Better ways to use parent power

If you’re following the national debates about how to improve failing schools, perhaps you’ve heard about parent trigger laws. While there aren’t actual guns involved, the “trigger” is the ability of parents to take drastic steps in schools that are not performing well. The nation’s first parent trigger law was passed in California in 2010 with several other states passing various versions of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. Provisions of the law differ from state to state, but in California, if a school is low-performing, the signatures of 51% of a school’s parents can force actions in regard to the school — actions such as closing the school, converting it to a charter school, or firing teachers and administrators.

I don’t want children to be stuck in failing schools, but I do not believe that the answer is parent trigger law.

I don’t want children to be stuck in failing schools, but I do not believe that the answer is parent trigger laws. There is no data that supports the success of this method, but there are plenty of downsides to consider. Parents in a school may not agree on a solution, and the process can be divisive and bring dissension among parents. In addition, education decisions are taken out of the hands of professional educators and put into the hands of parents. Some parents may not fully understand what is already being done to improve their children’s school. In addition, parent trigger laws bypass elected school boards who represent the public. If school board members are not doing what it takes to turn failing schools around, parents might consider using their clout and influence to elect different school board members. That is the heart of our democracy!

There are some complaints that corporate charter school operators are using parent trigger laws to gain entry into failing schools and turn them into charter schools. While there are some great charter schools, on the whole, data shows that charter schools are no more successful than traditional public schools. The reasons that schools fail are complex and are often related to lack of needed resources and support. A group of parents may or may not know if a charter school is the right answer for their school, but it could sound good to them because of their frustration.

I believe that parents should have a proactive role in their children’s school and its academic results. But there is a better way to use parent power than parent trigger laws. Authentic parent engagement happens when parents and educators work together to ensure the success of students. Parents need to understand what their children are learning, what the expectations and homework are, and what their children must master in order to succeed. Every time a parent comes to a school, the focus should be on student achievement. Parents can do many things to partner with and support the efforts of professional educators, and when they do, student achievement increases.

When schools fail, we should insist on systemic solutions that include the necessary resources and support, competent professional educators, and highly engaged parents. It’s a winning combination for school improvement.





ANNE FOSTER ( is executive director of Parents for Public Schools and a former school board member and president.

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