Fordham Institute says “Parental engagement: A promise, not a program”
Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli is on to more than he knows with his latest Flypaper Blog item about “Parental engagement: A promise, not a program.”
First, let’s talk about parent engagement.
I learned an interesting lesson about parent engagement years ago when my older daughter matriculated at the Pennsylvania State University. My wife and I were in a parent-only session planned to discuss a number of topics such as financing. However, the session started out with a surprisingly different topic as one of the university’s staff members took a few minutes to explain the university’s equal opportunity policies to us. The staff member pointed out that while our kids would actually have to comply with these rules, Penn State research had shown in important life issue matters, children most often defer to their parents. So, if Penn State couldn’t get parents behind the policy, they were not confident their students would get with the program, either. It was an amazing, research-based example that parents really matter.
In more general terms, parent engagement in schools is critical for students. When parents are not engaged, their children often don’t engage, either. It’s no secret, and the fostering of much better parent engagement was supposedly one of the reasons why the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 created the state’s unique School Based Decision Making (SBDM) governance system. Under SBDM, much critical authority of the locally elected school boards was transferred to the new SBDM councils established in virtually all of Kentucky’s standard schools.
But, the SBDM program really was not implemented well. The law mandated that the makeup of each school council would be composed of a ratio of three teachers to just two parents, with the principal acting as the chair person and able to break a tie vote if another council member was absent. Since a simple majority vote ruled in the school councils, the law had clearly transferred power away from locally elected school boards and essentially given it to the teachers in each school.
The SBDMs turned the idea of local control on its ear. No locally-elected school board member, or their appointed school superintendent, could override the school councils in a number of major areas such as curriculum selection and the ultimate decisions about how money allocated to each school would actually be spent. The SBDM program essentially shattered the pre-existing school accountability landscape, replacing it with a fractured system where local board members lacked real authority in a number of key areas of school governance. In fact, locally-elected board members could get into real trouble if they tangled with teachers in a school about any of the things where control had been transferred. Over time a number of board members and superintendents suffered from attempting such activities.
With parents always in the minority on the school councils, it was clear to anyone who understands the concept of a majority vote ruling that parents really had NO control in their local schools. They could not appeal to their locally elected school board about many key issues, because the board no longer had any say in those areas. Parents could contact their parent council members, who were elected annually by the PTA, but those parents couldn’t get anything done unless at least one teacher went along with them. Kentucky no longer had local control, it had teacher control in schools.
And, there is stunning evidence that Kentucky’s parents fully understand all of this. That evidence is found in comparisons of student enrollment figures for each school compared to the number of parents voting for their SBDM parent members. Our spreadsheet examining “Parent Participation in School Based Decision-Making Council (SBDM) Elections in Kentucky in 2016-17,” which comes from official data in the Kentucky School Report Cards’ Learning Environment-Students/Teachers Excel spreadsheet information for “MEMBERSHIP_TOTAL” and “SBDM_VOTE,” shows that across Kentucky in that school year there were 656,588 students enrolled but only a total of 46,392 parent votes were cast in all of the school council elections across the state, a parent vote to school enrollment percentage figure of just 7.1 percent.
But, the parent voting situation looks much worse when the results for individual schools are examined.
Out of the 1,124 schools with council voting data in 2016-17, a total of 818 schools – an astonishing 72.8 percent – saw only single-digit parent voting percentages compared to the student enrollment in each school! In an equally astonishing 521 schools – 46.4 percent of all schools – the parent votes cast in SBDM council elections amounts to five percent or less of the enrollment.
Clearly, more than a quarter of a century after legislation established school councils, Kentucky’s actual parent voting experience in SBDM council elections indicates this program has failed to generate much parent interest in schools as parents overwhelmingly don’t even care to get involved with electing their two supposed representatives to the school council.
As Petrilli says, when it comes to parent involvement, it’s not programs that work. And, so far, it seems Kentucky’s SBDM councils have not kept the promise to parents, either.