Pennsylvania must pull parent trigger to save education

October 12. 2012 3:00AM

Jay Ostrich

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

If he was correct, then no stronger love or enduring truth can personify his dream than that between a caring parent and a needful child.

But what happens when parents don't get the final word — what then of their reality? Sadly, in the case of their children's education, thousands of Pennsylvania parents have been held hostage by economic and political realities undergirded by poor, unimaginative policies yielding negative or negligible returns.

In essence, the majority of parents in Pennsylvania are stuck with public schools assigned to them by ZIP code as their only option. While many public schools are doing a fine job educating our children, we all know some are failing to reach even the most basic academic standards. For our kids, commonwealth and country, the results of this failure could not be more disastrous.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released results of student test scores for 2011-12, which show declining student performance in our public schools on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, or PSSAs, the test most widely used to track student progress in Pennsylvania public schools.

Few would call the results anything but disheartening. Statewide, 25 percent of children failed to reach proficiency in math, while nearly 30 percent cannot read at grade level. As for the state's 500 school districts, only 60 percent made Adequate Yearly Progress, compared with more than 90 percent last year.

For its part, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, quickly distanced itself from responsibility, fleeing with a fallacy of underfunding, laying blame squarely at the feet of the governor. This smokescreen clearly ignores common sense and courtesy to the facts.

Alternative institutions such as Pennsylvania's Catholic schools operate at a fraction of the cost with 97 percent of graduates reaching post-secondary education. Meanwhile, in the last 15 years, Pennsylvania actually doubled spending on public schools, only to produce stagnating SAT scores and some districts mired in single-digit proficiency rates.

Those still advancing the claim that more dollars make more scholars need look no further than Harrisburg School District. Despite a price tag of more than $18,000 yearly per student, the district failed to meet minimum standards for the 10th straight year, with 7 out of 10 students unable to reach proficiency in reading and math.

Ultimately, children stuck at failing schools need not wait in vain. State legislators, parents, teachers and taxpayers can band together to pull Pennsylvania kids out of the mire of mediocrity by embracing and enacting Senate Bill 1115. The bill would improve oversight of charter schools and their ability to function. Charters have not only exploded in popularity since they opened 15 years ago, but they have also outperformed traditional public schools on the PSSAs in many cities across Pennsylvania.

Despite widespread, bipartisan support among parents, the bill remains mired in political flux, with the teachers unions fighting vigorously against parental empowerment because the bill would create something called the "parent trigger."

Simply put, the parent trigger allows parents to take greater control over a public school that consistently fails to educate their children. In most cases, at least half of all parents must sign a petition demanding reform at the school. The type of parent trigger reform varies, but among the options used nationwide, including in progressive states such as California and Connecticut, parents may convert a school into a charter, change the board and top administrative leadership or shut down the building entirely to allow students to learn at other schools.

In the best-known case in America — Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. — Doreen Diaz saw her fifth-grade daughter, Vanessa, struggle to read at a second-grade level. Diaz fought back, forming a "parent union" that successfully won enough support to pull the parent trigger. Although the case continues, the subject has even spawned a major film in theaters called "Won't Back Down" — which is based in Pittsburgh, though no such law applies in Pennsylvania.

With seven states now adopting similar laws that put parental and student interests before those of government unions, it's time Pennsylvania lawmakers pull the parent trigger lest the final word on Dr. King's dream becomes unreachable.

Jay Ostrich is director of public affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation.


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