Promoted as a way of finally transferring power from school officials and teachers unions to parents where it rightly belongs, California's Parent Trigger Law is unlikely to have the impact its supporters hope. Under the law, if 51 percent of parents in a failing school sign a petition, the result could mean closing a school, firing all the staff and rehiring new teachers and administrators, or turning over the school to a charter operator.
Despite the fanfare since the law went into effect in Jan. 2010, few parents have taken advantage of their new leverage to create change. That's not at all surprising. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been in existence since 2002, parents have had the right to transfer their children out of failing schools. But few have done so.
There are several explanations. In 2003, a study by the University of Texas found that parents often chose schools for idiosyncratic reasons, with low-income parents more satisfied with their schools despite low test scores. Echoing this finding, in 2005, the National Center for the Study of Privatization reported that parents frequently opted for schools based on holistic, social, logistic and administrative factors.
These findings call into question whether parental disaffection with traditional neighborhood schools is as pervasive as reformers have claimed. In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 13, David Feith points out that 1,300 of California's 10,000 schools qualify as eligible for triggering because they have failed to make "adequate yearly progress" according to state standards for four consecutive years ("The Radical School Reform Law You've Never Heard Of"). Yet only a tiny handful of parents have taken advantage of the opportunity to begin collecting signatures.
Supporters of the law are not sure how to read the less than enthusiastic response so far. It's hard to disentangle genuine parent concern from outside pressure from charter groups. Parent Revolution, which was responsible for the Parent Trigger law, is not a parent group, despite its name. It's essentially Green Dot public schools, the large charter management organization. As a result, there is rightful skepticism about conflict of interest.
Perhaps if other states had a Parent Trigger law, the outlook would be brighter. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, five states have waitlists of more than 10,000 students. If parents were legally empowered, they would be able to pressure their legislators to raise the cap on charter schools in order to provide their children with the education they want.
But this is speculation. All that is known to date is that most parents in California have been indifferent. However the Parent Trigger Law ultimately plays out there, I don't think it will make much of a difference in improving schools. There are still too many factors that account for educational quality beyond the control of even the best teachers.