simply are incompetent at their jobs. These bills are less about ruining teachers lives and more about giving the best education possible to students. Sorry, but just because a person has a master's degree, doesn't mean they are effective at their job.

        March 16, 2012 at 8:12 am |