Q: Our local school is awful. Some parents in our district saw a movie about using a "parent trigger" law to shut down a failing school. I'm not sure how much work that would entail and if it would make a difference. How common are these laws and have they been successful?
A: California passed the nation's first parent trigger law in January 2010. Since then, six other states -- Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Ohio -- have passed some version of parent-trigger legislation. The National Council on State Legislatures reports that at least 25 states have considered it.
Parent-trigger laws allow parents to become deeply involved in the management and decision-making in their children's school. They spell out processes parents can use to organize and act to improve a school, such as removing the principal and faculty, converting it to a charter school or even closing the school altogether and reassigning students to better-performing schools.
The movie those parents saw was probably "Won't Back Down," a 2012 story of two moms (one a teacher) who use a state law to take over their kids' struggling school. It is loosely based on events in a California district.
While the laws (and the movie) have been successful in drawing national attention to parents' frustrations in challenging a school's history of underperformance, very few schools have been affected. California is the only state in which parents have successfully used the law to force changes at a failing school.
Changing a school from the outside requires robust leadership, organization and planning. The Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution (parentrevolution.org) trains parents in organizing, building knowledge of what works, and fostering relationships with teachers, administrators, school boards and other constituencies in the community to bring about change. It offers support to parents in any community working to improve schools, whether or not they are in "parent trigger" states.
Another group, Parents Across America (parentsacrossamerica.org), supports parental empowerment, but opposes parent-trigger processes because they are divisive and likely to cause more problems that they solve, says Rita Solnet, a founding member based in Florida. She has extensive experience in involving the entire community in improving schools.
"Parents, grandparents, retired educators and local citizens can partner with schools to improve the quality of public education," she says. "That creates goodwill among citizens versus the divisiveness, turmoil and uncertainty inherent in a parent takeover."
Last year, Los Angeles schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines affirmed the district's support for allowing parents to petition for sweeping changes in failing schools.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, "Cortines said he saw no reason not to allow parents the chance to change their schools under the trigger law if they so desire."
He explained that "it is a part of giving parents a choice. If they want to do something, I need to support it."
Still, while Cortines has given encouragement to concerned parents, he has urged patience in tackling school reform efforts.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)