While the New York State legislature’s passage of school governance reform last January drained much of the power from the city’s elected–and often corrupt and inefficient–community school boards, political leaders promised one important sector of the community a new vehicle for wielding influence in the schoolhouse. Parents, they said, would join with teachers and administrators to serve on school-based leadership councils.
But when it came to determining what these councils might actually do, the politicians failed to put anything in writing. The reform law includes only a single clause defining who should take part on the planned governance councils–“parents and school personnel”–and mentions nothing about how they will implement their decisions. It doesn’t even say what kind of decisions they might have the authority to make.
All this was left to the office of Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to decide. And in the 12 months since the law passed, the Board of Education has angered many parent advocates, who say the process of drafting school council regulations is taking too long and has lacked grassroots input. While promises of better outreach by the board have left some activists more hopeful, many remain wary.
As the clock ticks, activists are worried that their chance to help shape the councils’ final form is slipping away. “Once the regulations are approved and the system is implemented, if it’s not a real well-defined strategic plan, then the school system is just too big [to make the councils work],” says Munir Abdul Hakim, father of two students in Coney Island’s District 21 and a member of the Community Campaign for Good Schools, a citywide coalition of parent activists and nonprofits. “This is a one-shot deal.”
At stake in the regulations Crew is drafting is the extent to which the system will encourage meaningful parent participation in school decision-making. “People don’t look at parents as educators, but we are,” says Diane Lowman of Mothers on the Move, a Hunts Point-based parents group. “Parents are the first educators.”
Many activists are fighting for parents to constitute at least 50 percent of the councils’ membership. “Too many within the system don’t want parents organized and informed,” says Ayo Harrington, president of the United Parents Associations, a citywide coalition of parent associations in the public schools, who adds that she thinks teachers and administrators are often too ready to discount the concerns of active parents.
Her concerns are rooted in experience. The city has experimented with voluntary school-based councils since 1990, and in 1994 then-State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol made councils mandatory statewide with the New Compact for Learning’s Section 100.11.
When these “100.11” councils work well, parents report a collegial atmosphere that promotes respect for the expertise the different players–parents, teachers and the principal–bring to the table. For example, when parents at the Bronx New School–an alternative school in District 10–were disappointed in third grade math scores, they urged staff to address the problem: The following year the school did appreciably better.
But under New York City Board of Education guidelines, teachers were guaranteed a majority of seats on the 100.11 councils. And parent advocates say that when school staff controls the councils, parents are often unable to get much done.
What’s more, without the rule of law behind them, the 100.11 councils usually have been ignored. “The majority of schools complied with 100.11 in a token manner,” says John C. Fager, acting executive director of the Parents Coalition, an advocacy organization. Fager says his experience on the school council of the Bronx High School of Science is all too telling. “We met six times a year for 45 minutes each in the middle of the day,” he says. “Every teacher on the council said to me, ‘This isn’t serious. If it was, we’d go on a retreat and define what we want done and set up some committees.’”
Crew’s regulations–originally scheduled to be presented to the state legislature this month, but now due in April–could possibly increase parental authority, if only because Assembly Education Committee Chair Steven Sanders and Board of Education President William Thompson support parity between parents and staff on the councils. A preliminary outline of “key principles,” drafted by Deputy Schools Chancellor Harry Spence, says there will be a “balance of school staff and parent members.”
Aside from the councils’ structure, the other big question is their degree of authority. Although some parents would like the councils to have the power to hire and fire principals and veto power over major budgetary and curriculum decisions, most campaign participants just want principals to be more accountable and have a greater stake in collaborating with parents.
“What makes the principal want to get involved and share decisions if he’s not going to be held accountable for it, if there aren’t going to be any repercussions?” asks Carleton Gordon, a freshman member of Community School Board 13 in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood.
Beginning last spring, Deputy Chancellor Spence and other officials held a series of meetings with representatives from the Community Campaign for Good Schools, which insisted parents be included in the planning process for Crew’s proposed regulations. The group was consulted on a draft outline, and Spence promised the board would seek broad parent participation in a series of community forums. But as the School Board’s original January deadline loomed, officials cut the number of planned forums from 50 down to a mere dozen.
Members of the campaign were furious. With some adept lobbying, they convinced the state to extend the Board of Education’s deadline for presenting the plan to April 30. And the board now plans to host a total of 40 forums.
Still, campaign participants say the few forums that had occurred as of mid-December were by invitation only and barely publicized. Many active parent association presidents and school board members say they were never formally notified. Dozens more forums facilitated by Brown University’s Northeast Regional Lab are scheduled for early this year. But with such poor outreach, activists fear all of them will be poorly attended and that parents who do take part will have little understanding of the issues. “They’re going to go into these meetings and not know what’s at stake,” says Lowman, who is also a member of the campaign.
In protest, the campaign held a press conference in Brooklyn outside a forum held at Midwood’s Edward R. Murrow High School in early December. Parents taped their mouths shut and carried signs that read, “Good parents should be seen and not heard.” Spence invited the protesters in, but their goal was to bring two million parents in out of the cold, not just the 30 or so assembled on that day.
Inside, Hakim reports, the meeting comprised a few official speeches and then small group sessions. “Parents were really outnumbered,” he says. “I sat in on three or four of the smaller groups, and I saw only one group where parents were giving a lot of input. They didn’t seem to know enough to engage in deep discussion about these core principles.”
“We’re doing everything we can to encourage meaningful parent involvement,” counters Ann Horowitz, Spence’s senior assistant, who adds that it’s unrealistic to expect a one-size-fits-all blueprint. “I envision now a plan that gives boundaries around how teams can form themselves. But it isn’t a cut-and-dried, step-by-step process.”
Critics say this vagueness raises the specter that the new councils will be no more effective than those created under the old “100.11” system. It’s “an excuse for schools and districts not to do a whole lot, which was the problem with 100.11 in the first place,” says Kavitha Mediratta, co-director of the Community Involvement Program at the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy.
Another question still to be determined is whether there will be adequate funding for parent training once the councils are finally up and running in October 1999, as required by law. The law requires training but is again vague on the details.
“If you’re going to do this right, it will need a lot of work. If it’s just handing out a packet and saying, ‘You’re trained,’ well, that’s not real,” says William Perkins, the newly elected City Council member from Harlem’s 9th District and Assemblyman Sander’s former assistant on education.
In the end, parents contend, it’s all about making schools better. “Once the system gets over the fear of parents having a larger role in the schools, then we can start to work together,” Hakim says. “And we’ll start to see some real improvement in the public school system.”
Jordan Moss is editor of the Norwood News, a Bronx community paper.