Foundations Urged to Make Sure No Parents Are Left Behind
The recently reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act drew the attention of many of the grantmakers assembled here last week for the annual conference sponsored by the Council on Foundations.
"This could be the most important federal act in two decades," Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center for Education Policy, told a room packed full of representatives from a variety of foundations that make grants in the K-12 education arena.
The grantmakers came to the conference, held April 29 to May 1, to discuss topics as varied as filmmaking, health care, immigration, and foundation management.
A luncheon session featured a speech by Harry Belafonte, the musician, civil-rights advocate, and current goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Mary Robinson, the high commissioner for human rights for the United Nations, and Benjamin Barber, a professor of civil society at the University of Maryland College Park, also spoke.
Another session that covered the new ESEA, known as the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, drew scores of attendees.
Mr. Jennings, who was a longtime Democratic aide to the House education committee, was part of a five-member panel that provided an overview of the law and addressed some of the education world's key concerns with the legislation. Those issues include the additional testing it will require, and how parents and communities will be informed of their new rights under the law.
Districts are going to need new tests to fill in the gaps left by their current assessment systems, panelists said. The ESEA requires students in grades 3-8 to be tested in reading and mathematics, then again in language arts and math in high school; they also must be tested in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.
But schools need to be careful that they fill in those gaps with high-quality tests, said William L. Taylor, the acting chairman of the Citizen's Committee on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group and a member of the panel discussing the new law. Schools could be tempted to purchase off-the-shelf tests that are not aligned with their curricula just to meet the federal requirements, he said.
"We need to avoid making testing the bugaboo" of the new law, Mr. Taylor said.
Several members of the panel suggested that a good way for philanthropies to become involved in education through the new law is to find ways to bridge the communications gap between parents and schools.
Thomas A. Saenz, the vice president of the San Antonio-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national advocacy group, told the audience that schools will be responsible for providing enormous amounts of highly sophisticated information to parents under the new law.
That could pose some problems, especially for parents who are not native English-speakers, he said.
Mr. Taylor suggested that foundations could help the process by making sure that "the information network gets funded."
In addition, the new law allows parents, for the first time, the right to obtain the professional qualifications of their child's teacher, including what type of college degree the teacher has, whether the teacher has met state licensing criteria, and whether he or she is operating on an emergency license.
Because of communications gaps between schools and parents, more affluent parents will tend to be knocking on schoolhouse doors to get that information, Mr. Jennings said. But poor parents will be less likely to press schools for the information, he said.
"Sometimes," he said, "a little pressure doesn't hurt."
The issue of small schools is not new to philanthropies, especially considering the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's recent multimillion-dollar grants to numerous school districts seeking to take that approach to school improvement.
But while creating small schools in an urban setting is considered a valuable reform effort, in rural areas, small schools are being "squeezed out of existence over time," said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based organization that works to strengthen rural communities.
What districts call "consolidation," Mr. Strange said, could also be called "fiscal asphyxiation."
He was part of a three-member panel that discussed the benefits of small schools—including smaller class sizes and increased community involvement—and the downside of consolidation.
The loss of small schools "is more than the loss of a building," said Linda Martin, the director of Challenge West Virginia, a Charleston-based nonprofit group that works to prevent school consolidations. "It's the loss of our community."
Without schools, neighborhoods become "just people who live here and there along the road," Ms. Martin said.
Many groups in poor, rural areas lack the skills to advocate effectively for their schools, panel members said, stressing that foundations can step in and help to increase community engagement.
"Once capacity is built," Ms. Martin said, "the kinds of change those people can make in a community is staggering."
Vol. 21, Issue 34, Page 10