Protecting the child by balancing interests

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s consternation over the political power of public-sector unions is certainly understandable, but in the arena of public education we should be careful before we disempower any group. The better option is to bring more, not fewer, voices to the table.

Madison might resurrect its progressive history by allowing parents into a decision-making process that does more than just decide a compensation package for teachers. The thousands of state workers who have descended on the Wisconsin Capitol argue that protecting their ability to bargain for their pay and benefits directly affects student achievement in the classroom. That may or may not be true, but giving parents a legitimate role is one way to make schools more responsive to the needs of families.

This is easier said than done, of course.

Among the more extreme approaches is the kind of parent-trigger law recently exercised in California. Families at McKinley Elementary School in Compton powered their way into a proceeding that has long been the province of school boards and teachers unions. In that case, the Parent Revolution serves as the other union at the table, petitioning for an overhaul so dramatic at the troubled school that a charter operator would take over.

The California Teachers Association is in revolt over the idea, as is the school district, which at one point ordered McKinley parents to take outlandish steps to verify their petitions and now wants to “clean up” the law that empowered them in the first place.

Recent comments from Ben Austin, the Parent Revolution’s executive director, have lessons for Wisconsin:

Our theory of change is not to get rid of unions. We’re progressive Democrats. But they don’t see this as about change. They see it as about power.

Another approach is to let parents vote with their feet. In Florida, that is now happening with those who traditionally have the least influence – economically disadvantaged parents. Today, more than 33,000 parents, most of whom live in near-poverty, exercised their option to choose a private school that may better suit their children’s needs.

One result is that these parents are standing up to be heard. Consider the 5,500 parents, students and educators who marched on the steps of the Florida Capitol last spring to rally for an expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Their numbers lead to a collective 122-34 vote in the Legislature — with nearly half of Democrats in support — to expand the scholarship.

This didn’t happen because a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature stripped away power from the teachers union, which remains opposed to the tax credit scholarship program. It happened because a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature recognized that an imbalance of power in public education disfavored low-income families, and they worked across the aisle to change that equation.

While Wisconsin is home to the nation’s oldest voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the state is a long way from implementing what Theodore Sizer once identified as the Poor Children’s Bill of Rights. In the late 1960s, Sizer, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explored ways to bring balance to a system skewed toward the interests of teachers unions and the states. “Equality of educational opportunity does not, in fact, exist in the United States,” he and Philip Whitten wrote in a 1968 essay for Psychology Today, proposing a sliding-scale tuition grant, based on income, that would allow a poor child to attend the school of his family’s choice. In other words, a voucher:

The plan could cause a kind of decentralization, which would promote diversity, pluralism, responsiveness to the needs of the community being served and, indeed, even greater efficiency … we favor no one’s monopoly: parents’, teachers’ or the state’s. All have rights and obligations, but all have weaknesses. Wholly parent-run schools will be too parochial and their power base shifting, as children come and go. Domination by teachers has its obvious flaws, as does “state” control, the present system. Parents, teachers and the state all have stakes in the schools, but the stakes are different. The child will be best protected if these stakes are balanced off, one against the other.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit