Educated Consumers

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Consumer parents aren't hesistant to question decisions made by authorities, and when they do, they often bring significant expertise to policy issues.

At New Hope Elementary School in the Robbinsdale Area Schools near Minneapolis, Bob Zigler has drawn up a form for parents to use each spring. His school of 470 children gets between 75 and 90 responses from parents each year. Most ignore his pleas not to mention teachers by name.

"Parents are a little more savvy, a little more aggressive in a nice way," says Zigler, who has been a principal for 33 years. "They know what they want for their children."

Because Minnesota allows parents to send their children to any public school in the state, Zigler is aware that accommodating parents isn't just a nice thing to do. It's smart business.

"There's a lot of choice between schools," he says, "and I'm sure if somebody held their line and said no, parents would just shop around and go someplace else."

Checking the Numbers

Consumer parents aren't hesitant to question decisions made by authorities, and when they do, they often bring significant expertise to policy issues.

'I started asking a lot of questions. When they give you answers, you look at it and ask, "Does it make sense?" If it doesn't, you question it some more.'

Dave Crowfoot
Dublin, Calif.

For Dave Crowfoot, events in his own back yard galvanized him into action. To save money, the Dublin, Calif., district was planning to close the elementary school located right behind Crowfoot's house. But Crowfoot, an investment planner for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., wasn't convinced by the arguments. So he started crunching his own numbers and found gaps in the district's analysis.

"I started asking a lot of questions," he recalls. "When they give you answers, you look at it and ask, 'Does it make sense?' If it doesn't, you question it some more."

Eventually, working with district administrators whom he praises as very professional, Crowfoot identified some expenses that the school district had overlooked. The school stayed open, thanks also to the parents who testified at school board meetings.

"If we hadn't pressed on the numbers, I'm not sure how far we would have gotten," Crowfoot says. "But if there hadn't been emotion, I don't think we would have gotten far either."

'Can of Worms'

While assertive parents often bring their own professional knowledge to bear on school issues, other parents develop expertise through research on their own.

For Leah Vukmir, it all started four years ago, when her daughter entered public kindergarten in Wauwatosa, Wis. Vukmir, a pediatric nurse, questioned her child's use of "invented spelling," knowing nothing of the debate pitting such whole-language methods against traditional phonics teaching.

Vukmir researched the issue, talked to principals, and asked to look at curriculum guides. "I opened a can of worms," she laughs.

Vukmir's daughter is now in parochial school. And her mother is the president of Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, or PRESS, a statewide organization with 1,000 members that hosts an annual conference, publishes a newsletter, and maintains its own site on the Internet's World Wide Web.

"We were all coming together with the common concern that something is not right in the classroom," she explains.

In neighboring Illinois, Mary Damer shares that concern. Her organization, Taxpayers for Academic Priorities in St. Charles Schools, publishes a newsletter with a mailing list of 400 people. The group also keeps in touch with parents around the country through the Education Consumers ClearingHouse, a rapidly growing electronic network of some 300 subscribers.

Damer, a teacher-educator whose husband is a history professor, believes the St. Charles schools have gotten off the track with whole-language programs and a new mathematics curriculum. She's also dissatisfied with students' test scores, particularly given the relative affluence of the area.

"Probably the one thing that worked in this country was that you could live in the suburbs and know you'd get a fairly rigorous education for your children," she says.

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