Many states—including Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are considering significant education reform initiatives. The Parent Trigger, allowing parents to petition for school-wide reform, is quickly spreading across the nation. Private and public school choice programs are being proposed, and charter laws are being reformed. Although the various proposals are unique to each state, they share one overarching concept: parent empowerment.
Previously implemented reforms have been stymied by bureaucracy. According to the Fordham Institute, only 1 percent of the schools deemed the worst-of-the-worst received the reforms promised under federal law. For example, many states place arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools that can open, who can open them, and how long the process takes.
Empowering parents has been proven to raise achievement, hold teachers accountable, and increase parental satisfaction with schools. Research at Tel Aviv University found that when parents were given a voucher to leave their public school, teachers responded with “open communication and transparency to boost parents’ confidence and trust in their teaching skills”—empowerment legislation forms closer parent-teacher relationships and puts pressure on teachers to produce.
Policy initiatives that empower parents are likely to increase parental involvement and satisfaction and raise student achievement by inviting parents into the process. In a study of 22 parent-empowering programs, Stanford University’s Barbara Goodson and Robert Hess found they all produced significant achievement gains and that it was the empowerment itself, rather than the content of the programs, that was responsible for the gains.
The Parent Trigger and private school voucher programs are the most empowering policies for parents. Instituting these reforms at the state level is thus likely to raise both student achievement and parental satisfaction.
Even a foolproof Parent Trigger mechanism will be of little value without a set of well-researched, time-tested reforms from which parents may choose.
The designers of the California Parent Trigger made a grave mistake by leaving tepid reform modules in the bill and allowing districts to override the parents’ reform choice. Essentially, if parents in California choose to convert their school to a charter school, district officials can decide to implement any of the other reform options instead.
The modules section of a parent trigger bill can be thought of as a vessel for major reforms that can be triggered at the school level. Possible modules could range from a recent reform fad such as teacher merit pay to time-tested voucher programs to experimental overhauls that cannot be instituted as a blanket, statewide policy.
It is important to present parents with truly empowering choices that will dramatically reshape schools. Tired, failed reforms such as those mandated at the federal level as “turnarounds” simply increase bureaucracy and further burden taxpayers. Parent Trigger bills by their nature are mechanisms for flexibility and localized control, so lawmakers should include modules to remedy all sorts of school situations. For example, a rural school would benefit far more from the option to convert to a charter school than from a provision for school closure or public school choice. Conversely, voucher programs or leadership replacement might make the most sense in other settings.
With that in mind, a parent trigger bill should include at least two modules: (1) a school-specific voucher program and (2) conversion to a charter school. Bills without at least one of these modules will not truly empower parents.