Families & the Community

Candidates View Parental Role Differently

By David J. Hoff — October 14, 2008 5 min read
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Parents play vital roles in their children’s education, John McCain and Barack Obama agree.

But the presidential candidates disagree on what a president should do to encourage parents to choose and participate in the educational experiences of their children.

In several stump speeches this year, Sen. Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee, has shown that he would use the presidency to urge parents to be actively involved in their children’s educational development, and to encourage them to create home environments that promote learning experiences and supervise homework.

“But, in the end, responsibility for our children’s success doesn’t start in Washington,” Sen. Obama said last month in a speech outlining his K-12 agenda, which includes increasing the number of public charter schools. “It starts in our homes. It starts in our families.”

Sen. McCain, who hasn’t highlighted parental responsibility in his campaign, focuses instead on his proposal to expand parents’ ability to choose the schools their children attend.

“When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children,” the Arizona senator said in his Sept. 4 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination. “And I intend to give it to them.”

The differences between the two candidates suggest that a McCain administration would focus on the issue of school choice to bolster parents’ roles in the educational process, while an Obama presidency would go past the choice debate and try to change parental behaviors to ensure students are excelling in schools and to provide them with detailed reports of how schools are performing.

Cosby’s Message

Sen. Obama’s rhetoric is similar to the comedian Bill Cosby’s calls for African-Americans to closely monitor and encourage their children’s educational development, but it doesn’t include Mr. Cosby’s criticisms of some African-American cultural norms. (“At Invitation of Chicago Public Schools, Bill Cosby Gives Parenting Advice,” Dec. 7, 2006.)

“Obama has the credibility in communities that would benefit the most from that message,” said Clint Bolick, the litigation director of the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank based in Phoenix.

As president, Sen. Obama could “displace, if not supplant, the role models in the African-American community,” Mr. Bolick said, mentioning hip-hop artists and sports stars, who often emphasize artistic and athletic abilities over educational achievement.

But Sen. Obama’s rhetorical efforts are insufficient, said Mr. Bolick, who spearheaded litigation resulting in the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring vouchers for religious schools to be permissible under the U.S. Constitution.

“Obama’s education proposals overlook the most important thing that would involve parents in their children’s education, and that is to give them the power to choose their children’s school,” said Mr. Bolick, who is supporting Sen. McCain. “To that extent, the rhetoric is a little bit empty.”

But parent advocates who oppose vouchers say such choices are an incomplete response because parents don’t have enough adequate information to make an informed choice between public schools and private ones.

“They don’t have enough information to compare schools within districts, let alone [private] schools that are not held accountable” under federal and state systems, said Todd Haiken, the manager of public policy for the National PTA, the Chicago-based group representing community-based committees of parents and teachers supporting individual schools.

Rhetorical Flourish

The differences in the candidates’ emphasis on parental roles in education may simply be a reflection of their speaking styles.

“No education policy can replace a parent who’s involved in their child’s education from day one, who makes sure their children are in school on time, helps them with their homework after dinner, and attends those parent-teacher conferences,” Sen. Obama said in the Sept. 9 speech in Riverside, Ohio. “No government program can turn off the TV, or put away the video games, or read to your children.”

Sen. Obama’s “rhetorical style lends itself to discussing things like that,” said Don Soifer, a legislative analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based free-market think tank. “It’s not a style you see from McCain.”

In contrast, Sen. McCain has been “very forceful in his language” in asserting that the federal government should offer parents a broader ability to choose schools for their children, said Mr. Soifer, a school choice supporter.

But the rhetorical differences also are reflected in their policy proposals. Sen. Obama’s K-12 proposals are longer and more expansive than Sen. McCain’s, which are targeted at school choice and improving teacher quality.

Beyond Sen. Obama’s exhortations to parents to improve how they monitor their children’s education, the Democrat’s education plan includes a little-noticed promise to create reports for parents on the educational progress of their students. The quarterly documents would tell parents whether a child is achieving at grade level and is on pace to graduate from high school; list available after-school, summer, tutoring, and other programs; identify other public schools that he or she could attend; and project the cost of a college education for the child.

“The information in these report cards would be very important for families,” said Sue Ferguson, the chairwoman of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, a Washington group that includes the national teachers’ unions and the National PTA.

“One of the major problems is ... people don’t have enough information on how the system works and what’s available,” she added.

But such information would be incomplete without listing the option to attend private schools and offering support for it, Mr. Bolick said.

Private schools can offer “values and religious education” and “strong and consistently enforced disciplinary standards,” he said. Charter schools can do some of those things, but they don’t offer all of the options that should be available to parents, he added.

Mr. Bolick compared U.S. charter schools to perestroika—the Soviet Union’s economic and political reforms, beginning in 1986, that led to the downfall of Communism by the end of the decade.

“You don’t get to real glasnost until you extend choice to private schools,” Mr. Bolick said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Candidates View Parental Role Differently

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