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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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Here’s a question for you: Which political party, Republicans or Democrats, supports expanding charter schools, test-based teacher evaluation, and most recently, parent trigger laws? (In school, this would be called a trick question.) The answer is: both.

The latest piece in the corporate education reform puzzle, parent trigger laws reveal just how desperately Republicans and Democrats are seeking ways to appease corporate America’s hunger for education reform -- without addressing the central issue of poverty that lies at the root of an overburdened U.S. education system.

These laws, which allow a majority of parents “to sign a petition to trigger one of a narrow set of options -- firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to a charter operator, or closing the school,” are packaged as free-market levers to empower parents with children trapped in poorly performing public schools -‑ a similar strategy to that being used to support the expansion of charter schools across the nation. As Stephanie Simon reported for Reuters, politicians are jumping to endorse them:

Hundreds of mayors from across the United States [recently] called for new laws letting parents seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to private management.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Orlando, Florida… unanimously endorsed ‘parent trigger’ laws aimed at bypassing elected school boards and giving parents at the worst public schools the opportunity to band together and force immediate change.

That “unanimous” endorsement naturally included plenty of Democratic mayors -- including some rather high-profile ones, as Stateline points out:

Led by a posse of mostly Democrat mayors, including Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaraigosa, Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson and Newark’s Cory Booker, the city leaders on Saturday (June 16) threw their support behind ‘parent trigger’ policy initiatives, which would allow parents to demand changes in chronically troubled schools that the politicians dubbed ‘drop-out factories.’

So the politicians have bought in -- but how promising a solution are parent trigger laws, really? Do they actually support the public and democratic purposes of schooling? On her All Things Education blog, Rachel Levy poses the following critical questions about parent triggers, and what they may or may not achieve:

So, if we grant parents more choice or power to turn their schools into charters, for example, is the charter going to provide what they want? Will parents be more engaged or involved? My sense is that perhaps in the short run they will be, but I'm not sure about the long-run. … Furthermore, once the school is turned over to private or unaccountable hands and is detached from any democratic process, the parents will have even less say.

Levy isn’t the only one who is skeptical. Parents Across America has released a position paper that takes a bold stand against the laws, noting that parent triggers are “not workable or effective” -- because, in the end, they are about neither parental choice nor empowerment. What they are about is reinforcing the broader goal of corporate reform: dismantling public institutions and workers’ rights protected by unions.

Parent Trigger as the Next ‘Superman’

Alongside charter schools, parent trigger laws share bipartisan support from politicians who increasingly embrace school choice arguments historically rejected by the public, as well as the misleading claims made popular in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. According to Guggenheim’s narrative, U.S. public education is failing, “bad” teachers and their unions are to blame, and school reform’s “Superman” comes in the form of charter schools like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and teacher training programs like Teach for America (TFA).