A Radical Proposal to Give Parents Control of Schools

California proposition would be biggest test yet of how much authority parents should have over budgets and curricula.

Across the political spectrum, parental involvement in schools is seen as a good thing.

But California, in keeping with its trend-setting reputation, is considering a role for parents in local schools that makes even the state's PTA blanch. Contained in a ballot initiative that goes before voters Tuesday, the measure would put parents in control of a large slice of school budgets and curricula.

For supporters it's the logical extension of a nationwide movement of the 1990s to involve parents more in education, a practice that has declined in recent decades, particularly in the inner cities. For critics, it's a good idea taken to a frightening extreme, with no proof of its effectiveness.

For all sides, it's a radical step that, if approved, would again make this state a bellwether on social policy, particularly in the field of education, as it was in 1996 when it ended race-based preferences in public education and earlier this year when voters terminated bilingual education.

THOUGH this measure lacks the racial components that made those earlier initiatives so attention-grabbing, it too is sweeping and revolutionary. "This would be an unprecedented step into the great unknown," says Bruce Fuller, co-director of the Policy Analysis for California Education, a research group funded by Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The measure to give parents new clout is contained in a ballot initiative that includes a number of fundamental changes in how the nation's largest public school system would be run. Crafted and supported by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the initiative would do things he was unable to push through the state's Democratic legislature.

The initiative (called Proposition 8), comes wrapped in a feel-good banner of making permanent cuts in class size that even critics find hard to oppose. For two years, California has been offering money to school districts that reduce class size, and this initiative would establish a permanent fund to continue that shrinkage in Grades K through 3.

But other key provisions of the initiative are vigorously opposed by the state teachers union, the state PTA, and others. Those provisions include establishing a new state inspector general for education, who would rank and evaluate all the public schools; giving principals the authority to fire teachers; requiring subject-matter competency tests for teachers; and forcing local schools to establish governing councils that would be two-thirds parents, one-third teachers.

These local councils would have power to approve budgets and curricula. But that power would not be absolute. Analysts point out that only about 30 percent to 40 percent of a school's budget is discretionary, and therefore subject to the influence of the new councils. And curricula decisions must fall within the broad outlines of the state-mandated standards.

Advocating the new councils, Governor Wilson said in a recent speech that they would ensure that parents' "concerns would always be heard and heeded."

Begging to differ, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman, says the councils are "a backwards step." There is no doubt, she says, that parental involvement helps schools. "But there is quite a leap from saying that to this style of governance."

"We already have a whole system of parental involvement," says Marianne Hudz of the California PTA, which opposes the initiative and is uncomfortable with the parent-council component.

"What's the purpose of these councils? People are already counciled out," she says, referring to existing parent councils that some schools already have in order to qualify for certain federal funds. Those councils, though, don't have the power, nor are they as widespread as envisioned in this measure.

Many critics say parent governing councils are no panacea. Though never tried on the scale proposed in California, they do exist, and opponents say there is no proof yet that they raise student performance.

A decade ago, Chicago implemented a radical decentralization plan that vested substantial new powers in parents through local councils. "They infused the system with the spirit of grass-roots democracy. It's brought more parents into the school structure," says Mr. Fuller of the Policy Analysis for California Education.

But student performance in Chicago didn't show much improvement until two years ago, according to Fuller. At that time, power over the troubled system was recentralized into a new citywide position and other reforms were initiated.

Fuller says that while councils may energize parents, they are built on an unproven premise. "Are parents any more equipped to deal with core education problems than your garden variety local school board?"

The measure is leading in the polls, though there is a large "undecided" factor that will likely only solidify in the days before Nov. 3. The powerful state teachers union has raised $6 million in an effort to defeat it.

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