Opinion
Families & the Community Commentary

Shutting Out Parents

By Leonie Haimson & Julie Woestehoff — June 15, 2010 6 min read

As public school parents and parent advocates, we have grave reservations about the Obama administration’s “blueprint for reform”, laying out its proposals for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Along with 16 other parent activists from throughout the country, we recently wrote a letter to the president and Congress, which hundreds more signed on to, registering our opposition to the administration’s agenda for the nation’s schools.

As this letter from “parents across America” pointed out, the parent voice has been missing so far from the national debate on education, and is entirely absent from the top-down, often draconian policies put forward by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Secretary Duncan’s approach not only ignores the central role parents should play in their children’s education and lives, but also gives scant attention to the reforms we believe are necessary to improve our schools. Overall, we strongly maintain that the blueprint’s proposals would undermine rather than strengthen the public education system, particularly in the urban districts whose parents we represent.

We are aware that Secretary Duncan’s track record in Chicago included dismantling parent-majority local school councils and returning millions in federal parent- involvement funds to Washington because of administrative roadblocks to their use. The fact that the blueprint for federal education programs the secretary helped devise omits the need to involve parents in decisionmaking cries out for redress. Most of the funding for family-engagement programs has been cut, with the remainder consolidated into the federal charter-school and parent-choice programs. The only instance in which parent involvement in decisionmaking is mentioned in the blueprint is to require that parents of Native American children be included in the design of programs at the school level.

Secretary Duncan’s May 3 speech to the Mom Congress on Education and Learning, held at Georgetown University in Washington, seemed more focused on chastising parents for supporting their local schools than on presenting effective new proposals for engaging their ideas. The secretary offered mostly tired nostrums to the parents in the audience who expressed frustration with being ignored by their school leadership. His proposed doubling of Title I parent-involvement funds, from 1 percent to 2 percent, while welcome, will be unproductive if parents are not given adequate opportunities to participate in the planning and implementation of Title I programs, as well as other education reforms.

And it’s not just the issue of involvement that concerns parents. Many schools in our communities are already experiencing or anticipating sharply increased class sizes and shortened school years as a result of the current economic crisis. Yet the blueprint’s proposed funding system would rely primarily on competitive grants and questionable policies, as exemplified by the administration’s Race to the Top initiative. This means that millions of at-risk children will become losers in the race for federal funds, while simultaneously being victimized by unproven approaches to learning.

For example, the requirement that 5 percent of schools be closed or turned into charter schools, or that half their teaching staffs be fired, is overly disruptive, and unlikely to help these schools improve. Though the U.S. Department of Education calls such proposals “innovation,” we see them as representing large-scale experiments on our children—experiments lacking a foundation in research and implemented without informed parental consent—something that would never be allowed in fields such as medicine.

We speak from experience. In Chicago, the mass closure of schools has been associated with increased violence, including students murdering other students. Moreover, research has shown that the students sent elsewhere after the closure of their schools did no better academically than before.

In New York City, the closing of schools has led to more overcrowding and the destabilization of nearby schools, and sharp spikes in the number of students categorized as “discharges,” those leaving the system or being pushed out without graduating, yet never counted as dropouts.

We object to the reform blueprint’s focus on privatization and its push to radically expand the charter school sector. Though some charters may offer students a quality education, one of the largest national studies shows they are, on average, no better, and frequently worse, than neighboring regular public schools. Charters also draw money, space, and other resources from district schools, while enrolling fewer of their communities’ immigrant, special-needs, and poor children.

The punitive approaches proposed by the administration are also likely to deter rather than attract qualified teachers to work in the highest-need schools. Blaming teachers and threatening them with the loss of their jobs in underresourced, overcrowded schools that enroll the most at-risk students is like blaming doctors for all the problems of our inequitable health-care system, and it will lead to even greater inequities in the distribution of experienced teachers.

Tying teacher pay and tenure to gains or losses in students’ standardized-test scores will make the prospect of teaching in inner cities less attractive. According to the National Academy of Sciences, such tests are also a highly unreliable basis for judging teachers. Too many schools have already become joyless test-prep factories, rather than centers of real learning. All children, especially those in inner cities whose parents cannot afford to supplement their schooling, need and deserve a full complement of social studies, science, arts, and physical education. Yet these subjects are being driven out of the curriculum by the high-stakes testing regime imposed in recent years. The Obama blueprint pays lip service to the need for a well-rounded education, but its proposals to link teacher evaluation and pay to the results of high-stakes exams are likely to make a bad situation even worse.

Finally, this blueprint pays almost no attention to the need to address enormous disparities in funding across and within states, saying only that “states will be asked to measure and report on resource disparities and develop a plan to tackle them.” In a plan filled with heavy-handed threats and promises of financial windfalls for states that adhere to the administration’s preferred approaches of closing schools, firing teachers, tying their pay to test scores, and opening more charters, this statement seems to be a mere afterthought, with no consequences attached.

Education is a public trust, and the very foundation of our democracy. Congress holds a great responsibility in its hands in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We are well aware that powerful corporate and foundation interests are shaping many federal and local education policies with dollars rather than evidence-based solutions. We hope that Congress and the administration will listen more carefully to parents as they deliberate on this crucial piece of legislation, and that the next version of the ESEA formally incorporates our views. As highly knowledgeable primary stakeholders, we must be permitted to have a seat at the decisionmaking table.

If lawmakers truly listened, they would turn away from the risky experiments in the administration’s blueprint and replace them with real solutions to the problems facing schools, including putting an end to unfair funding disparities, reducing class sizes, providing a balanced curriculum with multiple methods of assessment, and requiring that schools and districts involve parents in decisionmaking.

These are the changes that parents want, that will work, and that, if incorporated into the ESEA, will provide our neediest public school children with their best chance to learn and succeed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Shutting Out Parents

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