The Empowerment Parents Want: A Real, Effective Voice in our Children’s Education
As corporate efforts to privatize and capitalize on public education are increasingly being exposed as ineffective and damaging, the wealthy sponsors of these controversial strategies – e.g. school closings, turnarounds, charter school expansion – have been attempting to re-brand them as “parent empowerment.”
The problem is that the privateers are not paying attention to what parents actually want, or what works for children and schools.
For example, last year, Congress passed the “Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act” on a strong bipartisan vote despite the lackluster outcomes of most of the nation’s charter schools.
This year, the big push is for so-called “parent trigger” laws, which would allow parents at a low-performing school to sign a petition to trigger one of a narrow set of options – firing all or some of the staff, turning the school over to a charter operator, or closing the school.
PAA opposed the House charter expansion bill (see our position paper here) in part because of our concerns about the lack of equity, quality, parental rights, and accountability in many charter schools. Adding more charter schools just offers parents a more dizzying array of unknown and unreliable options.
Charter schools generally do not provide parents with a real voice in the school; a 2008 study of Chicago charter schools found that parents made up less than 5% of charter board members. This leaves parents with little power to effect change, and little recourse but to leave if they have concerns about the school.
The truth is, polls and surveys show that the first choice of most parents is to send their child to a high-quality neighborhood school with adequate resources. Unfortunately, the rapid expansion of the charter sector has undermined neighborhood schools, drawing resources from them and at the same time expecting them to serve our most at-risk students. The experience of many parents is that the charter school has the “choice” of enrolling or retaining their children, not the parent.
PAA also opposes the parent trigger process (see our position paper here). While the Parent Trigger allows parents to voice discontent with a school, it gives them no opportunity to choose among more positive reforms, and fails to promote research-supported best practices for parent involvement from the ground up. In addition, the process creates a huge potential for abuse, disruption and divisiveness in school communities. Parents and teachers have historic, close ties to each other; the parent trigger process pits parents against teachers and undermines home-school partnerships, which are critical to student success.
Instead of parents “firing” a school or having to shop around for their children’s education among wildly divergent charter “products,” PAA supports the kind of empowerment which involves parents authentically at the ground level and in district-, state-, and nationwide policy discussions about how to improve schools. These strategies might include smaller classes, more parent involvement, or other reforms that have been proven to work and are aligned with the individual needs of the school and its students.
The best model for the kind of meaningful, effective parent empowerment that parents actually want is the Chicago local school council.
Chicago’s local school councils – real parent empowerment
Local School Councils (LSCs) were created by the Chicago School Reform law of 1988 in response to frustration with the lack of progress and accountability in Chicago’s public schools. LSCs are duly-elected bodies at nearly every Chicago Public Schools (CPS) elementary, middle and high school. Unlike other Parents hold the most seats on the LSC, and the LSC chairperson must be a parent.
The LSC is not an advisory body – it has real decision making authority in the school including hiring the school principal, evaluating him or her every year, deciding whether or not to renew his or her contract after four years, and approving the entire school budget and annual strategic plan (called the school improvement plan). This is the strongest school site-based management system in the nation.
LSCs improve schools!
Research shows that LSCs are also a successful element of effective school reform. “The Big Picture,” a 2005 report by the research and advocacy group Designs for Change, found a correlation between 1999 and 2005 between schools with test scores trending “substantially up” and effective LSCs. 144 previously low-performing CPS elementary schools serving nearly 100,000 students, or about one-third of all CPS elementary students, began to make significant and sustained gains under LSC-powered school reform (blue top line of chart). The chart’s red bottom line represents similarly low-performing schools which were placed on probation and run by the district, not LSCs.
“Charting the Course” and other studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) have found a high level of effectiveness in local school councils.
- In 1997, CCSR found that 77% of LSCs functioned well, with only 8% experiencing “major operational problems.” Principals viewed LSC selection of principals very positively: “Their positive responses stand as a strong endorsement of this most important work of the councils.”
- In 2003, CCSR found that, of the teachers who know about LSCs, 70% said they were “really helping to make this school better,” up from 63% reported nine years earlier.
- CCSR noted that LSCs comprise “an overwhelming percentage of the minority elected public officials in Illinois.”
“Empowered Participation,” a 2004 book by Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, uses LSCs as a model of empowered deliberative participation. Fung finds that LSCs increase accountability between local officials and the communities they serve, help build social capital, and encourage low-income, minority parents to become more involved in their community. Most importantly, he found that LSCs have a positive impact on student achievement.
An October 1997 study by Designs for Change identified schools which had improved the most in reading achievement since 1990. They identified common factors in these schools, a “distinctive set of practices” which seem to have a substantial impact on improved student achievement. These practices include:
- active and effective Local School Councils
- effective school principals who involve others in decision making
- more teacher involvement in decision making
- more teacher outreach to parent
- students who feel safe in their schools
- teacher collaboration and information sharing
- teachers who trust one another
- teachers who are encouraged to innovate
- an overriding focus on improved student achievement.
Some examples of what LSCs have done in their schools include replacing principals who were not attentive to school needs, directing discretionary funds to pay for school bands and other fine arts programs, creating computer labs, fighting for repairs, renovations, additions and new schools to relieve overcrowding, implementing parent programs to increase parent involvement, and adding gifted programs.
Parent involvement not a magic bullet
Of course, Chicago’s schools continue to struggle despite the best efforts of LSCs. Veteran LSC members have long voiced frustration with interference and lack of support from the district office. Funds that used to be available for LSC training by independent groups have dried up. In probation schools, which have the most need for strong parent engagement, the district has pushed LSCs aside.
CPS schools have also struggled with years of underfunding by the state –which ranks at the bottom of states in per capita school funding – and with 15 years of mayoral control which has resulted in a near-breakdown of the system through school closings, privatization, and attacks on teachers.
PAA supports proven, common-sense education reforms that have a demonstrated track record of success, including a strong parental role in school governance. We believe that parents are empowered, and children better educated, only when parents are full partners and have an equal voice in education policy making.