Schools and Parents: Activists Are Now Forging a Policy Role

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Atlanta--Educators design school policies, legislators bargain with them, and governors sign them. But the people who have to live with them are parents, many of whom are no longer content to sit by the sidelines while politicians and professionals make decisions about their children.

More and more, they are demanding a say in decisionmaking. And in many instances, they are getting it.

The dozens of activists from around the United States who gathered here late lastmonth monitor school budgets, lobby for school-reform bills, and note how their school-board members vote.

They do not denigrate the traditional role played by parents who organize bake sales and help children with their homework. They simply say that the times demand more.

In two related conferences sponsored by apple Corps, an Atlanta organization, and the Institute for Responsive Education, a national organization based in Boston, citizen activists from across the country talked about their work to improve large-city school systems and to influence state education policies.

Most of the groups have taken on as their special charge the educational needs of poor, minority, and handicapped children, who, they say, are frequently ignored by the schools. Some groups operate entirely outside the school structure, while others work from within the system.

What is common to the groups is their growing influence--all the more impressive because of a general decline in parent participation in the schools during the last few decades, due, in part, to the increasing number of working women and the general aging of the population.

School Councils

In Kansas City, Mo., for instance, the board of education in 1978 mandated that the principal of every school in the district form an advisory committee composed of parents and other community members, principals, teachers, and, in secondary schools, students.

The committees, which operate under the auspices of a neutral third party called the Learning Exchange, are charged with the task of improving education in individual schools and have the authority to review many of their schools' most important educational decisions. Initially financed with equal portions of district funds and grants from local businesses and private foundations, the committees' annual budget of $140,000 is today totally underwritten by the school district.

In South Carolina, the Education Improvement Act of 1984, which passed with widespread citizen support, mandates the creation of school-improvement councils in every school in the state. The makeup of the councils is similar to that of the Kansas City committees.

The law authorizes the groups to monitor how the new reforms are carried out and requires them to assist in the preparation of an annual school-improvement report.

Reforms Open Doors

"Citizens were often rejected from decisionmaking in the past," according to Hayes Mizell, a member of the Richland District One School Board in South Carolina and former chairman of the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children. But in recent years, he noted at the ire conference, many politicians have opened up the political process to parents and others in an effort to gain the credibility and support to pass sweeping state reforms.

The Citizens Education Center Northwest, for instance, began in 1979. It grew out of a lobbying effort to pass a fair school-finance law in Washington State. The group has since moved on to work for other statewide school-reform measures.

In California, citizens' groups were strong lobbyists for SB 813, the state's education-reform bill. One such group, the Los Angeles Public School Coalition, is now turning its attention to the implementation of SB 813 at the local level--and to other needs in the city's school system.

And in South Carolina, Gov. Richard W. Riley's wife, Ann, spent four years as head of a task force on citizen participation in education. The panel coordinated seven public forums across the state that brought in more than 13,000 people to discuss statewide goals for improving education. According to Ms. Riley, this network of concerned citizens ''made all the difference" in the final, close legislative votes on the state's Education Improvement Act.

Still Resistance

Despite the role citizens have played in passing many recent state reform bills, Mr. Mizell said, some people still believe that "the problem with public schools is that they are too public and too democratic."

"Too many officials who must make difficult education decisions view the increased level of citizen involvement as intrusive and immobilizing," he noted. "Decisionmakers are either afraid of losing their power or they are afraid of making decisions in the face of diverse and conflicting points of view." In the midst of other demands, many of them see encouraging citizens' participation as a low priority, he said, or even as "frivolous."

"Probably more scary," added Alvin Granowski, a member of the National pta's board of directors, is that many parents and community leaders think citizen participation in decisions about school policies is inappropriate.

David Seeley, former executive director of the Public Education Association of New York City, and author of the book Education Through Partnership, said schools still operate on a "delegation service-delivery model" in which citizens turn over responsibility for education to the bureaucracy.

The official role of parents in that system, he said, is to vote for school-board members and pay taxes. Principals are middle managers responsible to superiors, not to parents. Citizen advocates, therefore, are viewed as "outsiders trying to tell insiders how to do their job.''

Cheerleaders and Critics

Yet citizens' and parents' groups maintain they play a crucial role for the nation's public schools as both cheerleaders and critics.

"We have become in our cities beacons of hope and expectation for our public schools," said Marcia Klenbort, director of apple Corps, an urban-school support and monitoring group in Atlanta. She is the mother of three children who have attended Atlanta's public schools.

Citizens' groups, she said, let the larger public know what is positive about large urban school systems. And they perform many of the functions that schools should but often fail to do themselves, including analyzing school budgets, publishing the minutes of school-board meetings, and interpreting school goals and policies for the layman.

apple Corps, for example, has published a sourcebook about public schools in Atlanta. Called The Citizen's Guide to Atlanta Public Schools, it tells parents what the school policies are, who is in charge of carrying out those policies, and where they can go for help with school problems.

Growing Sophistication

In their role as advocates, parents' and citizens' groups have also become increasingly sophisticated about such complicated issues as testing, promotion policies, and school finance, and have brought those issues to the attention of a wider public.

Thus, in 1980, apple Corps was instrumental in getting the finance chairman of the Atlanta board of education and the city comptroller to begin holding explanatory budget hearings for citizens eight months prior to the school board's adoption of an education budget. Those hearings have been held for the last four years and have become increasingly detailed and informative, Ms. Klenbort said.

Parents United for Full Public School Funding, an organization in Washington, D.C., helped defeat a tuition tax-credit initiative on that city's 1981 ballot. The following year, the group analyzed the major disputes in contract negotiations between the Washington Teachers'el30lUnion and the board of education and saw its principal recommendations incorporated in the new contract.

Born of Crisis

Many of the citizens' and parents' groups became strong advocates for their school systems after having been created to meet a specific crisis.

Parents United, for instance, began in 1980 when the district was forced to absorb a $60-million budget deficit and fired some 700 teachers. "Parents decided that this was too much and that it wasn't going to happen again," said Mary Levy, a member of the organization's board. Ms. Levy, a school-finance lawyer who has children enrolled in the District of Columbia public schools, prepared detailed analyses of the school budget to show where the school system's money was being spent. After a rally at which more than 1,000 parents protested the cuts and parents from nearly 50 schools testified on behalf of increased school funding, officials restored more than $27 million to the budget.

Similarly, Lauma Lockwood began Citizens for Responsive Education in Grand Rapids, Mich., two years ago, shortly after local citizens had voted down three separate millages and the superintendent had been fired. The group was instrumental in opening the search for a new superintendent to citizen participation.

The Philadelphia Parents' Union started in 1972, in the midst of a protracted teachers' strike. Today, its members sit on the mayoral panel that nominates members for the city's school board and on a range of educational committees and task forces.

The union trains parents to navi-gate the school system, conducts workshops about the new promotion and curriculum policies in Philadelphia, has pressured teachers and administrators to keep negotiating during strikes, and participated in the search and screening process that led to the appointment of Constance Clayton as school superintendent.

A number of the citizens' and parents' groups developed at the same time as other consumer and public-interest groups grew. And they share with them some of the combined tactics of research, lobbying, and technical assistance that have traditionally helped to accomplish such groups' goals.

Mixed Reactions

The new wave of school reform evokes mixed reactions among the citizens' and parents' groups.

The Public Education Association in New York City is one of the oldest citizens' education groups in the country, founded in 1895. It focuses on students who often have no one else to represent them--poor, minority, and special-needs children. But egalitarian concern about improving education for such children is not at the heart of the new citizen interest in education, according to the group's executive director, Jeanne Silver Frankl.

"It is, in many ways, a reactive concern," she said. "The challenge for citizens' groups like ours has been to capitalize on this national movement and to turn it to the benefit of what we're concerned about, which is better education for everybody."

Representatives of other groups assert that many of the statewide reform measures have bypassed urban needs, such as bilingual education, dropout prevention, and remedial6education, which are longstanding and not responsive to "quick-fix" solutions.

And they note that the business partnerships that in rapidly growing numbers are promoting school reform have frequently failed to work with or acknowledge the concerns of existing citizens' and parents' associations.

Abandoned by Middle Class

"White flight" has also contributed to the problems of urban-school support groups. Ellen Guiney, director of the Citywide Education Coalition in Boston, said that in that city, fewer than 10 percent of the residents have any direct involvement with the public schools. Out of some 85,000 school-age children in the city, some 30,000 attend parochial and private schools, which are predominantly white, she said.

In contrast, 70 percent of the students in the city's public schools are members of minority groups. The Citywide Education Coalition now sees one of its major tasks as reaching out to new groups of citizens other than parents to provide a broader base of support for public schooling.

"In Los Angeles, perhaps later than in the Eastern cities, we are seeing the abandonment of the public schools by the middle class," said Marjorie B. Green, chairman of the Los Angeles Public School Coalition. "The concern that we feel is that the public schools will begin to be regarded not as a vehicle for the American dream, but rather as a welfare institution for poor and minority people. And therefore, it will not serve either the function of the one unifying agency in a pluralistic society or as a ladder for upward mobility."

Declining Numbers

Organizations also say that for demographic and other reasons, the number of parents participating in school-support groups is declining.

Membership in the National pta--the largest educational association for citizens, with approximately 5.5 million members--declined by about 50 percent from nearly 12 million members during a 20-year period, according to Melitta J. Cutright, director of communications and programming.

Only in the last two years has membership begun a modest climb. In 1982-83, it increased by 0.7 percent; in 1983-84 it increased by 1.3 percent; and it is expected to go up again this school year.

The increasing number of single parents and working women with little time for school-related activities is one reason cited by the groups for the decline in parent participation, as is the general aging of the population.

Less Encouragement

Ms. Green said a decline in government's encouragement of parent participation has added to the problem.

"During the late '60s and early '70s it was a governmental policy, starting with the federal government and going down, to encourage maximum feasible participation," said Ms. Green. "That's no longer true.''

According to Don Davies, president of the Institute for Responsive Education, only a few states--California, Florida, Hawaii, and South Carolina--still provide strong encouragement for citizen participation, and South Carolina is the only state that has councils in place in every school.

To What End?

Even where citizen participation is taken as a matter of course, citizens' groups are beginning to question the ultimate goals or results of their efforts.

Many say that the political education of parents, and the school system's knowledge that "someone is watching," are worthwhile accomplishments in and of themselves. But others contend that the end result of participation must be improved student learning and development.

For that reason, a number of citizens' groups have begun to turn their attention back from the statehouses and administration buildings to individual schools, but in a more sophisticated manner than in the past. In particular, they have started to study and agitate for specific teaching and learning techniques that might benefit children.

The ire, for example, has published a "Citizen's Notebook for Effective Schools," and hopes to work with individual groups of parents and citizens to institute reforms based on the effective-schools literature.

Designs for Change, an advocacy group in Chicago that works for improvements in children's schooling in that city and in other Illinois school districts, has begun a project called "Schoolwatch" that trains groups of parents to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their local schools.

Ms. Frankl said that the pea in New York City is trying to learn how to effect change at the school level--among principals and teachers--in an effort to make the organization's citywide recommendations more pragmatic and realistic.

And the most recent publication of the Conference on Education, a statewide citizens' group in Missouri, is a report on factors that help or hinder the performance of school principals, because of the key role that principals play in creating the "learning environment" in schools.

But, in the end, the most important reason for citizen involvement may be a practical one. "We're asking the citizenry to pay for public education," says Ms. Klenbort of Atlanta. "They're the consumers."

Vol. 04, Issue 29

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