Do parents really care about Kentucky’s school councils?

A major goal of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA) was getting parents more involved in their children’s schools. Towards that end, KERA required that virtually all regular schools in Kentucky had to install School-Based Decision-Making Councils (often referred to as SBDMs) no later than December 1996. These councils would take on major responsibilities for such things as curriculum development, staff selection and final allocation of finances that formerly were local school board prerogatives. Parents, elected by parents in the school, would fill some SBDM positions.

Kentucky’s SBDM governance scheme certainly created a major shift in power, but there was a catch – while parents would have a voice on the SBDMs, teachers alone would have the controlling votes. KERA stipulated that each SBDM would have a membership ratio of three teachers to two parents. Because a majority vote rules in SBDMs, this ensured real control over the schools would be in the hands of teachers, not parents. Still, it was hoped that parents would like the idea of having some voice on the SBDMs and get more involved.

In any event, as is true with many education fad ideas, the goal with SBDMs was noble, but after more than two decades of school council operations in Kentucky, reality is catching up. For a lot of reasons, questions about the efficacy of Kentucky’s SBDM system have bubbled up recently (you can read about some of those issues here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Given the original goal of increasing parent involvement in schools, I thought it would be interesting to examine some data in the Kentucky School Report Cards “Data Sets” section to get a feel for how well parents really participate in one of the SBDMs’ most important activities – the election of the parent representatives.

What I found is disturbing.

When I looked at the Kentucky Department of Education’s data for the 2016-17 school year, I found a total of 1,124 schools had data listed for both school student membership (often called enrollment by the general public) and the number of parents who voted for the SBDM parent representatives. If parents are participating enthusiastically, you would expect those numbers to agree fairly well.

To investigate that the level of agreement, I calculated the number of parent voters as a percentage of student enrollment in each school.

For example, the department’s data shows in the Hazel Green Elementary School the student membership in 2016-17 was 314 and the number of parents voting in the SBDM election was 280. That works out to a voter to student membership figure of 89.2 percent, which is really good.

However, there weren’t many cases like Hazel Green. Only 15 schools out of the 1,124 schools with data had an SBDM voter to student membership ratio of at least 50 percent. Still worse, 818 schools – 72.8 percent of all the schools – had only single-digit ratios of parents voting in the SBDM election compared to the total student enrollment – that’s all (You can check out this Excel spreadsheet covering all the schools to see more)!

This little study provides disturbing evidence that in the typical school in Kentucky the vast majority of parents don’t get involved with SBDMs very much. When almost three out of four schools have single-digit ratios of parent SBDM voting numbers compared to student enrollment, I submit that if a key purpose of SBDMs is to generate parent interest, then this school management model has failed very badly to attain that goal.

To be fair, there are limitations to this simple analysis.

For one thing, student enrollment is not equal to the total number of parents in the school. Some students still come from two-parent families (both parents can vote for the SBDM representatives in this case) and in some cases a family may have more than one child registered in a school. So, it would be unreasonable to expect really high agreement in the SBDM voter and student membership numbers.

There are also concerns about the general accuracy of the Kentucky Department of Education’s data. The numbers are self-reported by the schools. While I would expect the membership data to be fairly accurate, the parent vote data isn’t being audited and could have notable errors for some schools.

Still, the numbers in my spreadsheet look highly problematic. Simply put, the numbers in most schools are just way too low. When only about one in ten students or even less is represented in the vast majority of SBDM parent member elections, parent interest in SBDM activities in the vast majority of Kentucky’s schools is obviously problematic.

Technical Information

I started my analysis by accessing the LEARNING_ENVIRONMENT_STUDENTS-TEACHERS Excel spreadsheet for 2016-17 school year. This is found in the “Data Sets” section of the Kentucky School Report Cards web site.

I extracted two columns of information from the spreadsheet in addition to the school district and school name for each school.

The first data column in my spreadsheet is labeled “Total Student Membership,” which is listed as “MEMBERSHIP_TOTAL” in the department of education’s spreadsheet. Note: While educators use the technically correct term “Membership” for this data, most in the general public refer to this data with the less precise term “Enrollment.”

The second column of data listed in my spreadsheet is “Number of Parents/Guardians Voting in SBDM Election,” which is labeled as “SBDM_VOTE” in the department’s spreadsheet.

I eliminated all schools in the Excel spreadsheet that didn’t have councils or were missing data for parent voting.

By the way, I do advise considerable caution with some of the data in the LEARNING_ENVIRONMENT_STUDENTS-TEACHERS spreadsheet, which in general isn’t audited for accuracy. For example, another column in the spreadsheet shows the number of students whose parent/guardian had at least one teacher conference as reported by the school. Some of that conference data is probably in error because it sometimes shows a larger figure for students whose parents attended a P-T conference than the total student membership in the school. That clearly isn’t possible. On the other hand, one school reported only two P-T conferences despite the fact that the school has a membership of 406 students. That is also highly dubious.

In any event, the Kentucky Department of Education’s staff are aware of these data quality issues and seem eager to improve this in the future. However, for now it would be wise to treat some of the information as at best only approximately correct. Still, in the case of the parent voting data, the indications are so dramatic that unless there are massive errors in the vast majority of individual school reports, it is clear there is a parent interest problem with SBDMs.