Empowering Pa.'s parents

Posted: October 05, 2012

By Jay Ostrich

Martin Luther King Jr. said he believed that "unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality." And there is no stronger love or enduring truth than that of a parent caring for his or her child.

But what happens when parents don't get the final word? Sadly, when it comes to their children's education, thousands of Pennsylvania parents have been held hostage to poor, unimaginative policies that yield 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. And while many such public schools are doing a fine job educating our children, others are failing to meet even the most basic academic standards. For our kids, commonwealth, and country, the results are disastrous.

The state Department of Education recently released the 2011-12 results of tests used to track student progress in the commonwealth's public schools. They are disheartening. Statewide, almost 25 percent of children fell short of proficiency in math, while nearly 30 percent cannot read at grade level. As for the state's 500 school districts, only 60 percent made what's considered "adequate yearly progress," compared with more than 90 percent last year.

Funding fallacy

For its part, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the state, quickly distanced itself from responsibility. It seized on the fallacy that the schools are underfunded, laying the blame at the feet of Gov. Corbett. This is a smoke screen that ignores common sense and the facts.

Alternative institutions such as Pennsylvania's Catholic schools operate at well under the cost of the public schools, but 97 percent of their graduates go on to postsecondary education. Meanwhile, over the last 15 years, Pennsylvania doubled spending on its public schools, only to produce stagnating SAT scores while some districts remain mired in single-digit proficiency rates.

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

Ultimately, though, children stuck at failing schools need not wait in vain. Legislators, parents, teachers, and taxpayers can band together to pull Pennsylvania's kids out of mediocrity by embracing legislation to improve the oversight of charter schools as well as their ability to function. Charters have not only exploded in popularity since they were introduced to the state 15 years ago; they have also significantly outperformed traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, for example, 53 percent of charters made adequate yearly progress in the latest results, compared with 13 percent of traditional public schools.

Pull the trigger

But despite widespread, bipartisan support among parents, the legislation - Senate Bill 1115 - remains mired in politics. Teachers' unions are fighting vigorously against a provision known as the "parent trigger."

Simply put, the parent trigger would allow parents to take greater control over any public school that consistently fails to educate their children. In most cases, at least half of all the parents of a school's students would have to sign a petition demanding reform. The types of reform that can be triggered vary, but among the options used nationwide, including in progressive states like California and Connecticut, are conversion to charter status, board and administrative changes, and closures allowing students to attend other schools.

In the nation's best-known example, at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., Doreen Diaz saw that her fifth-grade daughter, Vanessa, was struggling to read at second-grade level, and she fought back. Diaz formed a "parent union" that won enough support to pull the parent trigger. Her story is the basis of the film Won't Back Down, which opened in theaters nationwide last weekend. Ironically, the movie sets the story in Pittsburgh, where current state law wouldn't have allowed it to take place.

With seven states having adopted similar laws to put parent and student interests before those of government unions, it's time for Pennsylvania lawmakers to pull the parent trigger.

Jay Ostrich is director of public affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation. For more information, see commonwealthfoundation.org.

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