Parents Finding Way Back to Schools

But increased parental involvement, such as fundraising, has spurred questions of inequity

ACROSS the country, parents are pouring back into schools, questioning what goes on in their children's classrooms and pitching in to fill vacuums created by decreased funding.

But in some cases this increased parental involvement is exacerbating the inequities of the American public education system.

Abandoning the bake sales and raffles that once funded extracurricular activities, more affluent parent organizations are putting up money to supplement programs lost to budget cuts.

``We're seeing this in a lot of different parts of the country,'' says Kathryn Whitfill, president of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA). ``Parents are becoming part of the equity problem rather than part of the equity solution.''

At Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, D.C., parents are funding an art teacher, science teacher, and nurse with more than $100,000 in donations. Meanwhile, schools in poorer areas of the city simply do without.

The National PTA discourages local PTAs from funding instructional services, Ms. Whitfill says. ``We feel that is the function of the school districts.''

In Montgomery County, Md., the school board banned parent funding for classroom instruction after a group of parents offered to pay for a math, science, and computer instructor. Such offers are unfair to parents and students in schools that cannot afford to supplement their budgets, says Paul Vance, superintendent of the Montgomery County school system.

Rhetorical support for parental involvement has always been high. Who can argue with such an American staple as the PTA? But now districts across the country are scrambling to create guidelines for parent organizations.

``When people talked about parent involvement in the past, they meant the involvement of parents who knew how to become involved and did so on their own,'' says Joyce Epstein, co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Now, she says, the emphasis is on setting up programs that are equitable.

What's required, Whitfill argues, is a broader perspective on the part of parents. ``If they would spend the time now spent on raising money for their child's own school advocating instead for universally acceptable school budgets, the energy level wouldn't have to be any different and yet the distribution level would be a lot higher,'' she says.

Ms. Epstein warns of the ``dangers of thinking that family contributions or volunteers can take the place of the budgets that are needed.''

Meanwhile, Richard Riley, from his bully pulpit as US secretary of education, is extolling the virtues of parental involvement. ``Strong families make strong schools,'' Secretary Riley says as he stumps across the country promoting a renewed family focus on education.

This fall, he launched an initiative promoting family involvement in schools, and the Department of Education put out a report documenting the link between improved student achievement and parental participation.

Encouraging parental involvement in education is one of the eight national education goals signed into law last year, and Riley is making sure the country knows this should be a priority.

``Many parents feel that their right to be involved in school policy, to be full participants in the learning process, is ignored, frustrated, and sometimes even denied,'' said Riley in a speech this fall. ``They do not feel valued.''

This is slowly beginning to change as the traditional approach to public education faces increasing challenges.

The recent push for more parental choice in public education and the threat of vouchers to fund private-school tuition have forced once-reluctant public educators to begin listening to parents' concerns. ``Conscientious administrators and educators are aware that there is a lot of change in the country,'' Whitfill says. ``So they're looking for solutions.''

Parents are often showing their collective muscle when they disagree with local officials. In Pennsylvania, a group of parents recently organized to secede from the local school district in protest of a plan to double the size of the district's high school.

And more and more angry parents are pulling their children out of public schools either to attend private schools or learn at home. Charter schools set up outside the authority of local districts and private-school voucher programs increase the threat to public schools.

Last year, a group of Brooklyn, N.Y., parents who opposed busing their children to ease overcrowding started a new public school in the neighborhood with the cooperation of the local school board.

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