Beware the Trigger

by Wayne  Au

“Parent triggers” are one of the latest education reforms gaining traction around the country. They appear to be a simple and empowering reform: If the majority of the parents (50% + 1) at a school sign a petition, they can force restructuring, including conversion into a charter school.

Trigger laws have been passed in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and considered in Florida and Pennsylvania. They have even arrived at the movies: 20th Century Fox and Walden Media’s film, Won’t Back Down, revolves around using a trigger to take over a struggling public school.

Now one could be coming to Washington State in the form of Initiative 1240 (I-1240).

I-1240 Section 213(3) states that a public school can be converted to a charter school “…by a petition signed by a majority of teachers assigned to the school or a petition signed by a majority of parents of students in the school.”

Despite its inclusion of teachers, this is a classic trigger law, where the slightest majority of the parents or teachers at a school can make a choice for an entire neighborhood institution.

I-1240 would be the country’s most aggressive trigger law. Triggers in other states apply only to failing schools and allow multiple options for restructuring. The I-1240 trigger, on the other hand, could be applied to any school, high or low achieving, and the only option is for conversion to a charter school.

I-1240 also does not require public notice to parents or teachers that a charter conversion petition is being circulated.

Under I-1240, 51% of parents at any given school could “convert” it into a charter without telling the remaining parents or any of the teachers. Likewise, under I-1240 51% of the teachers at a school could convert it into a charter without any input from parents.

Imagine an elementary school with 15 teachers. Eight of them decide to sign a trigger petition to convert their school into a charter. Under I-1240, that’s it. An entire school community could be upended by a handful of people.

Further, once a school is “converted” into a charter, there is nothing in I-1240 to guarantee that parents or teachers have any say-so once the new charter management organization takes over.

Ironically, “parent triggers,” did not start with parents.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been the primary provider of model language for parent trigger laws. ALEC is the conservative organization behind the “stand your ground” gun laws (which came under scrutiny following the widely publicized shooting death of Trayvon Martin) and voter I.D. laws aimed at reducing the number of eligible voters.

Consistent with ALEC’s policy agenda, trigger laws have been promoted as a way to replace unionized public schools with non-union charter schools, and a way to transfer public school control to non-profit and private management organizations.

Parents have also found parent trigger laws to be disempowering. For instance, parents in one California school have lodged complaints against parent trigger proponents for providing misleading information. Just this summer, after nearly 100 of those parents requested to have their names removed from a trigger petition (pushing the petition below the majority threshold), a California judge ruled that they could not change their minds once they had signed. He proceeded to reinstate the charter conversion against the wishes of the parents.

The California example also illustrates another problem: Because they rely on simple majority vote as opposed to overwhelming parent support, trigger laws pit parents against one another in a fight for a slim majority rather than engage them in a joint effort to do what is best for all children at a school.

Parents have been resisting parent triggers too. A parent trigger law was defeated in Florida by a coalition of groups that included the state’s Parent Teacher Associations and parent-based advocacy groups Parents Across America and Save Our Schools.

Even the Washington State Parent-Teachers Association, which had officially endorsed charter schools, has balked at I-1240.

Yes, we need more parental and community involvement in our public schools, but such involvement needs to include all parents, teachers, and administrators working collaboratively.  And that’s not the aim of trigger laws.

Regardless of how Washington voters feel about charter schools, it is important they understand that I-1240 is not just a charter school initiative, it is also a trigger initiative.

Dr. Wayne Au is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Washington, Bothell, and he is an editor for the progressive education magazine, Rethinking Schools.

Related Resources

Trigger Laws: Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?  by David Bacon, Rethinking Schools Magazine, Fall 2011.

Parents Across America Toolkit for Won’t Back Down

Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, National Education Policy Center

Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel

Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice, edited by Wayne Au

9 thoughts on “Beware the Trigger

  1. Prof. Au: Thanks for jumping into this discussion. Although I’ve perused I-1240, I’d not noticed that its trigger clause could be used in any school, regardless of its efficacy. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Have added your article to my “NO on I-1240” notebook. Will likely be mentioning it, if I’m called upon by the speakers bureau to speak someplace.

  2. Thanks for informing us about this “Trigger” hidden into I-1240. When I’ve told parents and students about it, they’re outraged that something this radical, this egregious, could become law if people vote for 1240.

    1240 is dangerous. It takes money from our already struggling schools and hands it over to new charters that are essentially accountable to nobody.

    And now this “Trigger” has been discovered. No wonder the people who paid for I-1240, slipped the official filing papers under the door at just minutes before the deadline. And no wonder that they had to rely on paid signature gatherers—who cost more than any other signature gatherers in history.

    It’s only now, a few weeks before the election, that voters are taking a good look at this awful law called I-1240. Like many people, I’m not liking what I see. It’s time to spread the word, and let people know that this is a “time bomb” that will devastate our schools if it were ever to pass.

  3. I don’t see anything in this post that actually explains why a charter school would be such a bad idea. Just guilt by association and unrelated material on other issues the author disagrees with.

    1. Prof. Au makes three very clear points as to what’s wrong with the “parent trigger” clause in the initiative and the inappropriate nature of the resulting proposal. His comments are limited to the “parent trigger” issue. Your objection to things not mentioned is irrelevant, as the issue for Prof. Au’s comment is the initiative itself.

    2. Richard,
      Since you asked, there are an ample number of resources on why charters are a bad idea. Here are just a couple to get you started. Let me know if you need more:

      http://theeducatorsroom.com/2012/09/contextual-accountability/

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/how-charter-schools-can-hurt.html

      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false

      But remember, Wayne was writing about the “Trigger”, or “Tricker” as some have described it, in this piece. I’m certain he could address the charter issue directly in time.

  4. @Richard: This article does not appear to be about whether charter schools are a good idea or a bad idea; the point Mr. Au is making is that the law as written does not include enough of the community (teachers and parents) in the decision. I think he expresses it best when he says “trigger laws pit parents against one another in a fight for a slim majority rather than engage them in a joint effort to do what is best for all children at a school.” Whether a converting to a charter school is best for the community is for each community to decide.

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