Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Parent Trigger May Soon Be in PA's Education Reform Arsenal

Parent Trigger May Soon Be in Pennsylvania's Education Reform Arsenal

By Sen. Jeffrey Piccola

Earlier this month, California parents became the first in the nation to use a so-called "parent trigger" to force radical change at a school ranked in the bottom ten percent of elementary schools in the Golden State. Pennsylvania may be next to "pull" the trigger.

In California, 62 percent of parents at McKinley Elementary School – far more than the 51 percent required - signed a petition demanding it be changed to a charter school. Under the law, passed in January, parents may choose from a menu of reforms: converting to a charter school, replacing the principal and staff, reforming the budget, or closing.

Other states may follow in California’s footsteps. In addition to Pennsylvania, legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland plan to introduce versions of the parent trigger in the coming months.

The Heartland Institute lauded Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' "parent trigger" proposal as "a powerful positive step toward real educational transformation" and a game-changer in the quest to "convert an expensive, centralized bureaucracy-based school into a true neighborhood school."

Last year, I introduced two "parent trigger" bills, shortly after the California law passed. One was part of the comprehensive Education Empowerment bill, and one was in a stand-alone bill.

Like California’s new law, my bill would give parents the power to petition for a school closure or change in management when a school is ranked as one of the state's lowest-performing. The legislation would also require the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to publish a web-based State Report Card, identifying those schools scoring in the bottom 5% on state assessment exams.

If the parents of at least 51 percent of the students in a struggling school sign a petition, they can pursue one of three options: 1) school closure and student transfer to another school; 2) school closure and reopening as a charter school; or 3) the execution of a new management agreement with a for-profit or nonprofit organization or another school district. The petition would require action under a strict timeline, with the goal of improving academic achievement and/or student safety. Districts that refuse to honor a valid petition would face severe financial penalties.

Mirroring my bill, the Obama Administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have targeted for federal aid those schools that continue to perform in the bottom five percent of the state; do not show signs of improvement; and have graduation rates below 60 percent.

PDE has identified 200 schools in the Commonwealth that are "persistently lowest achieving." Nearly all schools in the Harrisburg School District landed on this "failing" list.

The "parent trigger" reform complements the other two priorities of the Senate Education Committee - school choice and charter school reform - and will be the subject of a public hearing when the Senate reconvenes in January.

Parent report cards and parent petitions present golden opportunities for the Harrisburg School District and other struggling school districts to break the inertia and challenge the status quo. If our schools are failing our kids, parents need to know, and have the tools to fix them.

With the passage of a "parent trigger" in Pennsylvania, a parent revolution can rock the dimly-lit halls of stagnant schools. The old adage still holds true: "When you take a child by the hand, you take a parent by the heart." And if you leave a child behind, parents with heart must be empowered to take matters into their own hands.

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola is a Republican who represents Pennsylvania's 15th Senate Dist. in parts of Dauphin and York counties. E-mail him at

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