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Are Parent Trigger Laws Our New 'Superman' – Or Union Kryptonite?

Though they're being pushed by the biggest names in corporate education reform, and politicians of every stripe, there's little proof that parent trigger laws actually work.

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As the evidence grows on charter schools and teacher quality, it’s hard not to feel that parent trigger laws are simply the next phase in the march to endorse corporate-friendly education policies whose agenda includes breaking teachers’ unions as one lever to dismantle workers’ rights across the U.S. And even beyond the hidden agenda driving these trigger laws onto the market, there are other problems to consider -- including the fact that experiments with parental choice have already revealed that “parents as consumers” are more apt to create problems than solutions.

Parents as Consumers: Two Tales of Failure

Given their unproven efficacy and close ties to conservative forces, why have parent trigger laws resonated so strongly with the public in general and Democrats in particular, despite their long-time supporter of both public education and unions? It’s about accountability. “A major selling point for the Parent Trigger is that it makes local schools more ‘accountable’ to parents in the community,” progressive strategist Jeff Bryant recently explained. “And Democrats should all be pushing for public schools to be accountable to their communities.”

Politically speaking, both accountability and parental empowerment resonate as populist messages with voters, and Democrats often use that populist cover to hide their shared corporate interests with Republicans. But however powerful a message holding schools and teachers accountable to parents may be, like the evidence on charter schools, parental choice has a clear record of failure -- leading Bryant, in the same article, to conclude: “Democrats need to renounce the whole notion that education is a commodity that parents shop for like groceries.”

In fact, consumer-driven approaches have failed in other fields in ways that inform skepticism about parent trigger laws as effective education reform. For example, in medicine, the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)has forced the medical field to confront the devastating impact of the over-prescription of antibiotics – a direct result of allowing parents to impose consumer pressure on doctors for a “cure.”

When patients are viewed as consumers, even with the knowledge of the dangers of antibiotic-resistant infections, we now know that ER doctors tend “to prescribe antibiotics when they [believe] that patients expected them.” In this model, antibiotics become “a commodity that [patients] shop for like groceries,” displacing the expertise of the medical professional -- with dire results for the community at large.

In education, too, ample evidence already exists that although choice (parent trigger laws included) may make parent consumers “happy,” it doesn’t necessarily improve school outcomes. For example, in one of the largest and longest running school choice experiments in the U.S., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, parents were indeed pleased with the public school choice program available to them -- but, as Alan J. Borsuk explained,

The optimistic conclusions about school choice [revealed in a University of Colorado study about Milwaukee school choice] -- in the broadest sense of the term -- do not include an assessment of whether parents were actually making good choices in terms of schools where academic achievement is strong or where their children specifically would thrive.

In other words, parental happiness about and plentiful access to choice did not result in parental choice leveraging positive education reform, even in the pro-school choice Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) report that explicitly stated dissatisfaction with its own findings. Parental choice “did not yield the results we had hoped to find,” confessed George Lightbourne, a senior fellow for WPRI.

“Taken as a whole,” the 2007 WPRI report notes, “these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools].” The report concludes that: