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HARRIS: Trigger laws critical to amplifying parents' voices

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David HarrisQuestion: The “parent trigger,” which allows parents of children in failing schools to vote to petition their school board to force major changes, nearly passed the General Assembly this year. This summer, a parent group in California became the first such group to win a court battle to enforce the trigger. Should parent triggers be reconsidered in the upcoming legislative session?

Answer: For too long, power over urban schools has rested too much with district central offices and not enough with parents. Parents have had too few options and too little power to compel school improvement and often lack the resources to move so their children can attend a better school.

But a parent trigger law, which enables parents to convert a struggling district school into a charter school if a majority of parents supports the move, could help rebalance power in favor of parents.

Why is that a good thing?

Because when parents—particularly economically disadvantaged parents in urban districts—have more power, they demand more and better choices for their kids, and they put pressure on schools to improve.

Indiana already has a parent trigger law. But it needs to be strengthened.

The existing law—passed in 2011—allows parents to convert a low-performing district public school to a charter if a majority of parents signs a petition, but local school boards have to sign off on the conversion. Since few (if any) boards are likely to sign off, the state should strengthen the law by removing the school board provision.

Parent trigger laws would add a powerful new tool to help parents regain control over their children’s education. With a robust trigger law, if enough parents at a struggling school were dissatisfied, they could convert the school into a charter and gain control of the school and building. They wouldn’t just have to ship their kids to another school.

Parents have never had this kind of opportunity to transform their own neighborhood schools.

Such a dynamic not only amplifies parents’ voices in education; it creates additional pressure for public schools to improve. The intensity of performance pressure would be ratcheted up if districts knew that parents could convert poor-performing schools to charters.

And this should not just be about low-performing schools. Parent trigger laws should be written so that parents could collaborate with talented educators in high-functioning schools to gain the autonomy they need for sustained success.

Parent trigger isn’t a panacea.

Turning around a school is difficult, and parents may lack expertise to design and run a quality school. When triggering a school transformation, parents need support to identify a qualified operator and management team to run the school. And as an important safeguard, the laws require charter school authorizers to approve the operators and management teams parents select.

State and local education organizations can play an important role providing connections and introductions as parents move forward in the process.

For example, in Adelanto, Calif., where a group of parents this year became the first to use a parent trigger, a not-for-profit called Parent Revolution, led by former Clinton White House staffer and former California State Board of Education member Ben Austin, has provided the parents with significant support, including an extensive, multi-week curriculum for parents taking over the school.

With Parent Revolution’s help, the parents recently chose a proven charter school operator to take over the failing Desert Trails Elementary school next fall.

Ultimately, the success of parent trigger laws across the United States will require similar collaborative efforts. If we can foster such collaborations here in Indiana, a robust parent trigger could magnify the voices of parents who too often have not been heard.•

• Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit focused on K-12 education reform in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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