Research & Commentary: The Parent Petition in Michigan

Published May 4, 2016

The education system in Michigan, especially in Detroit, is in dire need of reform.

Only 5 percent of Detroit 4th graders and 4 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 6 percent of 4th graders and 7 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading, and just two tests administered since 2009 have seen enough Detroit students score “advanced” in reading to provide a significant enough sample to reach 1 percent; no test in math has managed to reach that low bar.

Michigan’s NAEP scores as a whole are not much better than Detroit. Only 34 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math in 2015, while 29 percent of 4th graders and 32 percent of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Essentially, these results show Michigan’s public schools are failing to educate roughly seven out of 10 4th grade and 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics. The state’s sub-standard performance on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in the Great Lakes State are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives.

One possible avenue to help bring choice in education to Michigan parents is by passing a Parent Petition law. A Parent Petition law says that if a majority of parents and guardians of children attending a public school sign a petition demanding reform, then the school district must do as the parents ask. A typical Parent Petition law allows parents to demand that their local public school be shut down and their children assigned to nearby schools that are not failing, or that the school be converted into a charter school, or reorganized following the guidelines put forward in the national Race to the Top program. Some bills call for universal choice by giving parents opportunity scholarships to enroll their children in private schools. Seven states have adopted some version of the Parent Petition, with California being the first to do so in 2010.

The Parent Petition is an opt-in approach to reform, meaning if parents do not want it in their community, it does not happen. It is not a one-size-fits-all reform that might play very differently in a rural area than in an urban area, for example, and it does not insist that a central planner somewhere knows what is best for every school district.

Parent Petition laws should make the mechanism as transparent and easily implemented by parents as possible by having clear definitions and eligibility standards, as well as a specific timeline for petition so the parents retain majority control. When correctly drafted, Parent Petition laws provide a clear path for parents to follow by specifying what their reform choices are, who can sign a petition and how many signatures are necessary, and how to submit the petition.

The Parent Petition is a powerful education reform because it is a bottom-up tool for school reform, not another top-down reform that is likely to be deformed and undermined by the bureaucracies that must implement it. It is flexible – parents and policymakers can make choices about what schools should be triggered and what reform model should be chosen. It is democratic rather than autocratic, opt-in rather than one-size-fits-all, and popular with parents and politicians of both major parties. It would be a welcome start for the educational choice movement in Michigan.

The following documents provide more information about the Parent Petition and educational choice.

The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief presents the rationale for empowering parents with Parent Trigger legislation and offers design guidelines for parents and elected officials interested in crafting legislation for their city or state. Written by Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast and Research Fellow Joy Pullmann, it is a companion piece to two earlier reports Heartland published on the Parent Trigger, carrying the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since the first two studies were written. It also draws on experience with the young laws to improve on earlier ideas.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support the creation of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders with a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet, and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools; state constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools also outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomize students studied through lotteries and account for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons—research considered the “most rigorous” by scientific standards.

Lessons from the California Experience
After nearly 18 months and despite a steady stream of publicity, California’s Parent Trigger has yet to be implemented successfully in any school, notes Ben Boychuk in a Heartland Institute Policy Brief. In 2011 at least 14 states considered some form of Parent Trigger. Several of those bills failed in part because opponents cited California’s experience with the law. It’s far from clear, however, why opposition from vested interest groups should discredit the Parent Trigger or obviate the need for it. This paper shows the Parent Trigger concept remains as sound as ever, and the Golden State’s experience suggests how the law and accompanying regulations could be strengthened to make it more attractive for parents and effective as a reform mechanism.

Issues 2016: Charter Schools Are Better at Retaining Hard-to-Educate Students
This Issue Brief, authored by Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute, explains how students with disabilities are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools. The study also found students learning English and students with low test scores are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute examines the success achieved by school choice programs across the globe. The authors find the efficiency rate (student achievement per dollar spent on education) of private education options was higher compared to the public education efficiency rate in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts 
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.


Excerpts of this Research & Commentary were taken from The Heartland Institute Policy Brief titled “The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines,” which was authored by Joseph L. Bast and Joy Pullmann and published in November 2012.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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