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Pulling the 'Parent Trigger' on School Reform

So-called parent trigger laws in seven states allow parents to take control of failing public schools.

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"Parent trigger" laws in seven states allow parents to take control of failing public schools.
"Parent trigger" laws in seven states allow parents to take control of failing public schools.

School reform is getting the Hollywood treatment this week with the premiere of Won't Back Down, which tells the story of a parent and teacher who join forces to take over a failing public school.

While the scenario in the movie is fictitious, the premise is rooted in reality. Parents in Adelanto, Calif., petitioned for control of Desert Trails Elementary School under California's "parent trigger" law, with the aim of converting the school into a charter school by the 2013-2014 school year. The parents continue to fight the school board in court for control of the school.

[Find out why high school students aren't prepared for college.]

Trigger laws, which allow parents to intervene if their child's school underperforms, are on the books in seven states—California, ConnecticutIndianaLouisianaMississippiOhio, and Texas—with as many as 20 states considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While the laws vary by state, most include following provisions:

• The school must be identified by the state as low-performing, often for consecutive years.

• There must be a majority buy-in by parents of students either attending the school, or with students in lower grade levels who would likely attend the school in the future. This is typically in the form of a petition.

• A handful of intervention options are typically available, including charter school conversion, forcing the school to replace the administrators and majority of teachers, or shutting the school down completely.

Proponents of trigger laws say they empower parents to step in when schools are failing their students, and give educators added incentive to take steps to improve schools that consistently fall short.

"[It] gives families leverage where they do not otherwise have it by increasing pressure on districts and others in charge of failing schools," Dave Robertson, a state senator in Michigan said in a hearing last week on a proposed parent trigger bill, according to Michigan Live.

[Discover why students learn better with engaged parents.]

But critics argue that while the idea sounds good in theory, parent trigger laws lack transparency and risk doing more harm than good.

"It's an illusion that sounds good on paper, even if it was created in sincerity," Caroline Grannan, a public school parent in San Francisco, told USA Today. Grannan is one of the founders of Parents Across America, a nonprofit group backed by teachers unions that works to connect parents and activists across the country.

Opponents are also concerned that for-profit charter school groups may leverage the laws to prompt parents to pursue school takeovers in order to expand the charter's footprint.

Parents facing "trigger" talk at their teen's school should make sure they are informed on all steps in the process, and include their high schooler in the discussion, says Elizabeth Rorick, director of government affairs for the National PTA.

[Read why student feedback may be underutilized in high schools.]

To ensure they cover all their bases, parents should reach out to organizers, teachers, and administrators, asking questions directed at three key areas: problems, processes, and proposed solutions, advises Kris Amundson, director of strategic communications at Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank.

"I think it's important for parents to have a clear view of what the problems are, because later on in the process one of my recommendations is then to say, 'Is the proposed change going to have the ability to move the needle on those problems?" says Amundson, who served on the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia for nearly 10 years and spent another 10 years in the state's legislature.

Before signing a petition, parents should know the exact plan for takeover, as well as whether petitioners are being paid to gather signatures—and if so, what organization is paying them—so they can make an informed decision, she says.

"This is not a decision that should be made in haste," Amundson says. "This is a serious, really important decision and it deserves to be treated as a serious important decision. And it's not a Hollywood movie."

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.