Proposed law would force school boards to heed parents’ petitions for school reform

By Ilana Kowarski

Students wait to board school buses.

Students wait to board school buses. (By Len Lazarick)

National education reform advocates support a Maryland bill that would mandate reform for failing schools whenever a majority of parents petition for intervention, but the state superintendent and the state teachers union oppose the idea.

The bill is one of many “parent trigger” laws that have been proposed in states throughout the nation as they struggle to fix failing schools and remedy inequities in the education system. At a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday, impassioned reformers faced arguments from professional educators who warned the bill could lead to chaos in the school system.

Joy Pullmann, the managing editor of School Reform News, a publication sponsored by the conservative Heartland Institute, told the committee that parents ought to have more influence in school reform.

Pullman argued that parents are the most likely to know what their children’s needs, and won’t be swayed by conflicting interests like money or power.

Parents know best, advocate says

“Many people like to say they care about children and can even believe this sincerely while instead harming children,” Pullman said, “…. The love motivating parents to constantly sacrifice their time and comfort their children makes them, and no one else, the right ones to direct their children’s future.”

Though Maryland schools are the highest ranked in the nation by Education Week, there are some school districts with a large number of failing schools, particularly in Baltimore City and other regions with high poverty rates.

Del. Gail Bates, the sponsor of the legislation and a Howard County Republican, said her legislation would empower parents to make their voices heard.

“I’m a former teacher, so I know the value of a year in the life of a child,” Bates said. “It’s actually crucial.  We cannot allow children to wait for a year for schools to improve.”

School superintendent, boards oppose legislation

But  school superintendent Lillian Lowery, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and a statewide teachers union took issue with Bates in written testimony.

The association of boards of education argued that parents do not have the training necessary to guide struggling school districts. Its testimony stated that petitions from 51% of parents should not override the professional judgments of educators.

Amy Maloney, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Education Association, wrote that Bates’ bill would be a diversion from long-term improvement.

“By simply asking parents to sign a petition, HB 875 does not engage the parent community in a  real way,” Maloney stated, “and it is more likely to cause chaos than become a constructive reform.”

Modeled after Calif. law

Bates’ bill is modeled after legislation enacted in California amidst outrage over failing schools in Los Angeles.

However, the bill only allows parents to petition for two types of reform — for the school to be closed and reopened as a charter school or under a new management organization, or for the school to be closed and students sent to higher-performing public schools nearby.  Parents would not be able to simply ask for the transformation of their local school, which typically entails hiring and firing but allows for the retention of high-performing staff.  Under the bill, the local board of education could overrule the parental recommendation, but only if the board proposed an alternative reform.

Despite those restrictions, Bates’s bill is supported by Parent Revolution, an organization which advocated in California for the parent trigger law. Ryan Donohue, the deputy director, wrote that Maryland schools perform well as a whole but his organization is concerned about the poverty gap between high-performing and underperforming schools.

“Thanks to the leadership of Delegate Bates and the other sponsors of this bill, Maryland can become a lighthouse state for all who believe that parents should have a seat at the decision-making table for their child’s education,” Donohue stated in his testimony.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.

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