Educated Consumers

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'The parents on the Education Consumers Clearinghouse network are afraid of what's going to happen with their children.'

Mary Damer

For a time, Damer spent hours planning a charter school that would have a rigorous core curriculum, but gave up because she doubted the school board would have approved it. Now, she sends her children to a private Montessori school.

Her criticisms of the schools have earned her a "right winger" label in the local press, but Damer says politics aren't what motivates the parents who dig into educational research and question practices in St. Charles.

"Many of us are Democrats," she says. "My husband's Jewish. We met at a peace march. And we will be sending our son to a Catholic military academy" to get a rigorous education.

The parents on the Education Consumers Clearinghouse network, Damer says, are "afraid of what's going to happen with their children."

Demand for Information

After years of faddish reforms in schools, parents have learned to be skeptical, says J.E. Stone, a professor of educational psychology at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, who maintains the year-old network.

They prefer to make their own inquiries rather than take the word of educators, he says. "There's just tremendous demand for straightforward information about schooling, school practice, and policy."

Local education consumer associations are forming in Tennessee, California, Ohio, and Texas, Stone says. Their goal is to present the consumer's view in a system viewed as dominated by education producers.

Though some educators say they welcome the intense involvement and questioning that consumer parents bring, they note that they must be careful not to allow such voices to overshadow the interests of all the participants in the schools.

"I'd rather have involvement than apathy," says H. Michael Brown, the principal of Hope High School in Hope, Ark., who has been active in national reform efforts. But it comes at a price: "When you get parents who are demanding, aggressive, well-educated, and well-financed, their interests tend to be narrow in scope. The public schools were designed to meet the needs of all students, not a specific few."

But for parents like Rice, who published the guidebook in St. Louis, any increase in responsiveness is an improvement. Efforts like his own research, he believes, help out all parents by holding school officials accountable.

"We have to get to the point where schools are being run on a performance focus," he says, "rather than on hearsay."

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