Let’s face it. When it comes to the transformation of public education, families and students are at the bottom of the partnership feeding chain. And our poorest families often wield the least power and have little political or social capital. Their voice is hardly ever sought after, and their children attend the lowest-performing schools. Missing in action are the well-integrated national education policies that should assure these families that they have a voice at the reform table. The landscape for low-income parents, however, was not always this bleak.
As a young staffer for the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, I remember distinctly an exchange that the senator had with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration officials, when the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was being debated in the Senate education committee in 1965. Sen. Kennedy peppered them with questions about why poor parents were not given more power to hold school districts accountable for the federal money they were receiving under the ESEA’s Title I. He contended that parents in the South Bronx should have the same clout over education decisions as the parents in Westchester County, an affluent community just north of New York City.
In promoting federal mechanisms that evened the playing field in the early years of the ESEA, Robert Kennedy saw the role of parents as one of mobilizing, organizing, and changing the power relationships to ensure that federal funding would be used to desegregate the schools as well as build demand for improved student performance. That discussion raised some of the first questions about the relationships between instructional quality, assessment data, and the use of that information by low-income parents to demand improved public schools—an issue we continue to grapple with today. In essence, the legislation dramatically changed the relationship that low-income parents had with school officials.
But there were many school districts that either resented the federal parent requirements or that were threatened by the increase in parent participation. They staged mass resistance against parent organizing and, during the 1980 ESEA reauthorization process, persuaded Congress to gut the core of the parent-involvement provisions. That significant shift sent a national message that administrator control was more important than collaboration or shared decisionmaking, and that parental involvement would now be voluntary and not protected by federal law.
Today, the rhetoric of family engagement has overshadowed any serious policymaking. We have shifted from an ESEA that was primarily community-based and into building relationships to one that is highly school- and test-based, and inhumanly technocratic. And while the U.S. Department of Education talks a good game, charter schools, teacher evaluation, and competitive grants like Race to the Top have trumped family engagement as national priorities. Curiously, instead of building on the new research that demonstrates the importance of linking families to school transformation, the Education Department has actually diminished family provisions. It eliminated statewide Parent Information and Resource Centers, failed to monitor the family provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (the current version of the ESEA), and emasculated the parents'-right-to-know provision of NCLB, which endowed parents with the right to inquire about the qualifications of their children’s teachers. All of those are tools to support low-income families.
When asked at a National Press Club presentation last year how he would grade the Education Department’s family-engagement policies, Secretary Arne Duncan gave his agency a D. The department has not been a safe haven for low-income parents, and Congress and the Obama administration have largely been unable to incorporate the family evidence we have into the policies we need.
For many state and local leaders in family engagement, Congress and the Education Department have become irrelevant forces in helping to level the playing field in the balance of power and school-family collaboration, as well as in helping to build demand for schools that are responsive to the particular needs of low-income parents. This unfortunate void leaves low-income parents to fend for themselves and build from the ground up—school by school and district by district. And here is some advice: Don’t expect your federal government to help in this process. Parental choice, market models, and rhetoric do not substitute for family mobilization, advocacy, or organizing.
We know sound family policies work. They help grow district capacity, teacher and administrator professional development, community engagement, integration of services, funding, best practices, communications, and respect for voices and needs. When coordinated, these elements build a seamless link between school and family, increasing student success and performance.
If we give up on our families, we give up on our community. If we lose our community, we lose our democracy. If we lose our democracy, we lose the public. And if we lose the public, we lose public education. The stakes are too high for our national policymakers to ignore what makes sense.
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Missing in Action: A National Education Policy for Empowering Low-Income Families