The so-called “parent trigger," the policy by which a majority of a school’s parents can decide to convert it to a charter school, seems to be getting a lot of attention lately.
Advocates describe the trigger as “parent empowerment," a means by which parents of students stuck in “failing schools” can take direct action to improve the lives of their kids. Opponents, on the other hand, see it as antithetical to the principle of schools as a public good – parents don’t own schools, the public does. And important decisions such as charter conversion, which will have a lasting impact on the community as a whole (including parents of future students), should not be made by a subgroup of voters.
These are both potentially appealing arguments. In many cases, however, attitudes toward the parent trigger seem more than a little dependent upon attitudes toward charter schools in general. If you strongly support charters, you’ll tend to be pro-trigger, since there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you oppose charter schools, on the other hand, the opposite is likely to be the case. There’s a degree to which it’s not the trigger itself but rather what’s being triggered - opening more charter schools - that’s driving the debate.
If, for example, the parent trigger originally arose as a mechanism for decreasing class size or eliminating the role of high-stakes testing within a school (or, ironically, converting charters back to regular public schools), I suspect that many (but certainly not all) of its current opponents would be more supportive, or at least silent, while a substantial proportion of advocates would likely protest.*
This phenomenon of arguing the means (e.g., the parent trigger) based on opinions about the ends (e.g., charter schools) is of course quite common. In the U.S. Senate, for instance, the majority often criticizes the filibuster – the provision for unlimited debate that allows the minority party to block legislation from coming to a vote – until they end up in the minority again, at which point many of them cease their active opposition (and, often, use the tactic). And, within the realm of education policy, it’s not unusual to see people shift a bit in their views about the proper balance of local, state and federal control of schools, depending on the specific policy in question.
So, while this is not really an original or particularly insightful point I’m making, I do think it’s important. It’s dangerous (though, again, not uncommon) to have a debate about process be driven by opinions of the goals we seek to achieve through that process. When ends and means are conflated, neither is addressed very well.**
In the case of the trigger, all the heated rhetoric about the merits of the trigger mechanism seems to be ignoring a critical issue: Whether replacing regular public schools with charters will produce better outcomes for its (current and future) students. This is, to say the least, an open question, especially in the case of conversion schools, and it’s in many respects at the heart of the matter. Yet it often gets lost in the trigger controversy (and, I would argue, in the debate about charters schools in general, but that’s a different issue).
Conversely, and more importantly, whether or not current parents should be allowed, by majority vote, to fundamentally alter a public school is a very serious question, one that would seem to carry implications for public policy, both in education and maybe even in other areas as well.
But we can’t really have a full, forward-looking debate about that question if both sides are strongly influenced by their preferences as to the changes that will be made, rather than how we should make them.
- Matt Di Carlo
* I suppose one might argue that the parent trigger as a process embodies principles – such as autonomy and decentralized control – that are particularly compatible with the charter school concept. In other words, views on the trigger might both drive and reflect views on charter schools, since means and ends share common underlying premises.
** Obviously, it’s unlikely that there would ever be a debate purely about a process like the parent trigger, which really cannot be considered without some reference to the range of outcomes that might be triggered. But it’s tough to imagine a more ill-suited context than charter schools, about which views are so deeply entrenched.