The California “Parent Trigger”: Should parents be empowered to reorganize their children’s schools?

Over the weekend, David Feith of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about the new California law allowing parents to intervene in a chronically failing school–the “parent trigger.” Feith explains:

Parent trigger, which became California law in January, is meant to facilitate that transfer of power through community organizing. Under the law, if 51% of parents in a failing school sign a petition, they can trigger a forcible transformation of the school—either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright.

This is certainly provocative. As a believer and frequent advocate for community involvement in school planning and design, I can’t help think that this is a step in the right direction. Distributing power more evenly between the school and the community seems like it can only help schools.

However, there is danger here. “The lynch provision,” as it was named by the president of the California Federation of Teachers, may be a truly offense way to categorize this reform, but the concern about reactionary behavior and anger on the part of parents is legitimate. There is a big difference between collective (and often very appropriate rage) driving a decision and democratic deliberation driving a decision. I worry about decisions that might not get adequately deliberated (this is discussed in the article as well).

More importantly, I think the parents working alone as the primary agents of change is not necessarily any better than the school working towards change alone. As my friend and colleague Mary Conger said, “where’s the student trigger?” There need to be levers that can produce change in schools, but where do these levers should trigger broad-based, community planning processes oriented towards collaborative, positive growth–destroying what is for the sake of change is almost always mistake.


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