Parent Trigger Laws Are Likely to Fire Blanks

If turning around a persistently low-performing school were easy, we would not have persistently low-performing schools. In truth, schools that languish at the academic bottom are more often an ongoing source of frustration for the hard-working teachers, parents and students who attend them and the districts that manage them. Yet new laws that give parents the power to take charge of their failing neighborhood school seem to suggest that climbing out of this hole is as simple as swapping the old model out for a new one. It's not.

So-called Parent Trigger Laws have been enacted in seven states and are being considered in at least a dozen more. The laws grant parents the authority to force a school takeover providing the school is low-performing and a majority of parents agree to the takeover in writing. The idea enjoys wide appeal. According to the most recent Kappan/Gallup poll (2012), 70 percent of the general public and 76 percent of public school parents favor "allowing parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools."

Look, I'm a big supporter of efforts to strengthen parents' voices in public education, especially among those who feel powerless. I know that change works best when all families, not just a vocal few, are meaningful partners alongside their schools and district leadership.

The authors of Parent Trigger Laws will say their intent is to empower parents. But, as with so many things, good intentions alone do not translate into good actions. There are two big problems with the laws. One, they supercede rather than facilitate school district-parent partnerships, even though collaboration is key to investing the school community in student success. Then having put parents in charge, the laws give them inadequate tools that are not up to the task of effecting change.

While state laws vary, they all specify a limited number of strategies that parents must choose from in order to reform their low-performing school once they pull the trigger. Each of the seven states with current laws includes turning the school over to a charter operator as one option. Other states also have options for vouchers, school closure, replacing the staff and/or the principal. Only Ohio offers parents more than three options.

If you're feeling déjà vu, you're not alone. These "reform" strategies are embedded in NCLB, Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants (SIG). A major difference is that these federal policies also have a provision that offers a little more wiggle room so those on the ground are better able to craft improvement plans specific to their unique situations. The "transformation" model still requires schools to replace the principal. But once that's done, they have multiple options for developing a reform plan more tailored to local needs that includes such things as professional development, rigorous curriculum, new schedules, and many others. Not surprisingly, the transformation model is the one most often pursued by turnaround schools, including a full three-quarters of SIG recipients.

Parent Trigger Laws don't have any flexibility. And this is what we know about the options parents are given: they are far from proven strategies. The best you can say is that the evidence is mixed.

For example, we know that about only one in five charter schools outperforms its traditional counterpart. Newer research shows that schools managed by established Charter Management Organizations have a slightly better track record than independently run charters, but still not significantly different from traditional schools.

Closing a school or replacing the staff aren't surefire solutions either. Plus many communities either don't have other schools to send students to or enough qualified candidates to recruit as replacements.

New leadership is the one exception that shows promise as a strategy, but again, only if the situation warrants a change. Principals are second only to teachers in their impact on student learning. Good leaders set the tone for the school and can create supportive environments for teachers and students alike. But even experienced principals may take as long as three to five years to become effective in their new role.

Clearly, we can't tolerate sending children to failing schools. But we also need to recognize that turning around such a school can be hard, messy and will likely look different in different places. Parents are an important part of this work, including demanding action when it's called for. But it also takes teachers, supportive administrators, engaged leadership and yes, resources. Parent Trigger Laws can pretend that a petition and pre-fab solutions are enough. But they are no replacement for good communication; a well-researched, customized plan; a relentless focus on improvement; and strong collaboration between schools, districts and parents.