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Trend Three: Pulling the (Parent) Trigger

Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow at AEI, is guest-posting this week.

Unless you've been under a rock for the past year, you've heard about the "parent trigger." In principle, the trigger is a simple and powerful idea: parents in a chronically failing school can band together and petition the district to make radical changes. If the petitioners can get signatures from 51 percent of the parents, the district must respond with dramatic reforms. In California, site of the first-ever trigger law, the menu of options mirrors the four federal turnaround models, including the option to convert to a charter school.

In practice, the trigger is off to a rocky start. The first two attempts--first at McKinley Elementary in Compton, CA and more recently at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, CA--brought out the best that education politics has to offer: charges and counter-charges of skullduggery, intimidation, and outright fraud. At McKinley, after parents successfully petitioned to convert to a charter and bring in a CMO, the petition was thrown out on a technicality. At Desert Trails, the local parent union, cultivated and coached by Parent Revolution, successfully obtained far more parent signatures than they needed, only to have opponents organize a rescission drive to stop the process. Though Parent Revolution uncovered evidence that some of the rescissions had been fraudulently altered, the school board rejected the petition. Around the same time that the Desert Trails plot was thickening, a parent trigger bill in Florida failed on a 20-20 vote in the state senate.

Despite these stumbles, the parent trigger is an idea that won't be going away any time soon. Reformers like it, and it has found strong legislative champions in state houses across the country. For charter school operators, the emergence of the trigger may represent an opportunity to expand. (The unions certainly think so--and they aren't pleased.)

But charter school operators should tread carefully when it comes to the parent trigger. The same thing that makes the parent trigger great--direct, majority rule democracy--could also make life tough for enterprising charter leaders who take over triggered schools.

In the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan, I argued that if policymakers are not careful, parent trigger laws may lead to some of the same instability and policy churn that plagues failing schools today. One of the weaknesses in the California law is that it does nothing to encourage stability after a successful trigger. From PDK:

Just because most parents preferred one model to the status quo the first time around doesn't mean they'll stick with it the next year. Barring immediate and palpable improvement, the same frustrations that gave rise to the first petition may resurface to threaten the triggered reform plan.
Evidence suggests that immediate improvement will be difficult to come by. In his study of California schools, Tom Loveless from Brookings found that only 1.4% of the schools that scored in the bottom quartile in 1989 had moved to the top quartile by 2009; 63% scored in the bottom quartile again. In WestEd's study of comprehensive school reform, just 12 of 262 low-performing schools were able to make sizable gains in math and reading over a three-year period (see also Robin Lake's post last week on SIG results in Washington State). Bottom line: turning around triggered schools will be tough work that likely requires a long time horizon.

This is not to suggest that the country's finest CMO's can't turn around triggered schools. These guys make a living by beating long odds. Rather, the question is whether the parent trigger laws provide the new management with enough insulation and time to implement changes that are likely to drive long-term improvement. Opponents will be on the lookout for any signs of sluggish improvement, including those parents who did not sign the original petition and are unhappy with the choice.

Unless appropriate safeguards are built into the trigger process--a mandatory post-trigger implementation period, a supermajority requirement, or a fresh clock on school improvement status--charter organizations may find these opportunities less appealing than they appear. For their part, policymakers could entice more charter operators to take on triggered turnarounds by building these safeguards into the laws.

Of course, for all of the hype around parent trigger, we have yet to see any community pull it off, so all of this hypothesizing is moot. But, like I said on Monday, keeping our eye out for the next trend is an important part of pushing education reform forward. It's also a lot of fun to write about, so thanks for reading this week!

--Andrew Kelly

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