Ten years ago, during the debate over the historic Chicago School Reform Law, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and other parent groups fought for and won a parent majority on local school councils. PURE took this position because we believed that parents, who have the most at stake in schools, should have the greatest voice in governing them. Because of their unique commitment to their children’s education, parents are less likely than either community members or teachers to be compromised and more likely to demand and work to achieve high academic standards.Today, we know we were right. There is ample evidence that the accountability brought about by parent-majority LSCs has been a key factor in the improvements in our schools. For example:
Parent-majority LSCs have been remarkably clean in their operations. In Chicago, where the corruption quotient among elected officials is among the highest in the nation, thousands of LSC members have served without indictment, conviction or incarceration. Laugh, but please also take note.
Parent LSC members have given millions of volunteer hours to LSC work. A 1997 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that two-thirds of LSC members spent 5 to 40 or more hours a month on their duties.
Parent LSC members are the front-line troops in signaling schools’ needs for resources, assistance and intervention. Every month at the Board of Trustees meeting and every day across the city, parent LSC members take the lead in sounding the alarm about low test scores, special education abuses, lack of textbooks and appropriate staff development, overcrowded classrooms and all the other problems that hold down achievement. Often staff members bring concerns to parent members because they know parents can be counted on to take a stand for their children.
Parent LSC members have become wise to the ways of bureaucrats and more than capable of dismantling their arrogant pretensions. A parent LSC member objected to a Law Department position that her “legal rights to be present on school grounds extend only to attendance at LSC meetings.” With the help of independent LSC support groups, she overturned this attempt to allow principals to bar LSC members and parents whose demand for school accountability makes them uncomfortable.
Parent LSC members are intensely dedicated to making schools work for students. It was a parent LSC member who first stood up at a School Board meeting and stated that it was not acceptable for only 15 percent of the students in his school to meet national norms in reading. He demanded that the Board stop supporting the principal who had refused to revise a school improvement plan that had not worked and that included such expenditures as “principal’s typist.” A few months later, the Board transferred the principal in question, and set 15 percent at/above national norms as the trigger for probation.
Chicago parents are demanding the same resources for their children that suburban parents expect, and through LSCs, schools now have computers and computer instruction, art and music programs, up-to-date textbooks and staff development to support instructional methods that engage our children’s curiosity and enthusiasm.
CPS parents expect to be full partners in school improvement planning, which promotes better parent understanding of the educational goals of the school and therefore more effective parental support for student learning. Meetings where curriculum issues are discussed tend to draw more parents. After parents came out in large numbers to support a progressive math program threatened with elimination at one school, the LSC researched and analyzed the program and concluded that it was highly successful and would remain in their school improvement plan.
Do parents experience new respect from the bureaucracy because of this track record? Hardly. Past CPS administrations have been indifferent, and the current bureaucracy responds with interference, obstructionism and outright hostility. In the absence of strong, consistent direction from central office that principals work with LSCs, disrespect for local authority is all too common. School, regional, and central offices are allowed to refuse needed information and support, and even warn of repercussions at schools that turn to independent reform groups for the help denied to them from inside the system.
Without local discussion, development and interest from parents and teachers, multimillion-dollar, centrally-mandated school programs will continue to waste energy and other precious school resources.
For Chicago’s public schools to become places where all children receive a quality education, greater effort is required of our entire community. Central office administrators must learn to respect and support the authority, authenticity and accountability of parent-led school-site control. Educators across the city must contribute more fully to the public discussion about effective curriculum, instruction and assessment. Politicians must work with LSCs and parents to assure that the spirit and the letter of the School Reform Act are carried out. Business and community leaders must become more engaged in their local schools and LSC activities. Finally, we parents must work harder to encourage and support each other, to share information about education and to learn what we need to know to help all of our children succeed in school. Parents must come out in greater numbers to LSC meetings, join LSC committees and share in the work of school reform. If we work together, we will improve our children’s future.
Julie Woestehoff is executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.