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Examining the Parent Trigger as a Strategy for School Reform and Parental Engagement


by John Rogers, Chris Lubienski, Janelle Scott & Kevin G. Welner - 2015

Background: Purpose: This analysis considers the emergence, evidentiary basis, and potential of parent trigger policies. In particular, we focus on the policy, political and social circumstances in which parent trigger legislation emerged in California, the efficacy of the school improvement levers on which it draws, and the underlying assumptions about democratic engagement that inform the approach.

Research Design: This policy analysis draws on multiple forms of evidence to examine the efficacy of the parent trigger approach for school improvement and community engagement. The initial examination of the emergence of parent trigger considers public policy positions, media statements, and press accounts to trace the nuances of this policy landscape. Then, in lieu of useful research evidence on parent trigger itself, we turn to the research literature on the remedies that parent trigger tends to adopt, including studies in school choice, charter schools, and various school improvement strategies, as well as the implications for parental empowerment.

Findings: Reviews of extant evidence on policy remedies implicit and explicit in parent trigger indicate that, although parent trigger may have emerged from a deep-seated desire to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, it is unlikely to actually improve the educational quality of schools, given that the overall effects of these policy interventions are mixed, at best, and parent trigger adds another element of instability to already unstable school communities in disadvantaged areas.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our analysis suggests that parent trigger tends to assume an aggregative model of democratic action drawn from a market-style economic premise. Unless policy makers promote a more deliberative model of community engagement, empowerment, and school governance, it is likely that parent trigger could contribute to continual corruption of democratic institutions and avenues for school governance.



The parent trigger is an increasingly popular policy device, providing a new mechanism to force radical school reform. Dramatically and disruptively, a majority of parents can trigger transformation of low-performing neighborhood schools simply by signing petitions. The transformative options vary by state, but as a practical matter they always include conversion to charter school status. Triggers may also prompt school closure or the removal of a school’s administration and leaders. In short, the idea is that parents of students currently enrolled in a school should be allowed to upend that school under the assumption that what arises in its place will be an improvement for their children and for the school’s future students.


This article tracks the emergence of parent trigger policies as a lever for reform. We consider how and why trigger legislation emerged in California during the Great Recession and its rapid expansion since. We then examine evidence concerning the potential of this approach for improving schools, empowering parents, and enhancing democracy. Finally, we explore the political and financial forces that have supported the parent trigger movement.


The relative newness of trigger legislation means that there is currently little direct evidence on its effects, and its efficacy will largely depend upon the nature of the reforms that are implemented once a successful trigger action takes place. We thus draw on a broad research base to consider the constituent parts of the parent trigger—primarily governance changes and charter schools. Our review finds a paucity of evidence that such strategies will lead to school improvement. Further, we see little evidence that parent trigger mechanisms will provide an opening for more participation by parents and community members in matters of educational governance and decision making at either the school or school district level. Based on these considerations and on our review of the evidence regarding the reforms triggered by parental action, we conclude that, while the reform has the potential to improve the quality of any given school, the most likely result is greater instability. Further, we conclude that political and philosophical considerations should also be considered when examining the potential of parent trigger policies.


We note that parent trigger policies advance a market-based understanding of democracy that contributes to the shift toward the privatization of public schooling. In many ways, parent trigger legislation envisions parents much like consumers who express individual preferences by signing a petition. These preferences are based on parents’ private interests and are presumed to be fixed, not open to persuasion or change. Consequential and binding decisions about the public good of public education are based on the aggregation of these individual preferences. This aggregative model of democracy thus contrasts with deliberative democracy in which community members join in dialogue to identify shared concerns and examine possible alternatives (Meens & Howe, 2015 Unlike aggregative democracy, deliberation encourages justification in public debate, fosters transparency, develops civic capacity, and builds communal trust.


Our analysis is grounded on an application of research evidence as well as a normative belief in the value of a key stated goal of parent trigger: community-led improvement of public schools. Accordingly, we highlight the ways that both the campaign for parent trigger legislation and the legislation itself affect these goals and outcomes, concluding that the campaign and legislation stand to undermine democratic control over public education. We see a likelihood that the policy will erode the quality of local school governance, diminish parental engagement, and sap public confidence in public education.


THE PARENT TRIGGER: A BRIEF HISTORY


Since its inception, the parent trigger has garnered considerable popular attention and policy interest. The idea for the trigger was first aired publicly in late 2009 during a special session of California’s legislature. Since then, parent trigger legislation has been introduced in half of all state legislatures, has formed the basis of a major Hollywood movie as well as a documentary film, and has generated stories in every major national news network and in venues such as Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor (National Conference of State Legislators, 2013). This section provides an overview of the parent trigger’s brief and busy history, focusing first on its origins in California and then describing its expansion to other states. The section concludes with a recounting of how advocates have tried to use parent trigger legislation to effect change at four school sites.


Parent trigger legislation emerged in a particularly tumultuous year for California public education. The Great Recession ushered in by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 combined with structural weakness in California’s budget to create an unprecedented fiscal crisis in the state. With a budget deficit in excess of $40 billion, California’s state funding for public education fell by more than 10% during the 2008–2009 school year. Even with the support of federal stimulus dollars, California public schools experienced falling revenue that led to staff layoffs and reductions to services and programs. Deeper cuts were projected for the following school year. Making matters worse, California had entered the recession with among the lowest per-pupil expenditures,1 largest class sizes, and most segregated schools2 in the nation (Orfield, Kuscera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012; Rogers et al., 2010).


Into this breach, the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative—which was created using stimulus funds—offered hard-strapped states like California the promise of much-needed supplemental educational funding in exchange for adopting a set of strategies for educational reform. Announced by the Obama administration in July 2009, RTTT invited states and districts to compete for $4.35 billion. To garner a share of these funds, states were required to demonstrate their readiness and commitment to the administration’s ideas for school improvement—by enacting a set of educational reform policies related to assessing teacher effectiveness, intervening in low-achieving schools, and expanding charters and school choice, among other proposals.


The new dollars in RTTT attracted a great deal of interest across the political spectrum in California. In addition, some advocates believed that RTTT’s focus on teacher effectiveness would allow schools faced with the prospects of layoffs to shed teachers deemed undesirable. For others, a frustration with a seemingly unresponsive bureaucracy was connected to a belief in market-based approaches to reform, such as charters and other forms of school choice (Fuller, 2010).

 

Another critical factor advancing momentum for RTTT in California was the influx of private dollars to nonprofit organizations and political campaigns sympathetic to market-based reform. One of these organizations was the Los Angeles Parents Union (LAPU) that Green Dot Charter Schools (a nonprofit charter management organization) founded in 2006, in part to forge a visible base of support for its campaigns to take over neighborhood public schools (Boghossian, 2006). In 2009, with $1 million in initial funding from the Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Wasserman Foundation, the LAPU launched the “Parent Revolution,” a new nonprofit with the express purpose of “empowering parents to transform their underperforming schools” (Bacon, 2011; quoted in Marsh & Wohlstetter, 2013). By hiring community organizers and providing financial support for parent mobilizations, the LAPU and Parent Revolution became significant players in efforts to expand school choice in Los Angeles and across the state. Most notably, in August 2009 these organizations brought busloads of parents clad in blue “Parent Revolution” t-shirts to a key meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Education. The occasion was the board’s vote on “Public School Choice,” an historic resolution that enabled charter organizations to do two things: (a) move into brand new school facilities built by the district, and (b) develop proposals to take over management of district schools deemed to be “failing” (Maxwell, 2009; Stacey, 2009).


Emboldened by the campaign in Los Angeles, Ben Austin, the executive director of the LAPU and Parent Revolution, developed ideas for state legislation aimed at increasing public school choice in California and giving parents power to change governance structures in their neighborhood public schools (Bacon, 2011). Austin found an enthusiastic ally for these ideas in State Senator Gloria Romero. A Democrat who served at that time as chair of California’s Senate Education Committee, Romero had in spring of 2009 declared her candidacy for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Staunchly critical of the educational status quo and frustrated by the high dropout rates in her low-income district, Senator Romero sought to provide parents with new educational options. Her particular focus aligned with many who were engaged in the powerful push for “neoliberal reform” or “no excuses reform” (Thomas, 2011).3 Almost all early donors to Romero’s campaign for statewide office had direct connections to charter school organizations or to the broader charter school movement (Libby, 2010).


Senator Romero introduced Senate Bill X54 (SBX54) during a special legislative session called by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the fall of 2009 to enact policies that would make California competitive in the federal RTTT competition.4 The bill included a new data system and an “open enrollment” plan that enabled students in low-performing schools to transfer across district lines. It also outlined a new mechanism for “Parent Empowerment.” This provision targeted schools that were not already subject to remedial action under federal law (as the lowest achieving schools in the state) but that nonetheless had a history of low performance on standardized tests. It specified that if a majority of parents or guardians at such schools signed a petition, they would force local districts to initiate a “school turnaround” process grounded in one of four specified options: wholesale staff changes, removal of the principal, conversion to a charter school, or closure.


The California legislature passed SBX54 on a bipartisan vote, and Governor Schwarzenegger signed it into law on January 6—just two weeks before states needed to establish their readiness for the Race to the Top competition. Schwarzenegger (2010) focused attention on the parent empowerment provisions in his comments to lawmakers: “For too many years, too many children were trapped in low-performing schools. The exit doors may as well have been chained. Now, for the first time, parents—without the principal’s permission—have the right to free their children from these destructive schools. That is a great freedom.” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell was more pragmatic in his assessment, celebrating the fact that the new law made California “highly competitive” for the federal funds (Thompson, 2010). But State Senator Rod Wright expressed concern that the legislation represented “extortion, plain and simple.” He added, “We’re about to make permanent changes to our educational system and we don’t even have assurances that we’ll get . . . the money” (Thompson, 2010). Wright proved prescient: When the federal government announced the winners of the Race to the Top competition, California was not on the list (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). It wasn’t even a finalist.


While California’s legislation did not garner new federal funding, its parent empowerment provisions captured the attention of advocates and policy makers across the nation. One such advocate was Joseph Bast, the President of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank headquartered in Chicago.5 After meeting with Parent Revolution’s Ben Austin in early 2010, Bast and his colleagues at the Heartland Institute developed a policy proposal that they presented to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed nonprofit organization that develops and promotes model state legislation advancing free market and conservative ideas (Bast, Behrend, Boychuk, & Oestreich, 2010; McIntire, 2012). ALEC (2013) drafted model parent trigger legislation that followed the broad outlines of California’s SBX54 but added a voucher option, by which students at the transformed school would receive public money to attend a public or private school of their choosing. ALEC’s Education Task Force and Board of Directors adopted this model legislation in late 2010 and early 2011 respectively. Legislation apparently based on ALEC’s model has subsequently been introduced in several state legislatures (Ujifusa, 2012).


By 2013, parent trigger legislation of one sort or another had been considered in at least half of all state legislatures. Debates over these proposals have often been contentious, with significant political power spearheaded on the one side by market-based reform organizations and on the other by teachers’ unions joined by groups like “Parents Across America” and the PTA. In two cases, established civil rights organizations have weighed in as well, though in different ways. In 2010, the California chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) supported California’s parent trigger legislation. However, in 2013, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Florida opposed that state’s parent trigger legislation (Ujifusa, 2013). A number of newer, more market-oriented civil rights organizations have also emerged, which tend to be single-issue groups focused on empowerment though school choice policies, and which are primarily funded by conservative and venture philanthropies. The most prominent of these is called the Black Alliance for Educational Options. The positions of these groups often contradict those of longstanding civil rights organizations, and these tensions have intensified and become more complex as federal and state governments have retreated from redistributive social and educational policies (Scott, 2011).  


To date, seven states have adopted some version of a trigger: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. All states but Connecticut (discussed below) include a process by which the majority of parents of children attending a low-performing school may sign a petition that prompts a school transformation. Different states provide for distinct transformation options. Ohio and Texas generally follow California in allowing parents to choose among the range of “turnaround” options developed by the federal government—replace staff, create a charter, or close the school . In Indiana and Mississippi, the parent trigger only leads to a single option: charter conversion. Under Louisiana’s law, when a majority of parents sign a petition, the school enters the state’s Recovery School District (overwhelmingly composed of charter schools). Since low-income students in the Recovery School District are eligible for a voucher that can be used in private schools, Louisiana’s legislation is most similar to the ALEC model legislation. Notably, despite variations in these laws, all include the charter school option.


Connecticut’s parent trigger legislation alone represents an alternative vision of parent empowerment. Pursuant to this model, public deliberation precedes and informs school improvement efforts. Under the law, schools that have not made sufficient progress in improving standardized test scores are required to establish a governance council including seven members elected by parents and five by teachers. The council as a whole then selects two additional community leaders and may include other nonvoting members such as students at the high school level. The council is charged with gathering and examining data on school quality (including administrative data and parent surveys), reviewing school budgets, providing guidance on school improvement, and, where necessary, participating in hiring school administrators. The council also may initiate a school transformation process, but only after it has been engaged in efforts to improve the school for at least three years (An Act Concerning Education Reform in Connecticut, 2010; Bacon, 2011).


While parent trigger legislation has spread quickly, there have been only a few efforts to use the new laws to effect change on the ground. Four petition campaigns—all in California—have been initiated since 2010, producing in their wake highly contentious political and legal battles and a great deal of local and national publicity. Each of these campaigns has targeted schools serving low-income communities of color. More than 99% of the students across all four schools were eligible for compensatory education services, based on their family income. Each school served a student population that was majority Latino, with a sizeable African American minority (California Department of Education, 2013).


All four of the parent trigger campaigns have emerged through the leadership of Parent Revolution, which uses its annual budget of more than $5 million to advance parent trigger efforts (Lindstrom, 2013). Parent Revolution (2013b) now boasts a staff of more than 40, almost half of whom are designated as organizers. As such, it maintains one of the largest organizing forces of any education-focused 501c3 organization in the nation. Its organizing staff is larger than that of many state or national organizing networks. In light of the increasing wealth gap in the United States (Hacker & Pierson, 2010) and the economic challenges faced by communities that have been directly impacted by the trigger, the considerable resources enjoyed by Parent Revolution put the organization at a distinct advantage. Not only is it a key organizing force, but it is providing employment opportunities in a time and place where jobs continue to be scarce. The political battles that have emerged from the Parent Revolution’s campaigns reveal the tensions that accompany the market-based model of democracy embedded within the parent trigger laws.


Parent Revolution chose McKinley Elementary in Compton, California, as the site of its initial campaign in late 2010. Reflecting a larger pattern, the neighborhood targeted by Parent Revolution staff had experienced economic instability and high poverty rates for several decades.  Yet, conditions had worsened substantially since the Great Recession began in the spring of 2007. By fall 2010, Compton’s official unemployment rate had risen more than twofold, standing at greater than 20% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). Compton Unified School District’s weak tax base yielded a long history of dramatically under-resourced schools (Straus, 2009). Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the community was the site of several political and legal campaigns for educational reform, and there were some signs that these efforts were effective. Several Compton schools improved their test results between 2005 and 2010. During this period, McKinley met the state’s annual test score growth goals five times out of six (California Department of Education, 2013; “Pulling the parent trigger,” 2010). Many parents were nonetheless concerned that the test scores, while rising, remained low compared to the state average; some also felt that McKinley was not responsive to their concerns about student safety or other matters (Bacon, 2011).


Parent Revolution organizers thus were able to tap into a good deal of frustration when they began going door to door to encourage parents to sign a trigger petition. One parent, Carla Garcia, later recalled that when the organizer came to her door, she wanted to beautify the school facility and so she signed and circled “safety” as her concern. Ms. Garcia seems not to have realized that her signature represented a vote to turn the school over to Celerity, a privately operated charter management organization—this information was included at the top of the petition sheet, but only in small print (Bacon, 2011). Parent Revolution’s strategy of using door knocking and small house meetings rather than large public meetings meant that there were no opportunities for such issues to be aired or for parents to deliberate on the nature of the problems facing their school or the range of possible solutions for addressing them. This strategy also has served to preclude a public discussion of the motivations of the organizers, the implications of parental action, and the broader effects on their action for their neighborhood and surrounding schools. Door-to-door campaigning allows for a personal interaction with parents, but when it is not combined with broader public engagement it potentially also provides for misleading information to be spread about the causes and solutions for the problems observed by parents, as well as the significance of signing a given petition.


After Parent Revolution organizers gathered parent signatures representing more than half of McKinley Elementary’s student body, their efforts were challenged by Compton Unified School District. A district official sent parents a notice requiring them to verify their signatures with state-issued identification—a request that many understood as a threat to undocumented parents. The charges and counter charges created what Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe (2011a) described as “bitter campus divisions.” The question of which signatures should count ultimately was litigated, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr invalidated the petition because many of the signatures lacked dates (Bacon, 2011).


Two outcomes emerged from this failed first attempt at pulling the trigger. First, Celerity opened a new charter school just blocks from McKinley Elementary, but less than a third of the parents who had signed a petition chose to enroll their children in the new charter school (“Lessons of ‘parent trigger,’” 2011). Second, the California State Board of Education issued new regulations clarifying the parent trigger process. Among other rules, the regulations required organizations to report financial support for parent trigger petition-gathering efforts and required signature collectors to disclose if they were paid (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013; Watanabe, 2011b).


A similarly contentious process unfolded in Parent Revolution’s second parent trigger campaign, at Desert Trails Elementary in the high desert community of Adelanto, northeast of Los Angeles. Like Compton, Adelanto long had experienced high levels of poverty and a weak local tax base. Since the Great Recession began, unemployment rates in Adelanto had more than doubled, hitting over 20% by the summer of 2011 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). Elementary schools in Adelanto spent $1,700 less per student than California’s meager state average; consequently, these schools had among the most overcrowded classrooms in the state (California Department of Education, 2013). Parent Revolution organizers found a reservoir of concerns and gathered signatures representing 70% of the students at Desert Trails Elementary. As in Compton, the organizing campaign did not include a formal process affording parents a chance to discuss the merits of the petition or policy alternatives in advance of providing their signatures.


Members of the teachers union, fueled by suspicions that parents had been manipulated, countered with a campaign that prompted 90 parents to withdraw their signatures. Parent Revolution in turn charged that the parents who originally supported the trigger had been subjected to fraud and harassment by the trigger opponents (Watanabe, 2012). When the Adelanto school board ultimately denied the trigger petition, Parent Revolution took the matter to court, where a judge ruled in their favor. Desert Trails reopened as a new charter school, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, in fall 2013 (Watanabe, 2013c).


In the wake of the Compton and Adelanto campaigns, Parent Revolution has sought to mark out a second reform path. Rather than focusing solely on invoking one of the trigger options, it increasingly is viewing the petition process as a tool through which parents can leverage change in negotiation with schools and districts (Cavanagh, 2012). Parent Revolution’s organizing director, Pat DeTemple (personal communication, April 2, 2013), has stated that he envisions this shift as a way to build, rather than undercut, the social trust within school communities.


Evidence on this new strategy is, however, mixed. In February 2013, Parent Revolution was indeed able to use the trigger petition at 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles Unified to develop a collaborative agreement with the district for a new school governance model that will include a traditional public school administration and a charter in one shared site (Ash, 2013). But, two months later, the trigger process produced more dissension and ill will at Los Angeles’ Weigand Elementary, which serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The Parent Revolution-backed petition called for the removal of the school’s principal, Irma Cobain, based on the reasoning that Weigand had experienced little improvement on its test scores during her four-year tenure. At the same time, Parent Revolution organizers reasoned and communicated that the community loved and supported the school’s teachers (Parent Revolution, 2013a). The district’s decision to honor the petition and oust Cobain angered many parents and teachers at the campus, who cited Cobain’s strong leadership. Cobain had received exemplary reviews from her superiors, and her school plan had been lauded by the superintendent. (Indeed, even some parents who signed the petition expressed support for portions of her plans for moving the school forward.) After the board’s approval of the petition as was likely required by law, rival groups of parents held dueling rallies at the school, whistling and chanting at one another (Watanabe, 2013b). Expressing their loyalty to their fired principal and their sense that the petition process had undermined civility on campus, 21 of Weigand’s 22 teachers requested transfers to other schools (Watanabe, 2013a).


THE PARENT TRIGGER AS A STRATEGY FOR SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT


The notion of parents controlling their children’s schools has some inherent appeal. Yet such control can take a variety of forms, and no empirical evidence exists on the efficacy of parent trigger policies in improving school quality, despite what some claim (e.g., Heartland Institute, n.d.). The evidence that does exist is on key elements of parent trigger policies—elements drawn from the broader neoliberal education reform movement.


In fact, there are many aspects of parent trigger legislation that merit some scrutiny and that can be assessed. At the level of basic values and beliefs, some argue that we as a society have an ethical obligation to elevate parents’ rights to control their children’s education (Brighouse, 2000; Bush, 2009; Fuller, 2000). This idea supports the ideal of empowerment, which has come to trump other collective and communitarian approaches to educational equity policies (Scott, 2013). But, as discussed below, others contend that trigger approaches actually disempower most community members, removing conventional democratic control over school governance. We only touch briefly on these and other normative and philosophical considerations, focusing instead on the core empirical evidence concerning parent trigger as an approach to school improvement. While we believe these questions about values, beliefs, and ethics raise important issues with which policy makers, teachers, parents, students, and community members should wrestle, we also argue that the empirical bases for the parent trigger require careful scrutiny, given the factual claims made in support of its implementation and expansion. The policy rests on empirically testable assumptions about how decisions are best made to improve the educational effectiveness of schools. We review the extant evidence on these primary assumptions of parent trigger, examining what is known about key aspects of this approach to offering a better education for children. In particular, we focus on (a) the position of parents as drivers of educational improvement and (b) the importance of school governance, and especially charter school status, for increasing student learning.


PARENTAL CHOICE


The most prominent element of parent trigger laws is their elevation of parents into a primary decision-making role over the operation of their local school. Beneficial change in these schools will, in theory, be driven by these parental actions. This policy approach is set squarely within the rational-choice idealization of parents as consumers who have good information on educational options and have the ability and initiative to act on that information.5


For those sharing this perspective, parents are idealized as making informed choices about educational options in order to maximize educational advantages for their children and thereby driving later economic returns. This privileges market models of school governance, which elevate consumer preferences, over technocratic models that highlight guidance from experts or democratic models that highlight the larger community (Lubienski, 2013a). Typically, this thinking is embodied through school choice approaches that seek to expand parents’ access to additional educational options using charter schools or vouchers. Parent trigger policies also reflect this logic in three ways: (a) They assume that parents are optimally positioned to decide whether and how their school should undergo a radical reorganization; (b) they assume that parents are better able than district officials to choose the specific management at their local school; and (c) even if the school does not come under the trigger, advocates argue that such organizing can give parents significant leverage in dealing with district authorities (Cavanagh, 2012).


These assumptions are much more complex and problematic, however, when viewed through the lens of extant research on parental decision making in education, thus raising questions about the potential of parent trigger policies as a school improvement strategy.


Most important is the evidence on parents as rational choosers seeking to maximize academic and economic advantages for their children. Notwithstanding the predictions of rational-choice theory, parents’ decision making is guided by a wide variety of information, or lack thereof. There is much evidence of parents choosing to enroll their children in low-performing schools (Lubienski, 2013a). For instance, over the last decade, the fastest growing school sector has been virtual (cyber) schools (Miron & Welner, 2012) despite evidence that these schools are likely to provide the lowest quality education (see Miron & Urschel, 2012). In truth, the entire “utility maximization” assumption is nonfalsifiable and problematic (Hodgson, 2012).


Accordingly, while parent trigger as a school improvement strategy depends on pressure from parents choosing to make schools better, many make choices that do not apply such pressure. And while many parents’ preferences appear to focus primarily on academic quality, many do not. They instead look to other nonacademic criteria such as convenience, extracurricular programs, or a school’s demographics (Fossey, 1994: Hastings, Kane, & Staiger, 2007; Kleitz, Weiher, Tedin, & Matland, 2000; Schneider, Marschall, Teske, & Roch, 1998; Smith & Meier, 1995; Wells, 1993; Wells & Crain, 1992). Moreover, while many parents may state preferences for academic quality, revealed preferences sometimes suggest that they actually privilege other search criteria, particularly the racial composition of a school (Schneider & Buckley, 2002). Without assuming anything about the specific motivations of the parents in any given instance, we can say with near certainty that many parents using trigger laws are motivated by factors other than academic quality or school environments conducive to learning, thereby undercutting the force for school improvement. Furthermore, there is reason for concern that some of these motivations, such as for a school whose enrollment matches the social characteristics of their own child, may lead to greater segregation, and may actually limit choices for neighborhood families in the years following the use of the trigger.


This is not to say that parents are necessarily irrational.  Instead, we should understand that parents consider a constellation of factors when selecting schools for their children, and not all of these pertain to how schools perform on standardized assessments. Parents simply do not act as the rational choice actors that reformers want. And they often lack the information needed to make the best choices—information that is neither available nor widely distributed. In fact, considerable evidence indicates that useful and actionable information on school academic quality is obscure at best, or (when available) more accessible for affluent and well-connected families (Dodenhoff, 2007; Lacireno-Paquet & Brantley, 2012; Moser et al., 2003; Schneider & Buckley, 2006; Schneider, Teske, Roch, & Marschall, 1997; Teske, Fitzpatrick, & Kaplan, 2006; Weidner, 2005; Yettick, Wexler, & Anderson, 2008).


For some, the quality of a school might appear to be obvious based on test scores. But raw test scores tend to be strongly correlated with student demographics. Accordingly, aggregate scores of a school tell parents virtually nothing about the school’s effectiveness, culture, or pedagogy. Indicators of the relative value-added potential of attending a particular school are much more obscure, even for researchers with sophisticated analytical tools (hence the debates on judging an individual school’s or teacher’s impacts). In that regard, education as an enterprise has greater complexity than an enterprise that could be judged by straightforward references to simple outcomes. In fact, a parent’s best measure of quality is probably a visit, or many visits, to a potential school—something that, as a practical matter, few parents see themselves doing. For all these reasons, the school choice process is much more nuanced than rational choice theorists would have us believe.


In sum, while parent trigger policies privilege parents’ direct action under the assumption that they are informed about the current quality of a school as well as the potential of alternatives, in reality such information is quite complex. Interestingly, while market-oriented reformers explicitly elevate parental prerogatives in this area, many also implicitly denigrate parents’ ability to make choices. For example, parents actually tend to give their local public schools higher grades than given generally to public schools (Burshaw & Lopez, 2010; Burshaw & McNee, 2009; Rose & Gallup, 2002). In response, some neoliberal and conservative reformers have argued that parents are “misinformed” and are inaccurate in their assessments (see, e.g., Hassel & Manzo, 2007; Pacific Research Institute, 2009).7


CHARTER SCHOOLS


Although Parent Revolution’s Austin (2011) claims to have no agenda regarding charter schools, conversion from a neighborhood school into a charter school is essentially the default option in parent trigger systems. It is the only option included in all trigger legislation across the states8 and the only available option in some. This reflects basic rationales underlying the movement as well as the role of charter school management organizations and their backers in creating the parent trigger. The rationale behind trigger laws is that a poorly performing school run by a district can be hindered by top-down district management, staff seniority rules, collective bargaining agreements, and other considerations that purportedly place the interests of adult organizations ahead of children and their parents (see Allen, 2001, for an assertion of these concerns; see also Chubb and Moe, 1990). Charter schools are designed to bypass these bureaucratic arrangements, providing schools with autonomy from district regulation in order to encourage more effective and innovative practices. Parents choose charter schools, rather than being assigned to them, creating an incentive for charters to be more responsive to parental preferences or risk losing parents and thus per-pupil funding. It is not surprising that those who find these arguments convincing support trigger laws that allow parents to express directly their preference for charters, circumventing the hassles of district bureaucracies or disagreements with other voters in school board elections (Lubienski, 2010). This helps to explain why parent trigger laws embrace the charter option as their primary remedy. It also helps to explain why and how trigger laws tend to shift focus away from an acknowledgement of, and response to, the important impact of structural and economic concerns such as inequitable funding or high levels of poverty.


The evidence on charter school performance, however, is far from compelling in making the case that charter schools are any sort of silver bullet in the parent trigger chamber. In general, research indicates that the measured academic performance of public schools and charter schools is almost indistinguishable, with both sectors showing a great deal of variation among schools, and many charter schools lagging somewhat behind demographically comparable conventional public schools in terms of academic performance (see Miron & Urschel, 2012). In some areas, such as Boston, charter schools appear to be doing relatively well; in other areas, such as Nevada, the charters appear to be doing relatively poorly (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2013; Hoxby & Muraka, 2007; Hoxby & Rockoff, 2004; see also Welner, 2013b). While each individual study has its own strengths and weaknesses (for critiques, see Maul & McClelland, 2013; Reardon, 2009; Roy & Mishel, 2005), the overall body of research evidence, particularly as represented by larger scale, multistate or national studies, offers no reason to think of charter schools as a panacea or even a meaningful improvement. For instance, a study using nationally representative data on charter, public, and private schools found students in charter schools to be performing about a half-year behind their demographic counterparts in public schools to a statistically significant degree in the early grades (Lubienski, 2013a; see also Braun, Jenkins, & Grigg, 2006). Myriad other national and state-level studies have found little or no advantage for charter schools (e.g., Bettinger, 2005; Bifulco & Ladd, 2006; Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 2013; Hanushek, Kain, Rivkin, & Branch, 2005; Maul & McClelland, 2013; Miron, 2010; Miron & Urschel, 2012; Raymond, 2009; Zimmer, Gill, Booker, Lavertu, Sass, & Witte, 2009).


Differences in academic results are much more pronounced within rather than between sectors, whether the sector is charter schools, public schools, or private schools (Lubienski, 2013a). Accordingly, if the goal of parent trigger laws is to improve academic outcomes, the simplistic reliance on conversion to charter status is not supported by research. Furthermore, and as illustrated by Celerity’s opening of a charter school in Compton following the failure to exercise the parent trigger, charter schools can already be created in 42 states. Further, in many of these states, parents (as well as teachers and community members) are already given the legal authority to petition local school boards or other charter authorizers to convert a public school or create a new charter school. In that respect, parent trigger legislation simply bypasses more broad-based chartering mechanisms.


SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT STRATEGIES BEYOND GOVERNANCE CHANGES


What parent trigger policies do, particularly through the charter school strategy, is elevate the idea of putting parents in charge of an individual school. This becomes the primary consideration for effecting school improvement. Yet parent trigger and charter schools are governance reforms. They do not directly change students’ opportunities to learn; rather, their logic model assumes that changing the who and how of governance will result in increased learning opportunities. Research, however, demonstrates that the type of governance exhibited by a school is not an important factor in a school’s success or failure (Lubienski, 2013a; see also Maul & McClelland, 2013). Governance is far outweighed by other factors such as the opportunities, resources, and supports available to students and their teachers.


The parent trigger’s focus on changing governance of targeted schools does not offer a plan for bringing educational improvement to scale. Instead, it seeks to build reform one school at a time. For instance, the focus of parent trigger actions in California has been on individual schools as loci for change. As such, there is a distinct lack of attention to improvement of the system as a whole. Parent trigger legislation seems to presume that low-quality education is isolated within individual schools (and caused by poor management).


By funneling energy toward individual school governance changes, the parent trigger approach discounts and undermines possible systemic approaches for improving learning opportunities across an entire district or state. This means that the trigger policies do not address the underlying policy and social structures that leave some schools with inadequate learning conditions. Systems of education finance in which funding is related to the strength of the local tax base disadvantage low-income communities. Further, families living in poverty face a variety of stressors that make learning more difficult. Social policies that fail to meet families’ fundamental needs—such as secure basic income, stable and adequate housing, and access to quality healthcare—undermine student learning and place significant additional demands on schools in high-poverty communities.


When these social welfare needs are not addressed, schools scramble to respond, and they often must redirect resources (for example, administrator or teacher time) away from other instructional demands (Carter & Welner, 2013). As historian David Tyack  famously noted, “the lure of the structural panacea”—pulling the trigger and transforming a school’s governance in this case—does nothing to change these structural challenges (p. 169).


THE PARENT TRIGGER AS A STRATEGY FOR PARENT EMPOWERMENT


The parent trigger strategy emphasizes parental empowerment. This focus is prominent among the arguments by funders and advocates of parent trigger laws (Scott, 2013). For instance, Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Broad Education Foundation, a key funder of the Parent Revolution, reasons that the parent trigger is “a way for parents’ voices to be heard” (Bacon, 2011). This view of the legislation as a strategy for parent empowerment taps, at least superficially, into a growing consensus among policy makers and researchers about the importance of engaging parents in school improvement (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Orr & Rogers, 2010). Yet there are many different meanings of parent empowerment (Rogers, 2006). In this section we consider what understandings of parent power are embedded in the parent trigger—its conceptions of how parents take action, with whom, and through what processes. We highlight the ways that the parent trigger’s emphasis on individual parent empowerment represents a shift away from other approaches for making schools and districts more democratic and inclusive. In particular, we contrast parent trigger with efforts to strengthen governance processes that give parents and communities a collective voice and choice in governance, curricula, and pedagogy.


Parent trigger legislation uses the petition as the mechanism through which parents enact power. Petitions have a long and important history as tools for institutional and social change. They bring particular concerns to a public light and demonstrate the breadth of dissatisfaction with the status quo (Higginson, 1986). Yet petitions in and of themselves do not necessarily foster public deliberation through which a wide range of information is exchanged, problems analyzed, and alternative solutions considered.9


Two features of the parent trigger pose particular challenges to democratic deliberation. First, parent trigger legislation provides a limited set of options for change—essentially, replacing staff or changing the governance structure. This framework does not encourage or equip parents to consider the full range of factors underlying poor performance at their school (such as inadequate resources) or the corresponding variety of potential solutions. Second, the process set up by trigger legislation lacks provisions ensuring publicity and transparency. Organizers of a petition drive control the strategy and may thus pursue the drive in a way that effectively excludes teachers and the broader community from any discussion or deliberation. Further, potential petition signers may very well have received little or no information about school conditions and performance or about efforts at school improvement. Indeed, Louisiana’s trigger legislation prohibits school and district officials from using any public resources (presumably including personnel time) to oppose or support a trigger effort (National Conference of State Legislators, 2013). At one level, this makes sense. After all, school personnel are often prohibited from taking sides in a political dispute. But at another level it sets up a problematic process that muzzles the community’s most informed people on the key issues.


The lack of publicness and transparency in the trigger process may also foster concerns about manipulation. In addition, it may pose challenges in deeply divided communities in which a group of parents constitutes a vulnerable minority—because of their race, language, economic circumstances, citizenship status, religion, or other reason. Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, worries that trigger laws pose “a serious chance of abuse and racial polarization where intentions behind the petition may not be just about academics” (Bacon, 2011).


The parent trigger also emphasizes what some theorists and organizers refer to as “unilateral” rather than “relational” power (Cortes, 1996; Loomer, 1976; Warren, 2005).10 Unilateral power refers to actions through which one party with greater force influences another to take some action. Power, in this model, flows in one direction and is finite. We can see this understanding of parent power in former State Senator Gloria Romero’s characterization of the parent trigger when she calls for “school administrators and school bureaucrats in charge of the educational system” who have failed to improve educational outcomes to “move out of the way and we the people, we the parents will” (O’Connor, 2012).


While parents backed by state parent trigger laws may be able to wield unilateral power to oust those presently in charge of their children’s schools, it is far from clear that this action will yield more parental power in the future (or, as noted above, yield improved schools). This issue is discussed at great length below. Moreover, no substantial positive results can be expected from reorganizing a school unless the new organization provides greater opportunities to learn or builds a greater sense of inclusion and social trust among different members of the community—including administrators, teachers, parents, and students (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). This is why Ernesto Cortes and other prominent community organizers seek to promote reciprocal and respectful exchanges between parents and school officials. For Cortes (1996, p. 53), such “relational power involves developing relationships in which one not only acts on others, but is acted upon by others.” Pursuant to this vision of power, parents need to remain engaged with educational officials, sometimes by participating jointly in school improvement efforts, and sometimes by negotiating different understandings or contrasting visions.


The sustained engagement of relational power contrasts with the parent trigger’s focus on one-time activation of large numbers of individuals to effect a prescribed, immediate change. Theorists of social change sometimes refer to this distinction as the difference between organizing and mobilizing (Payne, 1989, 1995). Community organizing builds consensus from the ground up, accents leadership development, and holds a long-range view of change. Group members participate in decision making and shape direction and strategy. Mobilizing tends to be top down, issue driven, and focused on winning a particular campaign. To mobilize for social or institutional change, groups assemble massive numbers of people in highly visible actions. Whereas organizing embraces a “developmental politics” that aims to build the capacity of members for self-determination, mobilizing foregrounds the substantive political agenda of a group’s leaders (Gordon, 2002).


Parent Trigger campaigns generally have followed a mobilizing model. Parent Revolution, a powerful nonprofit organization with millions of dollars of support from procharter funders, uses its extensive staff to gather large number of parent signatures that will “trigger” dramatic change in school governance. Parent Revolution (2013c) claims that it uses organizing techniques to build parents’ capacity: “We equip parents with knowledge, train them in organizing, and support the actions they take to improve their local public school.” Yet the organization clearly defines the broad contours of the reform agenda, and the tactics it promotes are not likely to engender ongoing parent development. About 36% of all charter schools in the United States are run by private management organizations (Miron & Gulosino, 2013), and their decision making is generally not democratic. Instead, key decisions are often made in corporate headquarters located far outside the community. As explained by Kathleen Oropeza, an advocate with Florida nonprofit Fund Education Now, once the trigger is pulled, parents like her are “not going to be in there telling these for-profit charter developers how to run their school” (Edelson, 2012). Further, this sort of mobilizing can heighten frustration and create friction; these transformations are highly disruptive and stand to further destabilize community connections with local schools (Trujillo & Renée, 2012).


In contrast, grassroots organizing groups offer a powerful alternative for improving schools and enhancing civic capacity (Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Renée, Welner, & Oakes, 2010; Warren & Mapp, 2011). Grounded in local communities, members of these groups collectively identify shared problems and work collaboratively to address them. Organizing, in this sense, is an ongoing process that develops the civic capacity of its own members and uses the power of their experiences and numbers to effect change. Community organizing efforts in several cities have brought about improvement in learning conditions (Orr & Rogers, 2010). Further, a national study recently found that when community organizing groups work on education reform, they build the social trust necessary for school improvement (Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009).


THE PARENT TRIGGER, DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE, AND PRIVATE DOLLARS


While advocates continue to trumpet the equity and empowerment potential of parent trigger laws, they downplay the ways in which these laws transfer power to private providers or otherwise undermine democratic control over public education. Trigger policies facilitate the expansion of private providers in public education through a number of controversial mechanisms, including for-profit charter schools (Lubienski, 2013b). Even when parents are actively engaged in the decision to pull the trigger, the aftermath of a pulled trigger may mean that power and authority are transferred to people and organizations that are no longer subject to the same level of democratic control (or even further control under the parent trigger itself). These laws depart from traditional social policy focused on structural equity and instead focus on the freedom of individual parents to choose in a marketplace no matter the inequities in that marketplace or its context. In so doing, they potentially disenfranchise other constituents in a democratic society with an interest in public education, such as the broad base of taxpayers. It is not unlike allowing only those readers who currently are borrowing books from a public library to turn over management of the library—once and for all—to some private corporation.


Parent trigger legislation continues and extends recent educational reform efforts that aim to upend traditional democratic school governance and shift greater power to private service providers (Meens and Howe, this volume). For example, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and several other districts have all been subject to state takeover or mayoral control of schools as a stated response to purported educational or fiscal malpractice. These management alterations coupled with significant philanthropic support have resulted in hybridized governance models using “portfolio” approaches and heavily reliant on private charter school management organizations (DiMartino & Scott, 2013).  Democratically elected school boards have been replaced with appointed boards or policy panels. This trend in school governance has reduced, and in some cases eradicated, the gains made in school board and school district leadership by representatives of color—gains realized largely as a result of the community control movements and voting rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.


Philadelphia offers a useful case study. In 2000, the state of Pennsylvania adopted the Empowerment Act, which allowed the state to take over low-performing schools. Through this process, control over the majority of Philadelphia’s public schools was secured by several for-profit and nonprofit education management organizations (often referred to as EMOs and CMOs, respectively). Edison Schools, an EMO, was the most prominent of this group. Philadelphia thus became one of the first “portfolio model” school districts, in which policy makers permitted a range of operators to manage schools (Saltman, 2010). It also took the lead in ushering in the adoption of hybridized models for schooling even as the state continued to defund its urban schooling systems. More recently, in 2013, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission11 passed a budget that would eradicate assistant principals, new books, paper, clubs, counselors, librarians, or secretaries from most schools, further destabilizing struggling schools. One school’s principal sent a letter to parents suggesting they each donate $613.00 to make up for the district’s cuts (McCorry, 2013).

 

These efforts illustrate a reimagined role of the state and of school districts as setting goals and managing service providers, rather than taking direct responsibility for day-to-day learning opportunities. As managers, they merely negotiate contracts with private providers, who then operate schools. While some researchers of the Philadelphia model disagree about the effectiveness of the privately managed schools as well as the degree to which parents are able to participate in shaping local school policy (Bulkley, Mundell, & Riffer, 2004; Byrnes, 2009; Christman & Rhodes, 2002; Maranto, 2005), a preponderance of the research evidence indicates that there has not been greater accountability and increased school performance using the portfolio approach. Certainly, the recent period of fiscal crisis, budget cuts, and school closings has had a negative effect on learning opportunities in Philadelphia.12 After almost a decade of experimenting with this hybridized choice model, the state policy makers moved in 2012 to dismantle the school district altogether, promising instead to expand the number of schools operated by EMOs and CMOs. That is, the state is doubling down on the reform approach of the past decade, bringing to mind John Wooden’s maxim: “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Or perhaps the more relevant maxim is: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.


POLITICAL AND FINANCIAL SUPPORTERS OF PARENT TRIGGER LAWS


The advocacy of parent trigger laws has both a policy element and a political element. A policy perspective points us to the above-discussed issues of parental empowerment, governance reform, and research on the outcomes of charter schools. A political perspective points us to the advocacy campaign itself: Who funds the efforts to enact parent trigger laws, how does the advocacy intersect with related efforts, and what are advocates attempting to accomplish in terms of broader policy (and political) goals?


Consider the advocacy film Won’t Back Down, which was financed and promoted by people and groups involved in the neoliberal reform movement (Cody, 2012). The film’s premise is that parent trigger laws permit parents and teachers in underperforming schools to come together to lead radical changes in governance, thereby providing parents with control and power over unresponsive bureaucracies. One obvious distinction between this storyline and the reality of parent trigger laws is that teachers’ voices are not included in the real-world version (as they were in the film).13 The parent empowerment storyline also is fictitious. Contrary to this depiction, the weight of financial support and political advocacy for parent trigger laws comes from outside the community, not from local parents, civil rights groups, or grassroots community organizations.  


Since its founding, Parent Revolution has received a great deal of funding (over $10 million dollars to date) from the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other donors (Cohn, 2013).14 These funders have been joined by major political players who have actively pushed parent triggers. Mayors of major cities—many of whom are prominent Democrats—unanimously voted to endorse the legislation at the June 2012 meeting of the U.S. Council of Mayors. As noted earlier, prominent political support has also come from the corporate-supported American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has drafted and promoted model parent trigger legislation for other advocacy groups and lawmakers. Further, as also noted earlier, organizations like the deregulation- and privatization-focused Heartland Institute15 have joined in the promotion of parent trigger laws.


Further political support for parent trigger laws has come from recently formed educational reform organizations that receive funding from the same circle of donors supporting Parent Revolution. The most prominent of these groups are Democrats for Education Reform (DfER), Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst. Their goals include expanding school choice, diminishing the size and influence of teachers unions, and using students’ test scores to determine financial incentives for, and high stakes employment decisions about, teachers. DfER and StudentsFirst joined with Parent Revolution in cohosting screenings of Won’t Back Down at the 2012 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.


A hallmark of the media strategies employed by parent trigger advocates is to evocatively display the stories and struggles of parents of disabled students, parents of color, and parents in poverty. These stories are real, and the schools serving their communities are often inadequate—sometimes shockingly so. But the media strategy does not advocate that these needs be directly addressed. Rather, the advocacy organizations market these stories to policy makers and suggest the (cost-free) parent trigger remedy.


The staff, boards of directors, and funders of the advocacy groups, foundations, and think tanks advancing parent trigger laws and similar market-based school reforms do not generally come from the communities on whose behalf they claim to speak. While Parent Revolution has employed a diverse set of organizers and parents, its mission prevents the inclusion of parents who are interested in organizing and giving voice to community concerns yet are not supportive of the use of the parent trigger. This undermines the attempt to frame this approach as primarily a grassroots reform. In fact, the primary source of engagement with local communities in past efforts to enact parent trigger takeovers of schools is through paying local parents to organize other parents to take over the schools.


This attention to funders and the larger political landscape is not merely finger-pointing; it helps explain why the transformation options in these laws favor charter schools run by external EMOs and CMOs rather than favoring the creation of schools responsive to ongoing input from local communities. It is also another way parent trigger laws intersect with efforts to privatize aspects of urban public schooling (see Welner, 2013a). And it helps to explain the nature of the opposition that has arisen to parent trigger proposals.


In Florida, the coalition that successfully opposed parent trigger legislation included the state’s Parent Teacher Associations as well as national and local teachers unions and national community and parental advocacy groups such as Save Our Schools and Parents Across America. The opposition did not oppose the idea of parental empowerment. Instead, they focused primarily on the issue of the privatization of public education. They were concerned about the loss of the public nature of public schools and about giving control of schools to for-profit virtual schooling companies and to privately run charter school management organizations (Postal, 2013).


Interestingly, vibrant grassroots advocacy networks have long been in place in many of the states where parent trigger policies are being promoted (Wells, Anyon, & Oakes, 2010). These networks have focused their efforts on creating more equitable, high-quality, and responsive schools. As a rule, these community voices have not been welcomed into the parent trigger discussion or into many other discussions among powerful decision makers. Not only do many of these organizing groups lack access to funding support and to politicians—access enjoyed by Parent Revolution and its supporters—these groups are also rarely engaged with or even mentioned in “reformer” educational circles (see Fine & Karp, 2012). To date, parent trigger laws have done nothing to give a greater political voice to these community organizations and, in fact, have likely served to further marginalize them. Instead, these laws represent a broader effort to redefine parental engagement in marketized ways, with parents portrayed as consumers choosing between a variety of private-sector school providers. In addition, under the parent trigger framework, parent involvement is narrowed to expressing preferences through a petition, rather than deliberating about what schools should be and participating in improvement efforts aimed at realizing that vision.


CONCLUSION: THE SILENCER ON THE PARENT TRIGGER


Our conclusion that the parent trigger is a poorly conceived policy in terms of its effects on school improvement and democratic participation should not be understood as a defense of the status quo, which is too often characterized by unequal schools that are unable to serve some communities given the existing structural disadvantages they face.16 The existing state of affairs in places like Adelanto and Compton should absolutely be deemed unacceptable, even if we were to assume that the administrators and educators in the Desert Trails and McKinley schools have been excellent. Opportunities to learn in these and other disadvantaged communities are undermined by inadequate and unfair systems of educational funding and the broader failure of social policies to meet the basic needs of all families (Carter & Welner, 2013). In truth, neoliberal reformers have a solid record of identifying problems; it is the unwarranted leaps to unproven or disproven solutions that we and other researchers find so troubling (see Mathis & Welner, 2010).


In the face of an unacceptable status quo, dramatic and disruptive action has a broad appeal—particularly when it is weighed against the perception of inaction. Destruction of that status quo is enticing so long as nobody scrutinizes alternatives too closely for evidence of their superiority or demonstrated effectiveness. Into this void steps market-oriented school choice. The parent trigger affords affected parents some agency in participating in an overt effort to change the governance of their children’s schools. But, the process does nothing to build the civic capacity of these parents or to support the development of social trust essential for school improvement and for sustaining democratic institutions. By asserting the pretense that dramatic change has occurred, parent trigger policies leave the impression that problems of poorly performing schools will be solved once the trigger has been pulled. The underlying policy structures that led to the poor performance are unaddressed, and the inequitable distribution of political power in the broader society is left intact.


A far more hopeful parental empowerment agenda would begin with supporting parents in low-income communities to participate in examining the challenges facing their local public schools and identifying possible strategies for change. By building on the work of existing community organizing groups, tapping into deliberative structures, and forging relationships between parents and educators, such efforts will help to develop a robust public for public education (Orr & Rogers, 2010). Further, an alternative policy agenda must ensure equitable and sufficient learning opportunities for students across the educational system—resources like a caring and professionally trained teaching staff with access to appropriate curricula, pedagogical skills, educational resources, and school diversity (see Carter & Welner, 2013). And, it must address the social needs of families, so that all students enter school ready to take full advantage of these learning opportunities. Parent trigger policies ignore these proven factors by focusing on school governance, which is relatively easy to change, but has little impact beyond instability and churn.


What’s left is a bread and circuses distraction away from the core inequalities in the educational system. Trigger policies play into an assumption—a popular but questionable one—about the importance of turning around individual schools to lead to overall educational improvement. When education reform focuses on improving the effectiveness of schools by addressing organizational authority or behavior, we are placing a blind bet. Change at individual schools, even if successful, has little immediate effect on the system as a whole. Moreover, the removal of the public’s voice from decisions at a local school may further erode the public’s commitment to a truly public system. Strengthening that system as well as surrounding communities undoubtedly involves a far greater degree of difficulty, but it also involves a serious engagement with the nation’s opportunity gap.


Notes


1. California’s per pupil expenditures before the recession ranked near the bottom of all states after adjusting for regional cost of living differences.

2. Depending upon the metric used, California ranks as the most segregated, or one of the most segregated, states for African American and Latino students.  

3. Thomas (2011) distinguishes the “no excuses reformers” from the “social context reformers.” Here’s how he describes the former: “‘No Excuses’ Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, ‘No Excuses’ Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.” This distinction is generally helpful, but it doesn’t fully capture the deregulation and privatization elements of the current reform push—so the term “neoliberal reform” may be more à propos.

4. There are differing accounts of who drafted SBX54. Bacon (2011) reports that Ben Austin was responsible for writing the first draft. Gloria Romero (2013) presents herself as the bill’s author, claiming, “I wrote the nation’s first parent trigger law.” Parent Revolution’s spokesman David Phelps told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013 that his group “designed California’s legislation” (Politifact, 2013). Despite this ambiguity over authorship, it is clear that both Austin and Romero played significant roles in developing the legislation.

5. A substantive critique of Heartland is set forth in Oreskes and Conway (2010).

6. Some of the best articulations of this perspective in education are provided by Joseph Bast, Herbert Walberg and others at the Heartland Institute, which (as noted above) is one of the prime backers of parent trigger policies. Bast’s group (which is behind the website, http://theparenttrigger.com) advances these policies from the explicit premise that parents are better situated than are bureaucrats to control the education of their children (see Bast & Walberg, 2004, and Walberg & Bast, 2003, for an exposition of these beliefs).

7. The Pacific Research Institute was a voting member of the ALEC Education Task Force that approved the model parent trigger legislation. See Botari and Jerving (2012).

8. Louisiana’s legislation does not specify that schools targeted by the trigger should become charter schools, but instead turns them over to the Recovery School District, which manages a few non-charter schools but is the largest charter operator in the state.

9. This is not to say that the petition process is inherently at cross purposes with deliberation or participation. Petition campaigns can be used to foster deliberation, and particular petition processes can be linked to deliberation. For example, new forms of e-petitions that make petition texts publicly available and provide online discussion forums carry the potential to increase participation and deliberation. See, generally, Bohle and Riehm (2013).

10. Our analysis here builds off McAlister and Catone’s (2013) insightful analysis of parent power and more generally the work of Mark Warren.

11. The School Reform Commission was created by state law in December of 2001 and consists of five voting members—all appointed. Three are appointed by Pennsylvania’s governor; two are appointed by Philadelphia’s mayor (see http://www.educationvoterspa.org/index.php/site/issues/who-runs-the-school-district-of-philadelphia/)

12. Urban districts’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides, at best, a limited basis for assessing the quality of school systems. But given that such scores are the coin of the realm, it is worth noting that Philadelphia has demonstrated no improvement on the NAEP since the district first participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment in 2009. Its NAEP scores lag behind other large urban districts (Mezzacappa, 2013; The Nation’s Report Card, 2013).   

13. Connecticut’s parent trigger legislation is an exception to this rule, but, as noted above, this legislation contrasts sharply with parent trigger legislation in all other states.

14. Parent Revolution’s leader, Ben Austin, worked as a consultant for the Green Dot Charter Management Organization, which has, in turn, received substantial support from these same funders (Ramírez, 2009). Mr. Austin has, it should be noted, asserted that his group’s work is based on community organizing to improve schools. Yet as explained in this article, the parent trigger (mobilizing) approach differs in key ways from grassroots organizing.

15. A great deal of Heartland’s support comes from the large petroleum companies, and Heartland has been in the forefront of efforts to deny or minimize the effects of fossil fuels on climate change (see http://heartland.org/issues/environment; Oreskes & Conway, 2010).

16. The status quo is also now best understood as including a great deal of school choice, deregulation, and privatization (Welner, 2011).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17881, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:29:39 PM

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  • John Rogers
    UCLA
    E-mail Author
    JOHN ROGERS is a Professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA). He also serves as the faculty co-director of UCLA’s Principal Leadership Institute. Rogers studies the role of civic engagement in equity-focused school reform and civic renewal. He is the co-author of Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice and co-editor of Public Engagement for Public Education: Joining Forces to Revitalize Democracy and Equalize Schools. He received his Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University and his B.A. in Public Policy and African American Studies from Princeton University.
  • Chris Lubienski
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER LUBIENSKI is a professor of education policy, and the Director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois, and the Sir Walter Murdoch Visiting Professor at Murdoch University in Western Australia. His research focuses on education policy, reform, and the political economy of education, with a particular concern for issues of equity and access. He was recently a Fulbright Senior Scholar for New Zealand, where he studies school policies and student enrollment patterns. His new book is The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (with Sarah Theule Lubienski, University of Chicago Press).
  • Janelle Scott
    University of California at Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    JANELLE SCOTT is an Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education and African American Studies Department. She earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of California at Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley. Her research explores the relationship between education, policy, and equality of opportunity through three policy foci: (1) the racial politics of public education, (2) the politics of school choice, marketization, and privatization, and (3) the role of elite and community-based advocacy in shaping public education. She was a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Year Fellow and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. Her work has appeared in several edited books and journals, including the Peabody Journal of Education, Educational Policy, American Educational Research Journal, and the Harvard Educational Review. She the editor of School choice and diversity: What the evidence says (2005 Teachers College Press)
  • Kevin Welner
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    E-mail Author
    KEVIN G. WELNER is a professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education. His work examines the use of research in policy making, the intersection between education rights litigation and educational opportunity scholarship, and the school change process associated with equity-focused reform efforts. He has authored or edited nine books and more than 90 scholarly articles and book chapters. Welner has received the American Educational Research Association’s Early Career Award in 2006 and has been designated an AERA Fellow. He earned his B.A. in Biological Sciences from UCSB and his J.D. and Ph.D. from UCLA.
 
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