The No Child Left Behind Act has opened new opportunities for parents to make sure their children receive a good education, from free tutoring to transfers to better schools.
The wide-ranging law has also sparked a variety of initiatives to help parents understand and take advantage of their options, including some federally financed efforts that are drawing criticism.
“Even though the law says a lot about parent involvement, parents are usually on the other end of one-way communication,” said Lauren E. Allen, the senior program director for accountability at the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, based in Chicago. “Parents don’t get enough time to really think through and react in a knowledgeable way.”
A reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 2001 law seeks to hold schools accountable for their students’ academic achievement. Its authors envision a key role for parents in the accountability push. Besides the new educational choices for their children, for instance, the law aims to arm parents with data on matters such as teacher qualifications.
The Cross City Campaign—a network of school reform leaders in nine cities—is involved in an 18-month effort to hold information workshops and other gatherings throughout Chicago to help parents understand the provisions of the federal law. To reach individual parents, the network is working with smaller community groups. It is doing similar work in Philadelphia.
“There’s still a lot of confusion and a lot of misinformation,” Ms. Allen said. “And there’s a real need to help people break things down into manageable bites.”
Comparable projects are under way throughout the country.
In New York City, Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of the nonprofit group Advocates for Children, has been focusing on getting parents the information they need to apply for tutoring opportunities.
A recent survey conducted by the organization showed that parents with children who were eligible for services last year—the first that supplemental services were available under the law—often didn’t receive timely information, and that the information was often not translated into the languages parents speak.
So to help parents stay on top of the latest notices about tutoring and other provisions of the law, Advocates for Children has created insideschools.org, a Web site that seeks to provide them with a better understanding of the New York City school system.
In another project, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, an advocacy group based in Washington, has received grants from two foundations—the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., and the Ford Foundation in New York City—to teach parents and community groups how to track the way districts are spending federal school improvement money and ask for data on qualified teachers. Most of the work is being conducted in California, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
“All of this is really designed to help [parents] understand the pressure points for bringing about change,” said William L. Taylor, the acting chairman of the organization.
The federal government is also paying for some outreach projects.
Early last month, the Department of Education awarded grants totaling $1.3 million to three organizations that will use the money to advise minority families about their options under the No Child Left Behind law. The Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation will focus on educating parents in Denver and Gary, Ind. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, based in Washington, will work in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. And the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, also based in Washington, will work with families in Miami, Camden, N.J., and Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in Texas.
Because those groups also support the use of publicly financed vouchers for private school tuition, the National PTA called the grants “discouraging.” PTA officials, who strongly oppose using tax dollars to send children to private schools, say they are worried the grant money could be used to advance a pro-voucher agenda.
Courtney Snowden, a lobbyist for the Chicago-based PTA, added that even if the organizations use the federal money only to promote public school choice, the grants “free up their budget to do outreach on vouchers.”
“It’s quite a bit of money, considering so many programs in No Child Left Behind have been greatly underfunded,” Ms. Snowden said.
But an official with one of the three organizations said that its support of vouchers doesn’t mean it can’t also support public school choice.
“There are excellent public schools, and parents need to understand where those schools are,” said Vanessa K. DeCarbo, the director of communications and research for Hispanic CREO. “The focus of the discussion has got to get away from the institution. It’s about our kids.”
Parent Leadership Associates, a Lexington, Ky.-based parent-training association, is advising district leaders to welcome the new options available under the law, while the group also trains parent leaders to understand the details and then communicate them to other parents.
“There are a lot of districts that went in with a lot of skepticism” about the No Child Left Behind law, said Adam Kernan-Schloss, the president of KSA-Plus Communications, an Arlington, Va.- based company that joined with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, in Lexington, last year to form Parent Leadership Associates.
“Our real niche is using parent leaders as intermediaries to get to other parents,” Mr. Kernan-Schloss said. “As parents, they have much more credibility than the most well-meaning principal.”
One of the publications that the organization has produced is called “No Child Left Behind: What’s in It for Parents?” In addition to explaining the tutoring and transfer options, the booklet, for example, also tells parents at Title I schools about the requirements that schools have a parent-involvement policy and a school-parent compact focusing on ways to improve achievement.