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Published in Print: June 8, 2005, as U.S.-Funded Parent Information Centers Questioned on Their Agendas, Efficacy

U.S.-Funded Parent Information Centers Questioned on Their Agendas, Efficacy

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The Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation is using about $2 million in federal grant money to spread a message to Indiana parents: Students in struggling public schools can seek free tutoring, find out about charter schools, or transfer to other public schools.

But the GEO Foundation isn’t just educating parents about school options— it’s also providing them. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization runs its own charter school and also tutors public school children.

The foundation is taking part in a small, often overlooked federal program that sets up Parent Information and Resource Centers, or PIRCs, to help educate parents about their rights and options under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Critics contend that the PIRC program has become an outlet for the Bush administration’s pursuit, on the sly, of an agenda that favors charter schools and private school vouchers. Yet President Bush himself has proposed zero funding for the centers in all of his annual budget requests, in part, officials say, because the PIRCs have been unable to provide hard evidence of their accomplishments.

Jessica Hornocker tutors Brian Rowe at a GEO Foundation charter school.
Jessica Hornocker tutors Brian Rowe at a GEO Foundation charter school.
—Tom Strickland for Education Week

Congress has restored funding for PIRCs, but now their future is uncertain. While a fiscal 2006 spending bill for the U.S. Department of Education has not yet been approved, program advocates say PIRCs are on the chopping block this year.

That’s despite the fact that the No Child Left Behind law asks parents to play an increasingly integral role in how their children’s education unfolds, said Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization in Washington that supports the 3-year-old law.

“NCLB requires schools to craft parent-involvement policies and to engage parents as partners in school improvement efforts,” Mr. Wiener wrote in an e-mail, “but someone needs to help parents take advantage of these rights.”

A New Model

In Indiana, the GEO Foundation estimates it has reached more than 1 million Hoosiers with an advertising campaign targeting low-income parents.

Established in 1998, the pro-voucher, pro-charter-school foundation shares many of the education tenets espoused by President Bush. In 2003, the organization won a three-year, $2.1 million grant from the Education Department to become a PIRC. It has used billboards, radio ads, and mass mailings to promote charter schools and the federal school law’s provisions that in some cases allow students in struggling schools to get free tutoring or switch to other public schools.

In 2002, the organization opened its 21stCentury Charter School in Indianapolis, and it provides support to other such independent public schools through its Charter School Service Center. Last year, the GEO Foundation began providing supplemental services—tutoring—under the No Child Left Behind law.

The foundation now tutors about 120 students, each for a fee of $18 an hour, said Kevin D. Teasley, the foundation’s president and co-founder.

“That’s a conflict of interest right off the top in my mind,” said Sue Ferguson, the chairwoman of the Fairfax, Va.-based National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, a nonprofit group. “They’re being paid by the government to advertise their own services.”

But Mr. Teasley said he sees his organization as forging a new model for PIRCs. There weren’t enough educational options for students in struggling schools, he said, so his group created them.

“It’s not enough to talk about choices and opportunities in education. You have to provide them,” Mr. Teasley said.

Mr. Teasley said the Education Department has approved the arrangement, and his group is careful to provide comprehensive lists of charter schools and tutors, not just its own versions.

Nina S. Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, said that the group is fulfilling its mission as a PIRC, and that she sees no conflict with the law.

Mr. Teasley said the PIRC’s work does have an impact on his organization, though.

“It would be silly for me to say we’re not benefiting from the publicity we’re creating, but it’s the GEO Foundation that is benefiting, not necessarily our charter school or tutoring program,” he said.

Connecting the Dots

The No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda, authorizes and lays out the duties for Parent Information and Resource Centers. About 80 such nonprofit centers are operating with federal grant money, with one or more in nearly every state.

Their shared goal is to provide an independent place—apart from school districts or state government—where parents can learn about their options under the law.

The PIRC concept has its roots in the parental-assistance provisions of Goals 2000, a federal program to aid the states in standards-based school improvement passed under President Clinton. The idea was later incorporated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the latest reauthorization. Under the current law, PIRCs are required to spend 30 percent of their resources on preschool issues and 50 percent on efforts to reach and educate low-income families.

Designed to reach out particularly to parents of disadvantaged children, the current PIRCs were also modeled after similar centers for parents of special education students established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jessica Hornocker tutors students at an Indianapolis charter school run by the GEO Foundation.
Jessica Hornocker tutors students at an Indianapolis charter school run by the GEO Foundation, which receives federal money to promote the tutoring and transfer options of the No Child Left Behind Act and also provides NCLB services to students.
—Tom Strickland for Education Week

But it’s hard to quantify the PIRCs’ success.

“They’re widely variant in quality,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview with Education Week late last month. “If we’re going to have them, I think they ought to be effective.”

That’s partly why the president’s budget plans have proposed to eliminate funding for PIRCs, she said. Though Congress has ignored Mr. Bush’s requests and funded the program—about $41 million in this fiscal year—that support may be about to end, said Linda Hodge, the president of the National PTA. She declared last week at a conference in Baltimore on PIRCs that retaining the centers was a top priority for her group.

“The elimination of [federal] funding would probably cause all of the PIRCs to cease operation,” she said.

Ms. Rees said her hope would be for the PIRCs to stay alive with funding from nonfederal sources.

Politicizing PIRCs?

Critics say that some of the nearly 80 centers received their grants because their ideological slant on education reflects that of the Bush administration.

Examples, among others, include the GEO Foundation, the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which received nearly $2 million over two years to set up a PIRC, and the Public Charter Schools Center, also based in Washington, which got a two-year, $1.5 million grant for the same purpose.

“The department has skewed implementation to favor their political allies’ priorities,” Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust said in an e-mail. “In this case, it might be undermining parents’ access to information about the ways in which NCLB provides extra support to public schools.”

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the charter-friendly Center for Education Reform—whose PIRC, Parents Network for Better Education, educates parents about NCLB options in four Southern states—said the accusation could not be taken seriously.

“The reality is that no one came knocking on my door,” she said. Her organization, Ms. Allen said, decided to seek the grant, in part because it was work it knew how to do.

“The notion of this conspiracy of dishing out federal money is ridiculous,” she said.

The grant process was extremely competitive, said Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. In the last round of PIRC grant awards in 2003, the department received more than 400 applications for 40 grants, she said.

And out of 80 PIRCs, only a handful can be said to share the administration’s ideological stance, she added.

Extra Credit

But the Education Department gave 10 additional points in the grant-review process to groups such as the Center for Education Reform and the GEO Foundation, which had never received federal money, in an effort to broaden participation in the program. And department officials stressed that they wanted PIRCs to focus on the choice and transfer provisions of the law.

The result was that some longtime PIRCs with a broader parental-involvement mission lost their funding.

“These grants are payoffs in the political sense of the word,” said Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement for the Public Education Network, a Washington-based group of local nonprofit organizations that support schools in their communities.

The Newark, N.J.-based Statewide Parent Advocacy Network was considered one of the most successful PIRCs, often serving as a model for others, said Diana Autin, the group’s co-director. It ran an IDEA parent-resource center, and in 1999, during the Clinton administration, received a four-year, $3 million grant to do the same under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But in 2003, the group’s application for a grant renewal was denied by the Education Department.

“It was the least fair, most political process I’ve ever seen in my life,” Ms. Autin charged.

She said the 10 additional points given to newcomers, and what she asserted were “blatant mistakes” by federal grant readers, killed her hopes of receiving another grant. Ms. Autin said she appealed the decision, and had New Jersey’s two U.S. senators inquire, but never got a response from the department.

“There’s lots of ways you can run a competition that will get a result you want,” she said, “even without explicitly telling people exactly what you want.”

Asked about Ms. Autin’s charges, Ms. Yudof of the Education Department said all applications for the PIRC grants were evaluated by qualified reviewers, who are nonfederal employees.

“We can assure you this competition was conducted very carefully and fair, and we would be happy for anyone to look at the process,” Ms. Yudof said.

Vol. 24, Issue 39, Pages 1,28

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