Going Back to School. Parents seek greater role in improving the schools. Interest boosted by debate over education issues, more `baby boom' parents

IF parental involvement in education leads to better schools -- as voluminous research on the topic has found -- then the nation's schools are experiencing a boost perhaps as important as growing education budgets and increased media attention. Throughout the country and across the political and ideological spectrum, organizations supporting parental and general public involvement in the schools report an upsurge in interest.

In many states debate over major education reforms, and carrying them out, are seen as the primary catalysts for the growing involvement.

Yet some conservative organizers say concern over morals and values being taught in school is part of the reason for the increased interest. Their critics, on the other hand, say the conservative groups are actually undermining public education by attacking it through outside organizations rather than working with teachers and administrators.

Whatever the reasons, a clear return of parents to the schools is taking place. The National Parent-Teacher Association, probably the best-known parent-school organization in the United States, has been growing for the past three years after a period of declining membership. ``We now have about 5.6 million members, making us the largest volunteer group in the country,'' says Anne Campbell, chairman of the PTA's education commission.

In Maryland, the National Committee for Citizens in Education (NCCE) reports a steady increase in the use of its national toll-free hot line. That service -- 1-800-NETWORK -- has responded to more than 6,000 calls over the past two years. Most of the callers have had specific questions on discipline problems, access for disabled students, or parent and student rights, says Nancy Berla, director of casework for the NCCE. But a growing number of parents express an interest in education reforms and how th eir children will be affected by them.

Both national and local education leaders say the spate of national education reports earlier in the decade, plus greater media focus on challenges facing the nation's education system, is a primary factor in increasing parental interest.

``In Texas we're seeing a definite toughening up of standards, and that's the kind of change that gets mom and dad's attention right away,'' says Andy Whitehouse, PTA council president in Round Rock, Texas. ``When things go wrong, that's what brings parents out of the woodwork,'' this mother of two adds.

Another reason for growing parental interest could simply be demographic: The elementary school population, whose parents have traditionally been the most likely to become involved, has begun to grow again as the children of the post-World War II ``baby-boomers'' enter school.

Also significant is a desire on the part of organizations such as the PTA to find ways of meeting the schedules of working parents and to get to the growing number of single parents, says Ms. Campbell of the PTA.

Yet if there is general agreement among education groups that parent involvement in schools is rising, and that education reform has in part fueled the increased interest, much of the consensus stops there. Organizations with widely differing ideological viewpoints are, like the public in general, focusing increasingly on the schools and public education.

Eagle Forum, for example, a national offshoot of Phyllis Schlafly's Stop ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) campaign, is concentrating its efforts on ``parental protection of pupils' rights'' as outlined in the 1978 Hatch Amendment, a federal statute that reinforces a parent's right to review instruction. The Hatch Amendment also calls for federal funds to be stripped from schools that use teaching methods employing psychology or behavior modification, or probe a child's social or political beliefs without wr itten parental consent.

Critics say the amendment is simply an excuse right-wing groups are using to harass school administrators and disrupt courses that were set up to meet parental concerns in the first place.

``I'm not sure I can call it constructive parental involvement when it entails attacking anything beyond the three R's,'' says Barbara Parker of the People for the American Way (PAW), a liberal consumer-advocacy group based in Washington. ``Too much of the attacking of public schools is from parents who turn to outside organizations like Eagle Forum, rather than working with the teachers and principals.'' This would seldom work from the conservative point of view, however, because the educators are ofte n viewed as part of the problem.

``I seriously think that the No. 1 problem [in our schools] is the use of therapy in the classroom in lieu of academics,'' says Jennifer Amo, Eagle Forum's Texas coordinator. She includes courses on sex, nuclear war, and death in her target list of classes that ``are a threat to the family and traditional values.''

Mrs. Amo admits that in many cases the schools have introduced these courses to ``fill the void'' left by uninvolved parents. But she says her organization is working to ``get parents back in control.''

She says Eagle Forum will begin setting up regional parent advisory centers. Another goal is to pass state laws on the Hatch Amendment model. ``The battle against the ERA was nothing,'' says Amo, ``compared to what the education battle is going to be. . . .''

PAW's Barbara Parker concedes, ``We haven't been as well organized as the other side.'' But she says her organization will ``continue to protect the freedom to learn and to think'' by encouraging parents to work with their schools and emphasizing to schools the importance of communicating their goals to the public.

And as that battle rages over differing views of parents' rights, millions of parents across the country will no doubt continue their involvement in the schools, not to further any favorite ideological cause, but because they believe it's in the children's best interest. As Andy Whitehouse put it in Round Rock, Texas, ``My kids have been really happy in the schools, so I feel I have a big debt to repay.''

Last of a six-part series. Other articles ran Sept. 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9.

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