by David Bloomfield
October 29, 2009
What is the appropriate role for parents in New York City’s public school system? Parents often feel intimidated or marginalized by those in charge of their children’s education. Educators (and many students!) are oppressed by parents’ disinterest and over-interest. Politicians and policymakers, forever straddling the divide, have created myriad structure for parent inclusion, leading to complaints from all sides about pandering and bureaucratization.
A major criticism of Mayor Bloomberg’s schools leadership has been his failure to consult parents regarding his education policies or to revise those policies in the wake of parent opposition. According to a recent article in Downtown Express, “Bloomberg said parents need only be involved in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades.” Beyond that, the Mayor suggested that parents could have “influence through the city councilmembers and mayor they elect.” Comptroller William Thompson released a report last May suggesting his own views on “Parent Influence on Local School Governance.”
Notwithstanding the Mayor’s remarks, a broad legally-mandated constellation of parent organizations exists to directly influence decision-making beyond the individual child. Federal law calls for extensive parent power in shaping school, district, and state Title I policies. Recent amendments to the New York State Mayoral Control statute require 32 District Community Education Councils and 3 Citywide Councils for High Schools, Special Education, and English Language Learners. The State Education Department requires School Leadership Teams and District Leadership Teams, which must include parents, to be directly involved in school-based planning and shared decision-making. A recent New York State Commissioner’s Decision held that the city’s parents were being illegally denied their mandated role in comprehensive educational planning. Chancellor’s Regulation A-660 mandates a robust system of Parent Associations, P.A. Presidents Councils, and a Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council. It is incumbent upon all administrators, from assistant principals to the Mayor himself, to respect the letter and spirit of this strong legal orientation toward parent partnership not only in pedagogical decisions regarding individual children but in school and district policy-making and implementation.
But any parent who has had a playground run-in knows that we each have different — often strongly different — views toward child rearing. So it is impossible to describe a single parent opinion regarding schools. That is one problem with the school system’s fallacious parent surveys and, just as wrong-headed, for anyone to claim representation of a single parent voice.
The conundrum of how to structure parent voices — plural — beyond the classroom is especially difficult in an urban setting because of the geographic, demographic, and numeric diversity that make our city such a vital social cauldron. As a public good, schools belong to everyone. Fundamentally, all citizens have a right to determine how their tax dollars are spent by investing their vote in elected representatives who, in turn, have sovereignty over the public weal. Parent control of school policies, perhaps a straw man invented by those inimical to a strong parent role, would thus be as exclusionary and self-defeating as would any other proposal for unelected dominance by a single, limited constituency.
That is why parent organizations such as Community Education Councils, exclusively a parent domain (students are non-voting members), can not and should not have more than an advisory role. Selected by school Parent Association officers, these volunteers simply do not adequately represent the full range of public education stakeholders, however important their informed input may be.
Further, recent legislative activity seems to pit parent against parent, weakening rather than strengthening our evolving system of parent leadership. For example, the Citywide Council on High Schools now must include representation from the Citywide Council on Special Education and the new Citywide Council on English Language Learners. But members of the CCHS (I am a past President) already include several parents whose children have special needs, are limited English proficient, or both. Are those parents to defer to the designee from those other councils? It is the responsibility of all council members to represent their entire constituency, not just their own child’s needs. Specialized representation of this sort is contrary to principles of American democracy and plays into the hands of those who would atomize rather than unite parent interests.
Finally, parent power must be wrested from the deadening grip of over-regulation. Parents are not usually lawyers and should not be forced to become experts at parliamentary procedure. Too many parent meetings become bogged down in arcane and ultimately destructive disputes about procedure rather than substance. Parents’ lack of political sovereignty should release them from undue procedural mandates. What procedural mandates exist should be read to strengthen parents’ otherwise weak voices against more powerful institutional interests rather than to set parent against parent in an embarrassing pecking frenzy over the remaining political crumbs.
This tension between unity and pluralism in parents’ role is appropriate in our complex system of school governance. Especially in New York, where most voters do not have children in the public schools, parents provide a uniquely informed constituency for everything from testing policies to school siting decisions. Parent opinion should not be assumed to be correct or even uniform, but, amid the cacophony of their multiple voices, policy makers ignore parents at their — and more importantly, students’ — peril.