Calling the Shots in Public Education: Parents, Politicians, and Educators Clash

Calling the Shots in Public Education: Parents, Politicians, and Educators Clash

The gap between calls for parental engagement in education and institutional realities is wide. Educators say they value parent participation, but by that they often mean a junior partner role in which parents monitor homework, make sure kids get to school on time, show up at school-sponsored events, and generally act as an extension of the teacher and school. Many parents and community advocates see themselves as more than just the supporting cast. When a neighborhood school fails to perform well on standardized tests, should it be closed, turned over to private management, or reinforced with more resources and stronger leadership? When budgets are tight, is it music and art instruction that should be scaled back, social studies, or are there other options to explore? Those who favor strong democracy over simple representative democracy argue that parents and community groups should play an active role in setting public priorities, debating public options, and negotiating policy solutions.

In muscling aside teachers’ unions and traditional school bureaucracies, the contemporary education reform movement echoed earlier ideas of parental engagement, but the results are similar. Contemporary school governance reforms may have streamlined command structures and increased choice, activating some forms of parental participation and some new actors, but these reforms often diminish avenues for parents to act collectively and to shape policies rather than simply help to implement them. Proponents of these reforms often discredit forms of school governance that include avenues for strong democracy, charging they are inefficient, rife with corruption and patronage, and marked by low student performance. Our research on the political battles over extending mayoral control in New York City shows the tactical dilemmas of pursuing a vision of strong democracy in a changing political landscape.

The New Political Grid

Mayoral control of schools is one of a series of institutional shifts that are reconfiguring relationships between the branches of government; the levels of government; and among government, markets, and the nonprofit sectors. Typically, mayoral control consists of giving mayors power to appoint some or all of the school board members who were previously elected, but in its more extreme versions, it involves broadly incorporating separate school districts into general purpose municipal government.

Contemporary reformers began to focus on mayoral control during the 1990s as a way to by-pass the iron triangle of school boards, school bureaucracies, and teachers unions that they argued were buttressing a dysfunctional status quo. During the 1990s, four major cities opted for mayoral control, instead of separately elected school boards: Boston (1992), Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), and Detroit (1999). Momentum built slowly but accelerated after the turn of the century, with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Oakland, ...

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