ESSA May Offer Megaphone for Parent, Community Voices
Advocates See Chance for Greater Impact Under New K-12 Law
Advocates for parent and community engagement see the newly revised federal K-12 law as an opportunity to expand their impact on states' academic goals, plans for school improvement, and other areas of policy.
Requirements in federal education law for parental involvement in public schools are nothing new. But because the new Every Student Succeeds Act shifts significant responsibility over accountability and other matters to states and districts, there's renewed hope that parent, community, civil rights, and other groups will have more sway over what has been, in many cases, a narrower decisionmaking process.
There are some caveats, however.
Since ESSA deals only with authorizations for programs, federal funding for some of these engagement efforts is not guaranteed. And various groups say that it's up to all sides—including policymakers, advocates, and community members—to become more active so that the promise ESSA holds for them is fulfilled.
The new law, like its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, requires districts to set aside at least 1 percent of their Title I funds, which are aimed at helping disadvantaged children, to involve parents in the school community (although the wording to describe those activities has changed under ESSA). And 90 percent of those dollars must be distributed by each district, with a priority given to "high-need" schools.
Under Title IV of the law—which includes a new flexible block grant for health, safety, technology, well-rounded education, and more—ESSA also authorizes federal grants to Statewide Family Engagement Centers. Those are a new iteration of the Parental Information and Resource Centers that were federally funded under NCLB, but which parent-advocates hope will play a bigger role, even though federal money for them is not guaranteed.
"Our key priority is to make sure parents and families and PTAs are at the table with school districts while they are planning their implementation of the new law—that parents can be there and can be meaningfully involved and not just checking the box," said Jacki Ball, the director of governmental affairs for the National PTA.
And perhaps the biggest policy discussions about where parent and community engagement can have a discrete impact derive from the requirement in ESSA for states to consider at least one indicator of school quality in their new accountability systems. That could include factors such as school climate, student engagement, and access to advanced coursework.
Public school officials welcome the chance ESSA provides to reset relationships with parents and community groups and start new ones for those and other discussions.
Those who support schools’ parent and community engagement efforts are encouraged by several provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, even though some of those elements are similar to those in the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous version of the federal education law. Among its key features in this area, ESSA:
• Requires districts to set aside at least 1 percent of their Title I funds for parent and family engagement activities. Of that money, 90 percent must be distributed to schools.
• Creates State Family Engagement Centers, which are the successors to the Parental Information Resource Centers funded under the NCLB law, and authorizes $10 million in annual funding for them.
• Replaces the NCLB law’s use of the phrase “parental involvement” with “parent and family engagement” in several provisions.
• Places what advocates for broader engagement in schools say is a new emphasis on school quality in accountability that could provide parents, civic organizations, and other community groups with greater influence in creating new definitions of successful schools.
Tony Evers, the Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, cited the shift away from the federally funded School Improvement Grant program as one such opportunity.
In 2010, when the Milwaukee the district began participating in SIG, 46 schools took part. But ESSA got rid of SIG as a federal turnaround program—along with its four prescriptive turnaround methods.
Evers, who is also president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he and other officials now will be able to use input from a variety of Milwaukee community groups—from the NAACP to disability advocates—to help create school-improvement models.
"Now we have the opportunity, because there are no requirements or magic formulas, [to] sit down with the Milwaukee school board, parents, and community officials, and say, 'OK, how can we best serve parents and kids without those requirements?' " Evers said. "I think this will be an excellent opportunity."
In many instances, such as with the 1 percent set-aside for Title I dollars, ESSA replaces the term "parental involvement" with "parent and family engagement," which some see as fostering more-collaborative relationships between schools and the wider community.
Schools receiving Title I money under ESSA also have to have written engagement policies. Supporters of community schools, which connect schools' academic mission with healthcare, social services and other wraparound programs, think provisions of ESSA will give their work additional momentum and their partners more say in K-12 policy. And as in other provisions of the law, there's a requirement for districts' parental engagement strategies to be "evidence-based" in terms of their effectiveness.
On a statewide basis, Evers is hoping to use ESSA to expand Wisconsin's "Promoting Excellence for All" initiative, which focuses on family and community engagement and student-teacher relationships, among other avenues, to highlight and try to close racial achievement gaps in the state.
Expanded family and community engagement opportunities in ESSA also give state chiefs the chance to make shifts in accountability policies both "more robust and understandable to people," said Evers.
Some advocates caution that it would be misguided to draw a bright red line between parents and other organizations in communities that can help schools. That's particularly true because the most effective advocates for low-income children are often their parents, who have also frequently been ignored or marginalized when it comes to the development of school policy, said Liz King, the senior policy analyst and the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights group.
"We see a lot of interchanges and relationships between parents writ large and civil rights organizations in states," King said.
Those who work in and advocate for full-service community schools agree that the new law should motivate school leaders to draw on broader sources of input, for decisions, for example, about how local Title I dollars are used.
Community-school advocates say that ESSA will give their work more momentum and allow people to explore new partnerships with local colleges and universities that can provide mentoring and tutoring, groups like United Way, and local community justice organizations.
Under Title IV, ESSA authorizes full service community schools, as well as Promise Neighborhoods, which were originally funded under President Barack Obama's administration and work to create "cradle-to-career" support for students.
"If a school has intentional ways to reach out to partners, teachers can have easier access to museums, art exhibitions, and specific experiences that students can have through local government, and local civil rights groups," said Marty Blank, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools.
Historically, it has been difficult for educators to engage many community members in low-income urban areas in school-improvement efforts, especially over the long term, Blank said. But just as school officials have an obligation under ESSA to listen to community members and not just manipulate them into supporting a pre-cooked plan for how schools work, he stressed, civil rights organizations and community groups have a renewed responsibility to work with schools as well.
"Now is the time to get engaged, because planning is so important to this process," Blank said. "This new law, in devolving power back to the state and local level, should be a clarion call for our folks to step up."
Challenges on the Ground
However, ESSA's sharper focus on engagement won't automatically translate into help for those who work in the field. Take the Statewide Family Engagement Centers, which would head up parent outreach and professional training in schools.
ESSA only authorizes about $10 million a year for the new centers, compared to approximately $40 million in annual funding their predecessors, the Parental Information and Resource Centers, received over five years from 2006 to 2010 under the NCLB law. And perhaps more importantly, President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget proposal does not include any money for the centers.
Today, only three states—Colorado, Kansas, and Connecticut—have parent resource centers, which now get by with other funding sources, according to the National PTA.
In 1980, Richard Garcia founded the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition to improve parental involvement, starting in his own children's schools. In 2006, the coalition got a federal grant to begin Colorado's Parent Information Resource Center, allowing it to expand its outreach statewide. The main thrust was to create parent leadership teams in schools, focusing on campuses with families of color and low-income children, Garcia said.
But when its grant ended in 2010, the coalition had to cut back about half of its operation, scaling back to serve only the Denver metro area. Now the group survives mostly on philanthropic money.
"It's hard for us to do the work," Garcia said.
Garcia is hoping grants under ESSA will help his coalition expand again, but he knows the funds are limited. He also knows that grant recipients must better demonstrate how parental engagement can directly lead to higher student achievement.
The Kansas Parent Information Resource Center also had to downsize after it lost federal money, reducing its staff from five to three and moving into office space with the state's Parent Teacher Association, said Jane Groff, the center's executive director.
But the center's staff convinced the Kansas department of education to find funds to continue. The center last year received a five-year contract through 2020 to provide professional training and assistance to schools, Groff said.
Groff said she is hopeful that the ESSA grants will come through.
"For me, it's very exciting because it provides an opportunity for us to really scale up our work and build capacity across the state," Groff said.
Vol. 35, Issue 25, Pages 1, 20Published in Print: March 23, 2016, as ESSA May Offer Megaphone For Parent, Community Voice