How small groups sway a large decision

School vote that affected many engaged few

Thomas Jefferson once called the American people "the safe depository of the ultimate powers of society." Our third president might have been disappointed if he had looked ahead and glimpsed the state of parental participation in US public school policy in the early years of the 21st century.

Last week, parents of students at five schools in New York City resoundingly defeated a proposal to turn the schools over to private management. But the low number of voters who ultimately decided the question suggests that even in this so-called "information age," the dialogue between parents and the education community is often ill-informed - and special-interest groups can easily manipulate a discussion.

Despite a highly public and often controversial campaign conducted by New York-based Edison Schools Inc., which hoped to take charge of the low-performing schools, only about half the parents eligible cast votes. Fifty-one percent had to vote "yes" - via e-mail, mail, phone, or in person - for the measure to pass. An absence was considered a "no" vote.

Some point out that the turnout was actually quite strong for low-income neighborhoods, where only about 3 percent voted in the 1999 school board elections. But others say the failure of so many parents to make their voices heard - even to resolve a question that was discussed heatedly in newspapers on a daily basis - is indicative of a disturbing disconnect between schools and their communities.

Charges flew that the proposal was defeated before it was ever fairly debated. Some reporters remarked on the number of parents who insisted they were against the Edison plan but admitted knowing little about the company and what it offered.

The privatization scheme was known to be a pet project of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a man widely distrusted in the minority communities Edison hoped to enter. But another type of politics appears to have entered in as well. The New York Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now quickly mobilized parental opinion against the project.

ACORN's success may be just one more example of a small but vociferous group gaining the upper hand when it comes to decisions about local schools. A recent survey by New York-based Public Agenda shows that a majority of school board members and superintendents are concerned that individuals and groups with narrow interests and particular agendas dominate school board meetings, and that parents with more-general concerns aren't sufficiently involved.

Grass-roots parent groups relying heavily on the Internet have been effective in recent years in a variety of efforts, focusing on everything from changing the way schools teach math to reforming charter-school laws.

Often, more information has meant more opportunity for manipulation, says Frederick Hess, professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Technology makes it much easier "to make noise, to be heard," he says.

Rather than seeing more parents engaged in informed debate, Professor Hess says, "Folks with strong interests continue to dominate. It's not the middle-of-the-road people with moderate opinions who are getting involved."

But concerns about the need for intelligent public debate run deeper than just an interest in well-informed parents. There is a growing need for skills that enable the public to evaluate the quality of what they read.

"There's an important role for the schools to play in improving research skills and critical thinking skills," says Kathy Christie, analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

"There's the need for a lot more training as to how to identify a credible source, and how to distinguish between what is credible and what is not."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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