Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability

Parent Trigger

A Parent Trigger for New York: Empowering Parents to Reform Their Children’s Schools

August 2012

View entire report (pdf)


New York Education Law declares that “the proper education of all citizens is one of the most important responsibilities of the states to preserve a free and open society,” and New York’s highest court declared that the state constitution requires for all students to receive the opportunity for a “sound basic education”.   In other words, in New York a good education is a civil right.

The facts paint a different picture however: many schools in New York – particularly urban public schools – fall well short of providing a quality education, and have been failing to do so for decades.  Government has failed in its civic, civil, and constitutional responsibilities, and as such parents now should be adequately empowered to seek justice in education.

In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that parents have the right to take their children’s education into their own hands.  According to the landmark case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, it is “the right of parents to choose schools where their children will receive appropriate mental training,” and that, “as a part of their liberty, [parents] might direct the education of children by selecting reputable teachers and places.”   This powerful notion has impacted the public educational system in the United States in every way from the creation of parent-teacher associations (PTA), to parents and students exercising opportunities available under publicly funded school-choice programs.

Rarely has a parent’s right to assume control of the type of education provided to their children been so strengthened as it is being now through the “parent trigger” movement.

Parent trigger laws introduce a way for parents to circumvent local school districts unwilling or unable to improve failing schools and directly initiate reforms.  This new approach, with potentially radical institutional changes, has inevitably created controversy.  Critics of parent trigger laws, most prominently the national and state teachers unions, have charged that such laws are likely to lead to “lynch-mobs” of unqualified parents trying to take control of public schools.   Other skeptics claim that allowable reforms under such programs will inevitably be over-regulated and will only create a false sense of parental involvement that in the end delivers no real reform.

These issues can be effectively addressed and any obstacles strategically overcome.  If carefully crafted, a parent trigger law in New York will empower citizens themselves design the overhaul of the hundreds of schools serving thousands of students, reform that has been avoided by an often immobile and unresponsive education system.

This report identities, discusses, and clarifies the complexities of parent-driven school overhauls, summarizes the experiences and best-practices in other states, and offers guidance for a model parent trigger law that would allow significant school reform in New York.  Also included is a brief history of the parent-trigger movement, arguments made on both sides of the issue, and an analysis of the five key features that every piece of parent-trigger legislation should contain: a definition of the schools eligible for reform; the petition process used to initiate reform; a process for validating petitions; reform options; and the structure for a reform implementation plan.  In the end, the ideal parent trigger law combines true parental empowerment with responsible foresight and planning to ensure that it can deliver effective reforms for improving student achievement.