Primary education underwent a major reform in the early 1990s with the introduction of team teaching - three teachers for every two classes, in practice - to deliver a subject-based curriculum. New subjects, such as a foreign language, were introduced, and old ones renamed.
Almost overnight, teachers found that they had become specialists working in areas such as science, language or expressive arts. They also had to spend a lot of time co-ordinating with their colleagues in the new modular system; while children saw the number of hours of lessons creeping up to about 30 a week.
For Pannella and the riformatori (reformists), the new-look primary school got off to a bad start by trying to reconcile rising numbers of teachers with falling rolls: by 1991 the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level had slipped below 10:1. In this sense, the "reform" was more of an ad-hoc measure to redeploy teachers than to modernise and improve the quality of the education service.
The riformatori (confusingly, traditionalists as far as this referendum is concerned) also feel that the tight timetabling of curriculum subjects will limit the traditional freedom of the teacher (guaranteed in the Italian constitution) and stifle innovation.
But the most frequent complaint from parents concerns the lack of a "reference point" for children. In the past, the primary teacher was a sort of surrogate mamma who gave her children a grounding in the three Rs and instilled in them values.
Usually, the primary teacher mother substitute took the same class through the five years of the primary cycle, and the affection she was held in would be reflected in the presents made by families when children left.
Now, some parents believe, the sense of values has been replaced by confusion. Three teachers might mean three ways of organising classwork, as well as different conceptions of the values which they should transmit to children.
Teachers, however, generally support the reform. Although there are still teething troubles (the lack of trained foreign language teachers is one of them), they believe that the new system offers children a richer experience than the "one teacher, one class" model.
The referendum will be held if Sig. Pannella can collect half a million signatures by January. An earlier attempt during the summer failed, partly Pannella claims because the media chose not to cover the initiative.
To publicise his cause (primary education is just one of 20 referenda being called for), Pannella, who is one of Italy's most astute and longest surviving politicians, went on hunger strike.
His appearance on a popular TV show on the fifth day of the strike, smartly dressed and in good form, prompted more than one commentator to remark that he was on an "Italian hunger strike".
None the less, the strategy seems to be working. With 130,000 signatures collected in the first month of the three months allocated, the half million signatures looks to be a distinct possibility.