Friday, October 7, 2011

On Parents and School Governance

In recent blog posts, Diane Ravitch wrote to Deborah Meier in opposition to the Parent Trigger legislation and movement in California and other states, to which the Parent Revolution responded very tartly. I will forgo the opportunity to engage in any mudslinging and, in the spirit in which this blog was founded (see my first post or three for my opinions about how to manage education controversies), simply address the root issue these spirited education controversialists have joined: what should the proper role for public school parents be with respect to the governance of their children's schools?

The existence of choice and school quality come immediately to mind in approaching this issue. If I don't like the food or service in my local coffee shop, I can go to another; there is no public issue. Similarly, if we might imagine a large district featuring many different kinds of schools, one where all parents had complete freedom to enrol their children wherever they wished, or one with similar diversity of options where all parents were rich or possessed vouchers, this again would be unlikely to be a public issue. Or if schools were a local monopoly but all of them were of high quality (right now I'm waiting for my son to come home from his public elementary school; every school in Irvine is a 10 on a scale of 1-10, according to the Great Schools website, so my wife and I have never considered sending him or his older brother to any other than the school right next to our home), this would again remain likely uncontroversial (in spite of this, I am considering offering our school design to the public here in Irvine, something I have not yet previously attempted). But what should one do when one's children are locked into a local school that is terrible, where there are no alternatives due to local poverty eliminating any conceivable market for private education, and where the local board refuses to countenance any possibility of a charter school opening in the neighborhood or any other vigorous reform of a situation they find tolerable?

If I interpret Professor Ravitch's column correctly, she would recommend parents politically agitate for reform within the system, through the public political process (i.e. school board elections), and not try other measures such as the Parent Trigger which she thinks should be illegal. Her column mentions other measures--"If a school is dysfunctional, those who are in charge of the district are obliged to find out why and to do whatever they can to fix the problems. If the principal is incompetent, he or she should be removed. If there are teachers who are incompetent, they should be removed. If the school is doing poorly because it lacks necessary resources, the district is obliged to do whatever it can to improve the school." But these suggestions are irrelevant to people in a position like we were in in Watts in 2007, since they had either already been tried (five principals in six years) or were impossible (iron-clad teachers' contract, deteriorating district finances), so we are left with our original question: What are the parents whose children are stuck in such awful schools to do?

We should assume they can't move and don't have any choices because of a local district monopoly and zoning policies. What are they to do? Let's also eliminate advocating illegal actions like the recently popular trend of lying to get one's children into a better (usually wealthier) school district or zone; advocating law breaking is bad public policy in any other than a temporary, desperate situation. Then what?

Regardless of disparaging aspersions  being cast on its originators' intentions ("whose true purpose is to undermine public education"), the Parent Trigger law (officially known as "The Parent Empowerment Act" in California, where it originated) was written, passed by a majority of legislators in two chambers, and signed by a governor from a party different from that of its authors certainly not with the intention of undermining public education, but of advancing equity. It specifically benefits those parents who are the least privileged, the most powerless in our country, whose children all too often suffer the most from our (I'm talking about us, we adults, not someone else) failure to establish educational equity. I certainly do not suppose Professor Ravitch is opposed to equity.

She contends that this leads to the parents involved acting like owners, which is improper, since such schools are community property and public goods belonging to all taxpayers, including the childless or those with grown-up children. If the changes ensuing from the Parent Trigger were permanent or resulted in a change of ultimate governance over the school and its property, this argument could be sustained; but the changes are not permanent (in the case of McKinley Elementary or Locke High School, the charters only last for five years and must be renewed), and ultimate governance and ownership of the public property involved remains with the school district, not the entering management; so what is involved is actually at best a radical change of management rather than ownership, and the argument is rendered invalid.

I believe parents should be involved in the governance of their schools, and not just through advisory councils like those supported (one would hope with sincerity) by the American Federation of Teachers; and therefore under the By-Laws of the school I am proposing, a position on our school's board has been reserved for an elected parent representative (along with a teacher representative, and a student representative, on our eight-person board). This is farther in the direction of parent empowerment than many educators, and some parents, are prepared to go; but I believe in representative democracy, and this policy is consistent with those of the European Schooling Helsinki, agreed to by a government whose educational administration both Professor Ravitch and I much admire, and is a best practice in other international schools around the world. We have so much to learn from the other 95% of humanity that do not live in the United States, if only we would stop squabbling and learn.


  1. (for Jay Mathews; I'm trying to figure out why I am the only one who can post a comment) This is a moving and persuasive piece, but fails to address the biggest flaw in the Parent Trigger/Parent Revolution approach. No matter how well meaning and smart the parents might be, they do not have the time or energy to run a school, or even organize themselves to the point where they can get a permanent majority, as the trigger law requires, in favor of taking the school in the right direction. I don't think it would be illegal for them to do this, just impractical. Diane is right that educators have to do this. They are the only ones with the time and the skills. What you did at Locke was a teachers revolution, not a parents revolution. That can work. One of your jobs as teachers leading such a rebellion would be to get parent support, but we parents can't do the work for you and it is flirting with disaster to think we can.

  2. Thank you, but I am suggesting that it is plausible to put parents into the position of choosing new management for their local school; the time commitment for electing representatives and organizing a search committee for new management is not so extensive as to be infeasible, for it it had been in the past, we would not today be living under this thing called American government.