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Paper Sketches Parent Trigger History, Offers Critique

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A recently released paper by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's Center for Education Organizing critiques parent trigger laws and argues that policymakers can address the shortcomings of academically low-performing schools in more productive ways.

The brief, titled "Parent Trigger: No Silver Bullet," outlines the history of parent-trigger legislation, starting with the law passed in California in 2010, the first of its kind in the country. The law allows parents whose children attend low-performing schools in that state to circulate a petition among other parents at the school to request one of four interventions: convert the school to a charter, remove and replace at least half of the staff at the school, remove the principal and implement other reforms, or close the school. If 51 percent of parents at the school sign a valid petition, the policy will move forward.

The Providence, R.I.-based Center for Education Organizing provides policy analysis and research around education strategies and works to facilitate alliances between teachers unions, civil rights and advocacy organizations, education researchers, and academics, according to its website.

To date, parent trigger policies have not been used to bring about transformations of schools—though a possible exception is playing out at Desert Trails Elementary School, in Adelanto, Calif., where a parent-led effort to convert the school to a charter school appears to have gained momentum. An earlier effort to use California's law, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, fell apart amid legal and political obstacles. The National Council of State Legislatures lists seven states with parent trigger laws on the books.

The Center for Education Organizing is funded in part by the American Federation of Teachers, the Ford Foundation, and the Hazen Foundation, according to the center's website. Local chapters of the AFT have come out against parent-trigger laws, with the Connecticut chapter getting into hot water in 2011 after a presentation at an AFT professional-development conference that pinpointed how the local chapter worked to weaken such laws in that state. The AFT then distanced itself from the presentation, which referenced attempts to defeat the bill, saying that it did not represent the AFT's position

Part of the problem, the policy brief asserts, is that parent trigger laws rely on parents to "trigger" the change, but leave them out of the process after that. "Parent Trigger legislation gives parents the 'power' to force the intervention but is silent on a continuing role for parents," it says. "Furthermore, there is no evidence that chartering or closing a school, or replacing a school's entire staff ... create academic improvement in and of themselves." The brief argues that three alternative strategies could help bring lasting transformations to low-performing schools:

1. Collaboration and partnership between parents, students, teachers, and community members. Those teams of stakeholders should help design and implement a reform plan specific to that school after a thorough assessment of the challenges and strengths of the school.

2. Drawing attention to instructional practices and supports for teachers, putting in place a rigorous curriculum that is relevant to students, and creating a safe school environment.

3. A variety of wrap-around services for students and families, including access to mentors, college and career counselors, and tutors, and a potentially longer school day and/or year.

Of course, many parent-trigger law advocates would argue that these steps won't do nearly enough to turn around academically struggling schools. Low-performing schools, they say, need to be overhauled in more fundamental ways, and parents—not district officials—should be given more say in deciding on the new direction for those schools.

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