“Parent Trigger” Could Restructure or Shut Down Schools

John Mooney | November 17, 2010 | Education
New legislation now being pulled together would give a simple majority of parents the ability to effect major changes in their kids' schools

New Jersey parents with children in low-performing schools could see vast new powers to overhaul those schools, under legislation now being prepared by the Senate Republican leader, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos.

Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) said yesterday that he planned to file within the month a “parent trigger” bill that would allow parents by 51 percent vote or petition to demand major changes to their school, be it new leadership, a charter school operator, school vouchers or closure altogether.

Modeled after a similar measure recently enacted in California as part of its federal Race to the Top application, the bill would extend rules already in place that would permit conversion of a public school to a charter school with approval of a majority of teachers and parents.

But that has yet to happen in New Jersey, and Kyrillos said it was time to put the powers in parents’ hands.

‘There is no question there are a lot of schools that are failing, and we need to shake things up, not just by state policy but from schoolhouse to schoolhouse,” he said.

The parent trigger — also proposed but yet to be enacted in a half-dozen states such as Connecticut and Michigan — has faced strong opposition from teachers unions and local school boards, which contend such school-by-school public referenda is no way to improve education.

“I’d have to see the legislation, but at first blush, turning over that kind of education decision authority without the input of educators is not the way to move forward,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

“It’s yet another example of what we’ve seen way too much of lately, of not taking into consideration the views of educators in making education decisions,” he said.

Kyrillos said there are considerable details still to be worked out before filing, including what options will be available to schools. And he expected opposition, although he pointed out that civil rights and left-leaning groups have also supported the measure in California.

A big proponent of the measure has been the Heartland Institute, a conservative free-market organization out of Chicago that Kyrillos said had approached him about bringing parent trigger to New Jersey.

“I think it will start a big, huge debate,” he said. “But there is no doubt we can put together a coalition in this state to achieve this legislation. It will be a challenge, but there is no doubt if it can be done in California, we can do it in New Jersey.”