Give parents a stronger voice in education reform

If we’re to make any progress on education reform, we’ll have to hope for bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.

That, at least, is what we’re hearing.

But I have a better idea:

Instead of crossing our fingers, holding our breath and putting our faith in Congress, let’s work harder to get the job done at the state level.

There’s plenty that can be done in Denver to move the needle on education. Last year, for example, state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat appointed in 2009 to fill a vacant seat representing northeastern Denver, drafted legislation which changes the way teachers earn tenure.

Under this new law, student academic improvement now serves as half the basis for teacher and principal evaluations.

The better approach would have been to tie evaluations and, just as importantly, tenure entirely to academic improvement, but at least it’s a start.

Johnston, for one, knows there’s still plenty that must be done, and that waiting for changes at the federal level can be a losing proposition.

“We are clear we’re a long way from done now,” he told the Denver Post this month. “Part of the strength of the process is we built in the ability to make improvements as we go along.”

OK, so here’s an “improvement” that Johnston and other reform-minded lawmakers can try on for size:

“Parent triggers.”

The concept, put simply, allows parents or guardians whose children attend a failing public school to sign a petition to “trigger” one of several intervention options. It is the very essence of democracy at work, stripping away political considerations and framing the question in the only way it should be: What’s best for the kids?

The notion of giving communities a greater role in influencing education policy comes to us from California, where it was adopted about a year ago. The Wall Street Journal in the fall called it the radical school reform law you’ve never heard of.

Not surprisingly, some of the people who think this is truly radical are the leaders of the teacher unions.

As a parent, it’s hard to imagine how the idea of giving me a greater role in determining my child’s education can be viewed as anything but common sense.

Lawmakers in states across the country apparently agree.

According to the free-market thinkers at the Heartland Institute, legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia have introduced or are planning to introduce bills modeled after California’s law.

Under the California version of the law, at least 50 percent of eligible parents who send their children to the problem school must sign the petition.

In response, the school district must shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby. They also could convert the school into a charter.

There’s been bipartisan support in California for the law. It was sponsored by a Democrat from Los Angeles and received unanimous support from the legislature’s Republican caucus.

At his State of the Union address in coming days, President Obama is expected to make a renewed bid to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law.

After years of complaints from educators, policymakers are now finally acknowledging that the law failed to meet its goal of raising student achievement.

At first, key congressional Republicans said they were ready to deal. But they have since backed off, apparently preferring smaller measures rather than a full-blown rewrite of the No Child law. Democrats, meanwhile, are divided by performance pay issues and charter school expansions. In short, whether education gets the overhaul it so sorely needs is a big question in the days ahead.

But let’s not leave the debate for another day.

Bipartisanship could easily implode into the same old partisan battles that have long been part and parcel of Washington.

Colorado lawmakers this year should give parents the greater voice they deserve in their children’s educations. It’s time to transfer power away from those who defend the status quo to those whose only concern is the future of the next generation.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at or 719-329-5206.