Good social policy strengthens communities and empowers families, not bureaucrats, to make decisions — but the fact that the parent trigger does this does not guarantee its success. Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that parent involvement in schools is “almost an unmitigated good,” but he cautions that one should be wary of community influence in school management. He wonders what would “be the mechanism for helping these parents decide what type of reform to enact, sorting through who are the rip-off artists and professional developers and who have smart ideas.”
Hess links this to another concern: that “most [education-reform] ideas start off as one sensible option,” but then start being considered an end in themselves. Charter schools in the early 1990s followed that path, being presented as one good option out of many until advocates “built up such a head of steam” for the idea that they ended up “massively overselling it.” He notes that Parent Revolution, smeared by trigger opponents as a charter-school lobbying group, has done excellent work on educating and empowering families to make the right choices after the trigger is pulled.
The law deserves praise in particular for offering an innovative solution to a pernicious problem: Many reformers believe education is best administered by local authorities, but at the local level, the influence of administrators and teachers’ unions is often overwhelming. They have this influence for at least two reasons: Teachers’ unions maintain political organizations almost unparalleled in local resources and enthusiasm, while administrators naturally control most of the decisions in a school district and wield significant power, especially over poorer parents and new immigrants.
The parent trigger gives parents the leverage they need to oppose these forces, but allows them to decide how and when to use it. Just the existence of the trigger exacts higher standards from schools: They face the dual threat of federal action if they remain in the bottom 5 percent of schools in their state and of parental action if they are considered consistently failing by the state of California. Clearly, schools should not have to wallow in the bottom 5 percent in order to be threatened with comprehensive reform, and reform should be guided by the local community. Until the enactment of the parent trigger in California, no such option existed.
The parent trigger is hardly a panacea for all schools, but it is an innovative education reform. Local communities can choose their own policies, federal and state governments provide leverage without overreach, and parents make the ultimate decisions for their children. Conservatives can certainly support such a policy.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow.