Role of Parents in School Decisions Long Debated

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The debate over the role of parents in school governance is closely related to the centuries-old debate over lay versus professional control of education.

The first schools in many American communities relied heavily on parents, who often hired teachers and shared responsibility for their room and board.

But, from the earliest years of the Republic, political leaders questioned the wisdom of giving parents control over their children's education, Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. writes in The Myth of the Common School.

He notes that Samuel Harrison Smith, editor of the National Intelligencer, the official paper of the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, won an essay contest in 1797 on the need for a national system of education by denouncing what he perceived as the negligence of parents toward their children's intellectual and moral development.

"It is the duty of a nation to superintend and even coerce the education of children," the editor wrote. "[H]igh considerations of expediency not only justify but dictate the establishment of a system which shall place under a control, independent of and superior of parental authority, the education of children."

Mr. Glenn notes, however, that such a philosophy did not gain wide currency until after 1837, when the Massachusetts legislature created a state board of education and named Horace Mann, then president of the state Senate, to be its first secretary.

Mann used his position to warn of the dangers of an uneducated and unenlightened citizenry and to argue for uniform and universal public education.

He and his like-minded contemporaries, Mr. Glenn writes, "found in Prussia the model they were looking for: centralized state action to assure that all children received a centrally prescribed education in the interest of national unity and economic progress."

Critics of Mann's position, including Marcus Morton, elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1838, questioned the wisdom of allowing the state to assume too much influence over education.

"The more immediately [schools] are brought under the control of those for whose benefit they are established ...," the Governor intoned in his inaugural address, "the more deep and active will be the feelings engendered in their favor, and the more certain and universal will be their beneficial agency."

Nevertheless, within a few decades, Mr. Glenn notes, the Prussian model of compulsory attendance, state-controlled training and appointment of teachers, and state prescription of curriculum, had taken root.

Mr. Glenn and other modern historians contend that Mann and his contemporaries were motivated not so much by a benevolent interest in the welfare of children, as by the fear that the values and beliefs of immigrant and poor families would predominate if not assimilated and controlled.

For a long time after their ideas became popular, school governance remained decentralized, even in the nation's rapidly growing urban areas, allowing parents and communities to exert considerable control over their schools.

Ethnic, religious, and other organizations representing parents vied with business, political, and labor leaders over such controversial issues as the content of the curriculum, the amount and kind of religious instruction to be provided, and whether instruction would be offered in the languages of immigrants.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, professional educators had managed, with the help of a new generation of reformers, to consolidate their control over the governance of the schools.

"Decentralized, ward-based, patronage-focused, lay-controlled school boards were gradually replaced by centralized, citywide, professionally directed, reform-oriented boards," Paul E. Peterson writes in The Politics of School Reform 1870-1940.

David B. Tyack, in The One Best System, A History of American Urban Education, argues that educators of this era preferred a business model for education partly because they did not want to have to cater to the wishes of parents.

And outside of urban areas, a widespread belief that small school districts were inefficient fueled pressures for districts to consolidate.

"Population dynamics, combined with school-district consolidations, transformed locally controlled institutions into the bureaucratized systems we have today," says James Guthrie, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley and director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

Between 1930 and 1972, he says, the enrollment of the average public-school district grew from 200 students to almost 3,000 students.

At the same time, he says, an average school-board member represented only 250 students 60 years ago; by 1972, each represented more than 2,000 students.

The unresponsiveness of such large school bureaucracies came under attack in a number of cities during the 1960's, in what is now known as the "community-control movement."

The movement reflected rising dissatisfaction with the quality of education in some of the nation's largest urban districts, and was fueled by the frustration felt by many blacks toward the slow pace of integration in their schools.

In New York City, where the movement reached its peak, it was sparked by the board of education's inability to meet its promise to open P.S. 201, in East Harlem, as an integrated school.

Charging that both the school board and teachers' organizations were insensitive to the needs of the city's minority population, the minority community backed away from its demands for integration and developed a new rallying cry: "At least let us control the schools that are going to be in the ghetto," recalls David S. Seeley, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, who served as education liaison to Mayor John Lindsay of New York.

In 1969, after a heated battle that pitted black leaders against the school board and teachers' groups, the New York legislature approved a compromise plan that divided governance between a central board and 32 community districts.

"Most community-control forces viewed the legislation as a defeat," Mr. Seeley says. "They said it was a trick bag, not community control."

In recent years, some of the community districts have been plagued by problems of patronage and corruption, leading to calls for a fundamental overhaul of the decentralization law. A state task force created by the state legislature in 1988 is scheduled to release its recommendations for revamping the system within the next few months.

Some backers of the current system believe that it would work better if more parents were elected to the community boards, which in the past have typically been controlled by candidates backed by unions and local political parties.

"Parents are essential to effective school boards, because they have the most self-interest to want the schools to work well," says Judith Baum, who coordinated a drive that succeeded in getting more parents elected to the community boards in 1989.

While the current drive to empower parents has its roots in the community-control movement, Mr. Seeley says, that label is no longer being applied.

"What's happening is often the way that social movements work," he says. "First, there is a challenge to the existing power structure, but it successfully defends itself for the moment. Then, when things change enough, it begins to take hold."

The racial tensions that made the community-control movement seem a hostile and aggressive force have eased, he says, and educators are beginning to acknowledge that they cannot do the job alone.

And now, he says, "the failure of the schools is not just a cause for poor black parents; it's become a major pressing issue for business people, for governors, for a host of potential allies."

Vol. 10, Issue 12

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