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Parents Know Best: Let's Start Acting Like It

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There is a built-in elitist arrogance in K-12 education circles. The type in which the offender doesn't even know that he or she is being offensive. This arrogance is based on the "we know what's best for your child" mentality, and more often than not, this line of thinking reveals itself overtly.

Last year, the Superintendent of the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, in testifying against school choice expansion in the state said, "[they] don't know how' to make good choices for their children -- they really don't."  As demeaning as that statement was, education reformers fall into the same trap when they take the "we are here to save you from yourself" type of attitude while sweeping into town without engaging the community.

Just look at the response to the landmark parent trigger law first passed in California in 2010. This law forces school districts to change a low-performing school's leadership or convert the school to a charter school if 51 percent of the parents sign a petition demanding change. Following California's lead, three other states passed parent trigger laws, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently endorsed the concept. Parents from Compton's McKinley Elementary School were the first to use the parent trigger law. Those low-income parents simply wanted their kids to get a quality education they so rightfully deserved. From the very beginning, traditionalists in the system fought the parents who were demanding change. But since then, in response to other fledgling parent trigger efforts around the country, even so-called reformers are questioning the approach. There are articles abound challenging whether parent trigger can actually improve school districts and opinions as to whether it makes sense to give parents TOO much power.

Why is the education community so fearful of increased parental involvement? Isn't that what we say we want? The answer lies somewhere at the intersection of power and control.

Late last year, while in Alabama speaking with various political, business and community leaders about proposed charter school legislation in that state, I spent considerable time with an elected member of the state education board. After hearing me talk incessantly about the need for parental engagement and school reform, the state education board member said to me, "I'm not sure about that charter school idea or some of the other stuff, but I like the idea of getting parents more engaged and involved. Then they can then start coming to my meetings and assist with some of the other educational reform efforts we have in place."

That well-meaning statement is the consensus of many education reformers when it comes to parental involvement. They want parents involved on their terms -- in ways they can control. Just as many PTA's have historically served as surrogates of the local school district, the real fear about parent trigger, parent revolution and other emerging parent groups is that they can't be controlled. They can't be placed in a neatly potted plant box. They are demanding the right to be seen and heard. And they want to be empowered to fight for what's best for their children -- on their own terms.

Parents do know best. And we in the education world better start acting like it. Yes, there are bad parents that don't serve kids. And yes, there are neighborhoods with more apparent social problems than others. But being poor, in and of itself, doesn't mean you are a bad parent. For many educators, policymakers and reformers, parent engagement has been too much of an afterthought when they work to reform education in this country.

We need to recognize that the only way to achieve impactful and sustained school reform is through meaningful parent engagement. Engagement that leads to true parent empowerment. Parents must be empowered to select high quality school options for their children. And, if necessary, they need to be substantive participants in changing bad schools to good ones. Yes, more parental input means more responsibility, and those parents who have taken the bold step to sign their name to parent trigger petitions have come to this realization. But their activism should be celebrated, not chastised. Just as we celebrate Independence Day this week, we should also celebrate those parents who have decided to take an active role in emancipating their kids from low quality schools. Our schools will never be truly reformed without them.