Where Are the Parent Power Activists, Senator Harkin?
Certainly, no one should think tomorrow’s hearings on the Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act will sway the direction that Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will take in the coming weeks. The real work (or damage) was done last month during the committee’s markup session on the plan. At the same time, the hearing — prompted by the delay tactics of Kentucky Republican Rand Paul — was at least supposed to be an opportunity for voices to be heard on the evisceration of No Child’s accountability provisions and whether other matters should be brought to bear in the legislation — including the importance of providing parents with the tools they need to take their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education. That many not happen either.
At this moment, the list of folks testifying before the committee tomorrow include Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, school superintendents such as Terry Grier of the Houston district in Texas, a Teach Plus fellow working in the Memphis-Shelby County district in Tennessee, and a school principal from Kentucky. But none of the grassroots players who have been at the heart of the Parent Power movement — from Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union (whose work with the State of Black CT Alliance led to the passage of the Nutmeg State’s Parent Trigger law), to former California state senator Gloria Romero (who led the passage of the nation’s first Parent Trigger law), to even Kevin Chavous of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (which has been successful in expanding charter schools and school voucher programs in states such as Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Indiana) — are on the list.
Perhaps HELP Chairman Tom Harkin and ranking Republican member Mike Enzi forgot to include these activists, as House education committee chairman John Kline did two months ago. Or they just couldn’t allot time for at least one of them to talk. Whatever the reason, Harkin and Enzi are missing an opportunity to foster a real discussion about an area in which federal education policy can help encourage and expand.
While No Child has had a family engagement component since 2001, the vehicle through which this happens — state- and district-level parent information resource centers — have been of limited success. One reason: Districts loathe meeting the required set-aside of one percent of Title 1 dollars for family engagement efforts required under the law. Another reason lies with the fact that a good number of PIRCS have not followed the strategies for engagement advocated by National PTA, the Harvard Family Research Project, and other organizations in this space.
Meanwhile other aspects of No Child that were intended to expand family engagement, Parent Power, and school choice have not worked out as plan. One provision, which requires districts to allow families to move their kids out of failing schools has long been wrecked by the intransigence of districts (which often failed to inform families of their choices in a timely manner) and the reality that most failure mills are part of districts that are failing altogether (and have few high-quality options in the first place).
The Harkin-Enzi plan does require states and school districts to develop family engagement plans and requires all those involved to follow the recommendations for family engagement developed by PTA for its National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. The plan also requires states to develop more-comprehensive school report cards, providing families more information they can use in school decisions. But Harkin-Enzi abolishes the school choice provisions instead of requiring districts and states to either issue vouchers to families so they can escape failure mills; the plan doesn’t even incorporate the smart suggestions from Richard Kahlenberg and the Century Foundation to allow for inter-district choice options. And ultimately, there is no provision in the plan that requires states to enact Parent Trigger laws that would allow families to overhaul the failure factories in their own communities, either in the form of petitions (as used in California) or through the slightly-less powerful committee format required in Connecticut.
Given the lack of real effort on this front, Harkin and Enzi could at least used the hearing as an opportunity to open up this conversation and even consider adding such provisions on the Senate floor whenever the law finally is brought before the full body. Hopefully, by the end of today, their staffs will put at least Parent Power activist on the testimony list. If it doesn’t happen, the silence of these voices will speak volumes — and not in a good way.