Parent engagement, a significant factor in a child’s education, was in the news again last week. Results of a survey conducted by EdSource
(an education research and awareness group) were released to the public last Thursday, reconfirming the validity of some long-standing, widely accepted ideas while bringing to the surface a few unspoken, somewhat uncomfortable truths.
EdSource contacted over one thousand California parents to find out how much they knew about our state’s new school funding strategy (the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF
), how satisfied they were with their children’s schools, and how interested and able they were to participate in budget decision making. The first and last of these are of particular importance at this moment in California’s public education system, since our newly revised funding and accountability structure--the very LCFF strategy EdSource contacted parents about--has deep community engagement structured directly in it. Given that this engagement is also disturbingly unspecified, parents’ awareness of and willingness to dive in are all the more important.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that most folk--over 90%--know little or nothing about LCFF, though when EdSource pollsters described the policy, most individuals felt favorably about it. In fact, according to the summarized findings, “The policy has the support of at least seven in ten parents across lines of gender, ethnicity, language, and income.” That’s quite a nice foundation of support indeed.
Because LCFF relies at least in part on communities to hold Boards of Education accountable for program goals and financial allocations to meet those goals, a follow-on finding about interest in participating in school governance is also very encouraging. After having LCFF described to them, almost 75% of survey respondents expressed a willingness to put time and effort into helping shape school funding decisions with a significant majority saying that they would actually volunteer one to three hours per week on such a task.
Intentions and aspirations to participate at such a level are a good sign, but not something that can be banked on. Although parents reported to EdSource that they were currently very engaged in their children’s education, that engagement was primarily comprised of attending teacher-parent conferences and student performances.
These are two important types of involvement, but they don’t get at the type of participation needed to influence and monitor financial decision making. In fact, only about 25% of survey respondents reported being involved in school governing bodies or school committees. EdSource also reported that levels of involvement declined with parents who reported having lower-incomes, which would appear to map to some of the top barriers to participation, namely lack of time and work schedules.
Thus, while the challenges of getting people to meetings or participating on committees are not new, they certainly do call into question how effective our existing structures will be for bringing in a sufficient number of parents from the entire community into the decision-making and assessment process.
Finding ways to involve parents despite external barriers such as inflexible work schedules will be difficult, but worth tackling. However a more significant task, and one with perhaps a more lasting impact, would be to take a serious look at the internal barriers to involvement that exist in our schools, one of the most important of which was brought to the surface in the EdSource survey. According to the summary:
“A sizable minority of parents believes that only a small group of parents are given the opportunity to participate in decision-making at their school. Nearly one-third of parents (31%) agree that “only a small group of parents are offered the opportunity to participate in school decision-making, while most are excluded.” Nearly two in five parents with income of $30,000 or less say that only a small group of parents have the opportunity to engage in decision-making (39%), while among upper-income households (those with a household income of more than $100,000) the proportion is much lower (19%).”
This is one of the “uncomfortable truths” that we should be grateful to EdSource for revealing. Those with more resources, from time to money, have by definition a greater ability to participate in the decision-making mechanisms currently in place.
Recognizing this is not an exercise in blame--parents who are volunteering on decision-making bodies right now are working hard and are doing so for the benefit of all children at a school. But LCFF is providing us an opportunity to re-examine those structures from the vantage point of representative participation.
This is a time to consider whether and to what degree all significant stakeholders in the school community are able to have a voice, and if not, as this data would suggest, collectively revamp those structures or devise new ones altogether that can broaden that engagement, and thereby deepen its impact.
The two top strategies parents cited as encouraging them to be more involved included more advanced notice of meetings, and key to the above, being sure that parent voices will be a real part of the decision making process. LCFF has a had a number of terrific stumbles coming out of the gate, but if it can spur meaningful, community-based changes at the school governance level, that will be great accomplishment in itself.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School Disrict and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.