Families & the Community

Educated Consumers

By Ann Bradley — March 26, 1997 10 min read
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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.

‘I was basically appalled and frustrated at the lack of communication between parents and community people, and the school district.’

Andrea Villasenor-Perry
San Jose, Calif.

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.

Vocal Minority

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.

‘I was basically appalled and frustrated at the lack of communication between parents and community people, and the school district.’

Andrea Villasenor-Perry
San Jose, Calif.

Three years ago, when the school board voted to cut the district’s before- and after-school child-care programs, Andrea Villasenor-Perry got mad.

She viewed those programs as a vital service and felt that board members and administrators didn’t want parents to be a part of policy decisions.

Villasenor-Perry, who has a master’s degree in social work, called the district office for a copy of the budget. Then, she started digging.

“I was basically appalled and frustrated at the lack of communication between parents and community people” and the school district, she says. “I felt they weren’t welcoming input, and we were treated with disdain by them.”

Not any more. Villasenor-Perry, a violence-prevention coordinator and the mother of a 12-year-old girl, is now the co-chair of a group she helped found called CARES--Community Alliance for a Responsible Education System. Since its formation, the group has successfully pressed for an independent audit of the district and helped elect school board members who are more responsive.

Its members meet regularly with the superintendent, and the group has representatives on key district committees, including budget, facilities planning, and bond oversight. CARES also worked with city and county officials to cobble together funding for the child-care programs.

“We do our homework,” Villasenor-Perry explains. “We are critical, but we keep a respectful tone and are cooperative. We just wanted to be treated as equal partners.”

Need for Control

In many ways, questioning parents like Villasenor-Perry are simply acting on sentiments shared by a broader segment of the population.

In a national survey conducted last year for USA Today, the Gordon S. Black Corp. turned up unmistakable evidence that parents want more control over schools.

Half the parents surveyed said they wanted more input in selecting their child’s teachers; 42 percent said schools could do a better job of including parents’ views when making decisions. And nearly one-third said schools need to communicate better when children have a problem.

‘Years ago, [parents] just said, “Give me a town with a good system.” They’re saying now that they want proof.’

Regina Birdsell
Madison, Conn.

“People in general are demanding higher degrees of control over all aspects of their lives,” says Gordon Black, the chairman of the Rochester, N.Y.-based company, which also owns the polling firm Louis Harris and Associates.

As the president of SchoolMatch, a Westerville, Ohio-based company that provides information about schools to corporations and people who are relocating, William L. Bainbridge hears what the consuming public wants.

In the past, he says, parents were happy to get a few facts about test scores and pupil-teacher ratios. Today, “they want all these details"--the win-loss record of the lacrosse coach, how many books the library has, and what programs are available for gifted students or those with special needs.

Regina Birdsell, the principal of Academy Elementary School in Madison, Conn., agrees. “Years ago, [parents] just said, ‘Give me a town with a good school system,’” she says. “They’re saying now that they want proof.”

Often, parents request meetings with her, question her about the school’s educational philosophies, and take a tour before enrolling their children. Such parents, she adds, often become strong allies of public education. “If they’re demanding the best for their kids,” she says, “they will continue supporting the education system. And we need that kind of support.”

Picking a Teacher

Parents who have gone to such lengths often aren’t willing to take the luck of the draw when it comes to teachers. Some schools get so many inquiries about student assignments that they’ve developed formal procedures to allow parents to express their wishes. While most prefer to stop short of granting flat-out requests for particular teachers--preferring that parents describe what kind of environment would be best for their child--it’s impossible to stop some people.

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.

‘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.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 1997 edition of Education Week

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