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Parent Trigger Laws: Overview

A parent trigger law gives a parent the ability to petition for certain changes at his or her child's low-performing public school. Generally, a predetermined number of parents must first sign a petition requesting one or more changes allowed under the law. In addition, the target school must be one that's been consistently low-performing. If these two conditions are met, then the school is usually required to comply with the petition's demands. Parent trigger laws have been passed in seven states, beginning with California in 2010.

This article gives an overview of parent trigger laws, explains their key provisions, and discusses some common criticisms. A link for consulting with an attorney is also provided.

See FindLaw's Curriculum Standards and Funding section for related articles.

Why Parent Trigger Laws Exist

In 2010, California became the first state to pass a parent trigger law. Six states have since joined California, while attempts to pass a parent trigger law in several other states have failed.

The laws differ in their scope and procedures, but they share the goal of giving parents of children attending a low-performing public school the ability to make compulsory changes. Depending on the state, these changes can include hiring new staff, hiring a charter school operator to take over, and even closing the school to allow students to attend better-performing ones.

Current State Laws

In six of the seven states that have parent trigger laws, parents can petition the school directly for changes. Connecticut's law doesn't provide for parental petitions, but instead gives the state government and elected local school officials the ability to implement compulsory changes. Generally speaking, half of all parents with a child who attends the school must sign the petition, with a few of the states allowing parents of matriculating students to sign as well.

In all seven states, the school involved must be low-performing, although the states use different standards for what that means. California's law, for example, uses standards set in federal law (No Child Left Behind Act), while other states like Louisiana, which assigns an "A" through "F" grade to its public schools, use their own definitions.

There are important differences concerning the demands parents can make. In California, for example, parents can force the school to replace staff and faculty, to convert to a charter school, and even to shut down. Indiana's law, on the other hand, only allows parents to request charter school management. Taking a different approach, Louisiana's law allows parents to request the state government to take over the school, and parents at the school have the option of applying for a state-funded voucher to help pay private school tuition.

Support and Criticism

Supporters of parent trigger laws argue that in the extreme cases in which a school consistently underperforms, the laws provide parents with the ability to make changes that benefit students. Supporters point out that every parent trigger law requires at least 50 percent of parents to sign the petition, which reduces the chance for rash or unwise petitions. Supporters also note that some states allow schools to implement less drastic changes if the parents' demands turn out to be impracticable.

Critics suggest that parent trigger laws are simply cover for charter school businesses to take over schools. Critics also assert that parents often sign petitions they don't fully understand, and some argue that trained teachers and staff, rather than parents, are in the best position to determine school administration and policies.

As more and more states consider parent trigger laws, the debate over their effectiveness is likely to intensify. Already, opponents of trigger laws have accused parent groups of using confusing and unclear petitions to trick parents, while some parents have accused teachers' groups of using bullying tactics to discourage parents from signing petitions.

How an Attorney Can Help

If you live in a state that has passed a parent trigger law, an attorney can help you to fully understand that law. As more states consider passing these laws, an attorney in your area can tell you whether your state is doing so, and he or she can also answer any general education law questions that you have. You can consult with an attorney who specializes in education law through FindLaw.

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