Should Parents Be Able to Shut Down Our Failing Schools?

Apparently many of our U.S. mayors think so. Recently in Orlando, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted to unanimously endorse parent “trigger laws,” giving parents the legal right to band together and force change in failing public schools. The idea is that if 51 percent of parents who have kids enrolled in a failing school sign a petition to “trigger” change, demands can be made to fire the school’s administrators, fire teachers, dismiss the school board, and even close the school entirely and re-open it as a private charter school. Parent trigger laws are currently in place in several states including California, Texas and Louisiana and are under consideration in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York.

But do these laws make a difference?

At this point we just don’t know. There have only been two instances so far of parents initiating school reform through the “trigger law” in California (in Adelanto and in Compton), and in both instances, the efforts of the parent reformers were halted due to technicalities with the manner in which the signatures were obtained and recorded. So we cannot yet point to any actual example of success of a school being turned around due to the trigger being implemented.

But let’s take a step back -- are parent trigger laws even a good idea?

In my opinion parents need to be heard on what the issues are in their kids schools … but they are not necessarily the right group to solve the problem.

Parents can be great sources of feedback as to what is not working in a low-performing school and what might be some of the reasons the school is failing. And perhaps one of the biggest reasons we need to have a parent trigger law is to ensure that this important source of feedback is not ignored.

But to put the burden of organization and implementation of the necessary changes on a group of parents is unrealistic. In both of the California cases mentioned above, a non-profit parents-rights advocacy group called Parent Revolution was the driving force behind the efforts to gather those signatures and initiate the change. Without the help of this outside group, the 51 percent majority needed would have been very difficult to achieve. If the trigger group actually reached the point of deciding upon needed changes, Parent Revolution would likely have acted in an advisory role to guide the decision making for their school.

And the jury still seems to be out on whether or not charter schools outperform public schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found in a 2009 report that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37 percent of charter schools performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same. Measuring the effects of charter schools on kids performance should certainly extend beyond just standardized testing results, but it would be wrong for us to conclude that turning a failing public school into a private charter school is the “magic answer”.

Here’s what I do know. Parents need to have a voice in the public school education of their children. And where the system is failing students -- due to a poorly managed school, due to tenured teachers who long ago should have left the profession or due to school boards who are in denial of why student performance is so low -- changes must occur. Parents should very much be involved in triggering that change, but managing the evolution and improvement in itself? That effort should be led by more brilliant capable educators such as Geoffrey Canada, who established the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1990 and has successfully focused on increasing high school and college graduation rates for students in Harlem.

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Sharon Rowley an iVoice on iVillage from Bedford Corners, NY where she is the busy mom of six children. Sharon writes daily at

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