Educated Consumers

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Meet some parents with an attitude. They shop for schools the way they shop for minivans, demanding solid information and plenty of it.

Seven years ago, William S. Rice and his wife set out to buy a new house in the St. Louis suburbs. With a 4-year-old daughter about to enter kindergarten, another young child, and a baby on the way, top-flight schools were high on their priority list.

There's nothing unusual in that, but Rice wasn't content to take the word of real estate agents or friends who vouched for a particular district. He wanted the facts.

And when he popped into schools to ask for data, he got nowhere. "They just looked at you," the 39-year-old marketing and communications executive recalls.

He and his wife arranged hourlong tours at dozens of schools. These yielded "a subjective feel" about each place, Rice says--but even that was frustratingly inadequate. Gradually, Rice became fascinated with the lack of readily accessible, consumer-friendly information about school performance.

So he decided to provide it himself.

Last fall, Rice published "School Scorecard," an analysis of 364 public schools in and around St. Louis that sells for $8.95 at local bookstores, supermarkets, and drugstores.

Rice is one of a new breed of parents who bring a strong consumer orientation to their dealings with the public schools. They're not content to play supportive roles on the sidelines, as an earlier generation did. These parents want a voice in policy decisions.

They comb through district budgets and challenge spending priorities. They ask for certain teachers for their children and question teaching methods, often using the Internet as a research tool and a way to keep in touch with others.

They demand higher standards, and they're not a bit shy about sounding off on what they think schools should be doing. As well-educated professionals, they feel confident of their own judgments and they're willing to do homework to back up their demands.

These parents, many of them baby boomers, grew up in a consumer oriented society.

"You can walk into Barnes & Noble and pick up six or eight or 10 publications to buy a car you're going to have for five years that will cost $15,000 or $20,000," says Rice. "But when it comes to making a decision of this magnitude--of schools for your children--there's nothing like that."

These parents, many of them baby boomers, grew up in a consumer-oriented society. Many came of age during the activist 1960s. Now that they're raising their own children, they're frightened by the barrage of negative news about public schools. And because families are smaller today, parents tend to focus more attention on every aspect of their children's lives--starting with education.

Vocal Minority

"The people who had the 'Question Authority' bumper stickers are now parents," says Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "It really does hit home."

Consumer parents haven't received much attention from educators, who talk far more about boosting the involvement of disengaged parents. But they're out there.

And though they may be a small slice of the public, these parents tend to be influential in their communities. Depending on how they're treated, they can either be key allies or formidable foes for schools.

Just ask officials in the San Jose, Calif., schools.

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