Examining the parent trigger as a strategy for school reform and parental engagement

John Rogers, Christopher Lubienski, Janelle Scott, Kevin G. Welner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background/Context: Parent trigger policies have become a popular option in the education reform toolbox, giving parents the potential ability to induce substantial structural changes at their local public school. This reform approach emerged in California during the Great Recession, and has since proliferated to a number of states, spurred on by policy advocates, philanthropic funders, and associated reform organizations. These state-level policies allow a majority of parents at low-performing schools to petition to force school transformation through conversion to charter school status, replacement of school leadership and/or staff, or other corrective actions expected to improve outcomes at the school. Purpose: This analysis considers the emergence, evidentiary basis, and potential of parent trigger policies. In particular, we focus on the policy, political and social circumstances in which parent trigger legislation emerged in California, the efficacy of the school improvement levers on which it draws, and the underlying assumptions about democratic engagement that inform the approach. Research Design: This policy analysis draws on multiple forms of evidence to examine the efficacy of the parent trigger approach for school improvement and community engagement. The initial examination of the emergence of parent trigger considers public policy positions, media statements, and press accounts to trace the nuances of this policy landscape. Then, in lieu of useful research evidence on parent trigger itself, we turn to the research literature on the remedies that parent trigger tends to adopt, including studies in school choice, charter schools, and various school improvement strategies, as well as the implications for parental empowerment. Findings: Reviews of extant evidence on policy remedies implicit and explicit in parent trigger indicate that, although parent trigger may have emerged from a deep-seated desire to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, it is unlikely to actually improve the educational quality of schools, given that the overall effects of these policy interventions are mixed, at best, and parent trigger adds another element of instability to already unstable school communities in disadvantaged areas. Conclusions/Recommendations: Our analysis suggests that parent trigger tends to assume an aggregative model of democratic action drawn from a market-style economic premise. Unless policy makers promote a more deliberative model of community engagement, empowerment, and school governance, it is likely that parent trigger could contribute to continual corruption of democratic institutions and avenues for school governance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number060305
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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