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'Choice' and 'Voice' Acknowledge Parents' Key Role in Education Process

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Parents are gaining influence in the schools not only through the movement to give them a role in school decisionmaking, but also as a result of the ongoing drive to allow them to choose among schools.

Both strategies are predicated on the assumption that parents are key stakeholders in the education process as well as on the belief that they should be empowered to hold schools accountable.

Each also aims to encourage parents to become more involved in their children's education, and not to act simply as passive recipients of a government service.

And both are highly controversial ideas that have gained new currency during the debate over how to restructure the nation's education system.

Despite such similarities, however, experts differ considerably on the relative merits and importance of the two strategies in current efforts to improve schools.

David S. Seeley, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, is one who believes that both strategies--which he calls "choice and voice"--are needed.

"'Choice' gives parents options at the beginning of the process," he said, "but leaves teachers and administrators in absolute control of the schools."

"'Voice' says that, since school boards are not going to have as much say over teachers," he continued, "parents at the school have to have some way of holding people accountable."

"That can happen in two ways," he added. "You can do it through a little representative democracy at the school level, like the Chicago model, and the other way you can do it is the collaborative model, in which the school, parents, and the community are all working for common objectives."

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes, on the other hand, that parent empowerment in decisionmaking conflicts with the emerging movement to grant professional autonomy to teachers.

"I would be willing to give parents a right to choose schools in exchange for granting autonomy to professionals," he said.

James Guthrie, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, said both choice and parent empowerment represent responses to the fact that teaching has not yet become a profession that holds its own members accountable.

"Policymakers and parents are searching for ways to hold educators accountable," he said, "because no one in the system now represents the interests of children."

"In the absence of a market mechanism, and until we can assume that teachers will act on behalf of clients out of their own professional ethic," he said, "parents are needed to represent their children."

For Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, choice and voice represent points on the continuum of parent involvement.

"Both methods differ from the legislative reform schemes I've seen so many states engage in," he said. "I think both are desirable, and they can be made to work together."

Choice is "the basic right of parents to remove their children from a horrible situation if they see a better one," he said. "To deny them that right is a public-policy sin that treats children as wards of the state."

"Parent involvement in governance is not a God-given right," Mr. Finn added, "and some parents don't want to be involved in that way. It ought to be one of the dimensions that makes schools differ from each other--one of the legitimate grounds for choosing among schools."

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