Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability

Time to Let Parents Help Run Our Schools

By Brian D. Backstrom, New York Post, August 23, 2012

In New York, a good education is a civil right. That’s the law. Yet many schools are aren’t delivering — and haven’t for decades. Government in New York has failed in its civic, civil and constitutional duties. It is time for parents to take over.

The law must be fixed to let them. Our report, “A ‘Parent Trigger’ For New York: Empowering Parents To Reform Their Children’s Schools” — which we released Tuesday — describes how.

The requirement for a good education has already been established: New York law says 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 the state’s highest court has affirmed students’ constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”

Back in 1925, the US Supreme Court made clear that parents can take their children’s education into their own hands. The landmark case Pierce v. Society of Sisters cites “the right of parents to choose schools where their children will receive appropriate mental training.” It says parents “might direct the education of children by selecting reputable teachers and places.”

This powerful notion has shaped education dramatically, spurring parent-teacher associations and publicly funded school-choice programs, for example. The “parent trigger” movement is poised to build on that, by putting far more control in the hands of parents.

In a nutshell, parent-trigger laws give parents a way to bypass districts that won’t or can’t improve schools on their own — by offering parent-initiated reforms. Already, seven states have passed them, and 20 others may do so soon.

Critics, most prominently the teachers unions, charge that such laws can lead to “lynch mobs” of unqualified parents trying to take control. Even aside from the ugly, racial undertones of their comments, the idea that the unions want to stand in the way of parents — who simply care enough to demand that failing schools be fixed — is no less than disgusting.

The need for improvement is inarguable: The state identified 1,325 schools and 123 districts in 2011-12 that failed to meet performance targets. Several plans were set up for these schools, but they’re failing to have much impact.

By contrast, a good parent-trigger system might let parents choose from four options to boost student achievement:

* Opportunity Scholarships: Public funds for tuition at private schools or public schools outside their districts.

* Mayoral Academies: Independently run public schools with a parent-chosen board that are accountable to the local mayor and that replace traditional schools that don’t cut it.

* Closure: Shutting down failing schools and letting kids transfer elsewhere, either inside or outside the district.

* Restart: Replacing a poor-performing school with an independently governed charter school accountable to state officials but free of local control.

When Gov. Cuomo, in his State of the State Address this year, termed himself “the lobbyist for the students,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver shot back: “The most powerful lobbying groups for our students is their parents.”

By pushing a strong parent-trigger system, both men could prove themselves right.

Brian D. Backstrom is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability. The group’s new parent-trigger report is available at www.nyfera.org.