03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Parent Trigger: New Leverage for Parents

Part of a huge reform package signed into California state law by Governor Schwarzenegger last Thursday, the "Parent Trigger" calls for districts to turn failing schools around by aggressive means - from firing staff to closing schools. So long as 50 percent of parents at a given school sign a petition, the school board must enact one of the given turnaround strategies. It's been asked, did California make the right choice by signing this reform into law?

The Parent Trigger is a fabulous idea! Not because it will - by itself - turn around many of California's low-performing schools. But because it will change the conversation among parents, community activists, and school boards across the state.

Some years ago, I attended the Public Education Network's national conference. Darv Winick, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board at the time, said something to the attendees that surprised me given his position. It was to the effect that - at the end of the day, after all the laws are written and the regulations are promulgated - the schools in a community are about as good as the community wants them to be.

Now, we all know it's more complicated than that. State and Federal policy certainly have a major impact on school quality.

But what makes the Parent Trigger such a great idea is that it provides a meaningful framework for parents to be involved in the struggle to bring quality education to their community. If a school really stinks, local organizers - parent activists, community-based organizations or clergy - can rally the parent community to consider the facts and consider "pulling the trigger."

The potential value of the Race to the Top grants is that they get everyone thinking and working together on priorities that are at the center of education improvement. And the potential value of the Parent Trigger is that it gets parents and community activists thinking about key questions like: How good is our school? What is good enough? If our school isn't good enough, what are we going to do about it?

The Parent Trigger provides a mechanism for parents and communities to have a larger ownership of education improvement. The way things stand now, education reform is almost completely "owned" by elected officials, business leaders and a certain class of activists. As Checker Finn describes in his recent National Affairs piece, the gulf between professional education reformers and parents is a major impediment to further progress.

When parents get involved, we can expect them to be concerned about more than just the standardized test scores that drive practically every aspect of accountability systems today. Among other things, they're going to be concerned about student safety, community values, the responsiveness of teachers and administrators, how engaged children are in school and the availability of after-school care. These things are important too. And it's up to parent and community leaders to make sure that "how much our children are learning" remains a major component of the conversation.

Part of the value of the Parent Trigger is the potential to transform up to 75 low-performing California schools. (The California Legislature capped the number of schools that can be impacted by this program at 75.) But most of the value will be in the thousands of conversations that the trigger inspires between parents and community activists, and the new leverage that the trigger gives to parents when they deal with administrators and school boards.

Of course, for this value to be realized, parent leaders and community activists have to respond to this invitation to get involved. I hope they do!

For other perspectives on this question, check out the National Journal's Education Experts blog.