Utah is right to ban the practice of passing along unprepared students. But unless parents are empowered, don’t expect the proposed ban to have much bite. Consider California’s decade-old social promotion ban, as such plans are often called.

Since 1999, every California school district has been required to have a written Pupil Promotion and Retention (PPR) policy. Funding is provided for intensive instructional support for students who are recommended for retention or retained. The promotion and retention policy must be approved by each district’s governing board and cover most elementary grades, as well as beginning middle- and high-school grades.

Beyond that state requirement, school districts call the shots, including whether student test scores are even used to identify students at risk of being retained. Parents are largely powerless since, as the California Department of Education explains, “a school can retain or promote a student without parent or guardian approval.” (See #4) The results speak for themselves.

California’s social promotion ban should have helped today’s college students. Yet approximately 60 percent of California State University freshmen require remedial classes in English or math. Approximately 30 percent of University of California freshmen require remediation, jumping to as many as 90 percent of California community college freshmen. Even though about three-fourths of California high school students pass the state’s high school exit exam, only 15 percent of college-bound students test college-ready on California State University’s Early Assessment Program. (See pp. 58-59 for all)

California’s social promotion ban has been a bust, and the lack of academic preparation costs students, schools, and the state’s economy approximately $14 billion annually.

Leaving schools districts in charge of student success, whether directly as in California or indirectly through the state legislature or education board, as has been proposed in Utah, is akin to letting the fox guarding the henhouse full of chicks-once it’s chased out all the hens. After all, Utah school districts are the ones passing students along, even though almost one out of every four third-graders (24 percent) is not proficient in reading.

There is little reason to believe that the same school districts responsible for this state of affairs will make the necessary improvements if they’re left in charge. On the contrary, social promotion bans can introduce perverse incentives to hold students back because districts get paid twice for the same students. Real consequences, not expensive do-overs, are needed for districts that don’t teach students the first time around.

To avoid a California-esque social promotion ban, Utah policy makers should consider giving their proposed ban some teeth by empowering parents. Parents of students not performing at grade level should be given the option of using grants worth up to what the state would have given the district to re-educate their children, approximately $5,700 during the 2006-07 school year according the U.S. Department of Education. Thus, instead of funneling funds through ineffective school districts, redirect them to parents instead in the form of proficiency grants.

Parents could use their proficiency grants to cover the costs of enrolling their children elsewhere, including transportation to another public school or private school tuition. Parents could also use those grants for tutoring or other supplemental services.

To ensure accountability of those resources, parents and their chosen education service providers could sign performance contracts detailing the services to be provided and the costs of those services. Evaluations of those services could also be required. Parents should be responsible for ensuring their children attend classes and complete assignments; while providers must deliver all promised services. Parties that do not fulfill their contractual obligations would be responsible for refunding their portion of the grant.

Such a comprehensive approach is a better guarantee that no Utah student is promoted unless he or she is prepared. It also encourages systemic reform because the risk of losing students, and their associated education dollars, would put powerful pressure on school districts statewide to improve performance at all levels and implement effective programs to compete with programs elsewhere.

As California’s social promotion ban shows, failing to empower parents results in toothless policy.