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Researchers Weigh In On the Parent Trigger


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Christopher Lubienski, (217) 333-4382,
Janelle Scott, (510) 642-4740,
John Rogers, (310) 206-4620,
Kevin Welner, (303) 492-8370,

URL for this press release:


BOULDER, CO (September 5, 2012) -- With a boost from Hollywood and a strong advocacy push from a cohort of think tanks, the “parent trigger” has burst onto the educational policy scene. These policies authorize parent referenda that would turn neighborhood schools over to private charter school operators or would otherwise force drastic changes to the governance of these schools. This parent trigger approach is being touted as a way to empower parents in dealing with troubled local schools and in guiding their children’s education.

The Hollywood boost is provided by the movie Won't Back Down, which will be generally released on September 28th and which was previewed at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Meanwhile, advocacy groups like Parent Revolution and the Heartland Institute have pushed parent-trigger legislation throughout the nation.

Because of the importance of these policies and because the policy discussions around the proposals have been largely evidence-free, the National Education Policy Center asked a group of researchers to describe what we currently know about the parent trigger. The result is a policy memo titled, Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, authored by professors from the University of Illinois, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and CU Boulder.

The authors raise several concerns about the parent trigger. They warn that the trigger focuses on changing school governance rather than improving students’ opportunities to learn.   The evidence to date suggests that turning public schools over to charter operators or replacing school staff is not likely to lead to better student outcomes.  But research has clearly established that students learn more when they have access to quality instructional materials and well-prepared teachers.  The authors also caution that while the parent trigger offers a superficial appeal to democratic processes by “letting parents decide,” it ultimately thwarts continued, sustained community and parental involvement:

The parent trigger approach challenges the democratic underpinnings of public education, temporarily empowering the majority of parents currently using a school but disenfranchising the broader community, including the taxpayers funding the school and parents whose children who would subsequently attend the school. This is a startlingly unique and odd approach to improving a public institution. It would be like turning over control of a public transit system exclusively to a majority vote of the people who happened to be riding the bus on a given day; or handing control of the library to 51% of the people who have currently checked out books; or asking parents of college students (or perhaps those students themselves) to vote to assume governance control of a university.

The new policy memo does, however, praise the broad idea of parental involvement, and it briefly describes an approach to parent involvement that is grounded in grassroots organizing. It concludes by agreeing that “The parent trigger approach and the story told in Won’t Back Down contain an essential truth: parents should indeed be able to act to improve their children’s schools.”  But, the authors point out, “wise, effective action must have at least three elements that are missing from parent trigger: (1) it must genuinely arise from deliberation and organization within the affected community, not through external advocacy groups using these communities to advance their own agendas;  (2) it must be evidence-based in the sense that the intervention is likely to yield benefits; and (3) it must be built on the core reality that students learn when they have opportunities to learn—governance changes might play a minor role, but they can’t sensibly be at the center.”

The authors of the policy memo are Christopher Lubienski (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Janelle Scott (UC Berkeley), John Rogers (UCLA), and Kevin Welner (CU Boulder).

Readers of this policy memo will also be interested in the ‘think tank review’ released by NEPC this week that examines the strengths and weakness of a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI report is titled, Parent Power: Grass Roots Activism and K-12 Education Reform, and it includes a discussion of Parent Revolution, the primary group advocating the parent trigger.

In their review, Michelle Fine (Graduate Center - CUNY) and Stan Karp (Education Law Center) examine the different types of parental and community involvement strategies. Touching on one of the concerns that’s also set forth in the new policy memo about the parent trigger, Fine and Karp conclude that the AEI report ignores grassroots advocates for system-wide education reform and equity and instead focuses on “a narrow, market-driven set of reform organizations.” Find this review at

The NEPC policy memo, Missing the Target? The Parent Trigger as a Strategy for Parental Engagement and School Reform, can be found on the NEPC website at

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit