All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1980

Parent Power: Can It Help Public Education?

Mr. Barger is a corporate public relations executive and writer in Toledo, Ohio.

The shortcomings of the public schools have become common news fare. The typical complaints are that the schools don’t teach, students’ test scores are falling, the schools are overrun with drugs and violence, and too much money is being wasted on administration and “frills.” Moreover, public disenchantment with the schools is causing homeowners to vote down ordinary tax measures for school support.

Most of the proposed remedies include more Federal funds for education, better teacher training, and renewed emphasis on the basic skills of reading and writing. Now a new proposal is being heard. It’s a demand for “parent power” in running the schools.

“Parent power” is an idea that sounds logical and reasonable. It means that parents should have a voice in school policy decisions and perhaps should have something to say about curricula, choice of textbooks, and the hiring of teachers and administrators. This supposedly would make the people active participants in the educational process and might help cool the rising anger toward the schools. The parents, in sharing power over the schools, will have only themselves to blame if the schools “do not work.”

Unfortunately, “parent power” appears to be another bad idea that may bring more confusion to public schooling. It’s true that parents should have a strong voice in choosing their children’s education. But parents, as a group, have no more competence in running the schools than they might be expected to exhibit in running other enterprises. It makes no more sense to involve groups of parents in the management of schools than it would to include them in the management of supermarkets, auto repair garages, clothing stores, or lumberyards.

A second problem with “parent power” is that control of public education is shifting to the professional educational establishment. While members of this group may pay lip service to the concept of parent power, they really hope to bypass parents completely in choosing educational philosophy and objectives. The professional educators in the public school system want parents as compliant allies, but not as policy-makers and directors.

The Power of the Market

There is an effective way of exercising parent power, however, and that is through the market place. Since there is no real “market” in public education, one has to look at commercial enterprises to see how parents and other citizens exercise proper forms of control.

With supermarkets and other retail establishments, parents have effective power of control because they possess power of choice in making purchases. No sensible parent, as a shopper, really cares who is chosen as manager of a local supermarket or what policies are selected in running the store. Parents, as store customers, have complete confidence that the store’s management will try to provide goods and services at reasonable prices. If the store fails to do this, the customers do not solve their problem by demanding a role in the management of the store. They simply transfer their shopping to a store that they consider more satisfactory. Meanwhile, the management that failed to please them is eventually succeeded by persons who may try harder to win them back.

But imagine the chaos and confusion that might result if parents attempted to “reform” the retail establishment by joining in its management! First, there would be public meetings, often with angry declarations about the needs and rights of the people. The current managers would attempt to defend themselves and would argue that they had met most of the standards for running a business of that type. There would be demands for publicity and advertising programs, new ideas, better training of employees, and the like. Finally, committees would be appointed to “study” the store’s activities and to make further recommendations. Meanwhile, the employees of the establishment would gather their forces and vow to strike if any changes were made in their current compensation and privileges.

Under such conditions, the retail establishment would be fortunate to survive at all. Yet that’s how parents and other groups try to “reform” the public schools. There is a persistent belief that something constructive is being done when people meet to discuss issues and to demand changes in the schools. The advocates of such measures are often critical of parents who refuse to become involved in these “reform” programs. Such parents are even accused of not caring about their children or of abdicating their re sponsibilities to the oncoming generation. If they really cared, the accusation goes, they would attend school improvement meetings or work as volunteers to help in the learning process.

Supporters and Reformers

Parent groups to “reform” the schools often fall into two categories. In one category are the conciliatory people who usually support worthwhile community and church projects. The administrators and teachers easily manage to win these people over and to put them to work in various “school improvement” activities. These people will help the schools with private fund-raising campaigns, athletic programs, and special development projects. Without realizing it, they are subsidizing the public school system with labor and services that otherwise would have to be supplied by all the taxpayers.

There is another category of parents that employs abrasive, adversary tactics to “change” the schools. This group is made up of punitive, critical people who believe that other people need constant intimidation and harassment in order to do their duty. They like to “shake up the schools” and to “make demands,” using the tactics of labor organizers and radical demonstrators. As a rule, their abrasive tactics do succeed in forcing through certain changes in school policies, so they mistakenly believe that they have successfully exercised “parent power.” All they’ve done, however, is to impose their own views and values on parts of a public system, often without the consent of others who also support the schools.

It is true that good parenting includes a strong interest in children’s education. Many parents, in fact, are so critical of public education that they have transferred their children to private schools or have made special arrangements with tutors to offer what the public system fails to supply. If parents really were as unconcerned about education as they are accused of being, they would not have become so critical of public education.

But the parents who refuse to participate in “parent power” programs may have sensed that it is a futile exercise. The public education system—which really should be called the “government” education system—is not likely to become more efficient in the future, even with more funds and more groups taking an interest in its operations. In fact, parents will be very fortunate if the public school system does not slide into deeper difficulties.

Schools Are Sacred

One problem with efforts to “reform” education is that the public school has occupied a sacred niche in the national consciousness. It is the free public school, so the argument goes, that has given everybody a basic level of literacy, taught democracy and equality to our society, and brought together the various classes. The person who would dare tamper with the public school risks being labeled a “closet fascist” who would rob the ordinary person of his right to an education. It is considered wrong and antidemocratic to look upon education as a commodity or to suggest that schools should operate with the efficiency of supermarkets.

This “sacred” status of public education grows out of our feeling for our children. A defender of the public system can throw us off balance immediately by reminding us of “our children’s future” or %he right of every child to a decent chance in life.” Speaking before an educational reform group, an educator carefully explained that one “must view every child as a person of infinite value.” This immediately implies, of course, that it’s wrong even to mention such matters as cost-efficiency and limited budgets for public school systems.

This special, sacred status of the public school helps confuse parents when they’re meeting with educators and others to discuss the schools. It helps close off discussion of issues that ought to be raised. It helps perpetuate the belief that the schools really are serving society with considerable efficiency and need only more money and more public support to do the job that ought to be done. The people who run the system manage to assume the role of public benefactors while outside critics—even when they are parents—are cast as enemies of the children.

Closely related to the “sacred” status of the public school is the power of the professional educational establishment. This group now controls the public schools and makes most of the decisions about curricula, education policy, and standards. Some members of the educational establishment may call for “parent power,” but they do not want parents to exercise any real power in deciding how schools should be run. They want parents to participate in ways that will create the illusion of power. In any showdown, however, effective decision-making power always will be exercised by professional educators, not parents.

The “Professionals”

Who are the members of the professional educational establishment? The teachers are the most visible group, of course, and they have organized into powerful unions which have become influential with Congress and state legislatures. However, the professional educators also include administrators, counselors, and people who create and market teaching systems and aids. Education also supports a large group of professionals who write and publish textbooks. The group must include, too, a large number of lecturers and consultants who participate in seminars and other education-related activities. Finally, the establishment is influenced by people who want to use public education as an instrument for social change and social engineering.

Most of these groups want parents only as their allies and assistants. Professional educators tend to view parents as a somewhat conservative group that can become troublesome and must be dealt with in a tactful manner. The long-term goal of most professional educators, however, is to bypass parents by becoming independent of local voters and school boards. This can be done by centralizing all power over education at the state and Federal levels. Teachers’ unions and other professional educational groups already are making considerable progress in reaching this goal.

Still another problem is that parents are not really in agreement about the goals of public education. Since the public schools have many constituencies, it is virtually impossible to meet the demands of all groups in a society that has become badly fragmented. For example, some groups of parents may demand that the schools require specific standards for graduation from high school and admission to state colleges. Other groups of parents, however, may insist that standards are harmful to them and will demand open admission to the state schools. There is really no way that all of the parents can have “their way.”

Finally, most parents who try to improve public education will soon find themselves blocked by bureaucratic processes and political realities. Like most public institutions, the schools are bureaucracies established for specific public purposes. While it makes good political sense to portray the schools as being in everybody’s service and “owned by all of us,” the public schools would not exist at all without a great deal of coercion and compulsion. For example, taxes to support the schools are taken from everybody, whether or not they receive any direct benefit in education. Compulsory standards are established by state boards and other agencies. Students are compelled to attend the schools in most states and, increasingly, the school administrators are required to retain students in classes even when they are disruptive and rebellious. Meanwhile, the proponents of various causes campaign endlessly to make certain subjects “compulsory” in the schools. It is doubtful that groups of parents would behave differently; indeed, in some communities parents have attempted to exercise power by making their own religious and social views “compulsory” in the local schools.

Still, even if parents were united in their views and the professional establishment really sought their participation, it’s doubtful that an exercise of “parent power” would improve the schools. The professional educators may be self-aggrandizing and self- righteous, but they are at least correct in saying that schools should be run by profes sionals. As a group,.parents can only be expected to be amateur managers, and they could even make the schools less effective if they attempted to take charge of them.

How, then, should “parent power” really be exercised? What is needed is a free market in education. If such a market place existed, parents could exercise control by the power of choice. They would tend to seek out the schools that would best serve their children’s needs (as determined by the parents) and they would shun the schools that did not serve them. In other words, parents would shop for education in the same way they now shop for food: by seeking out the supermarkets that offer them the best commodities at the most attractive prices.

It is argued that this is elitist and antidemocratic. But that argument exists only because the public school has so thoroughly dominated education that other forms of educational services haven’t been tried to any great extent. However, the parochial schools have been operated with great success, and without becoming either elitist or antidemocratic. Now we are witnessing the rapid growth of evangelical Christian high schools which often enroll paying students from moderate income families. Even with public education available at no direct cost to the student, average citizens are turning from the public schools and choosing private institutions at rates which take large amounts of the family budget. One can only speculate about the types of schools that might be established if everybody had to contract for his own children’s education. Nobody really knows how this would work because it hasn’t been tried.

Parental Neglect

It also is argued that some parents would not send their children to school at all if there were no public system. Some children would be allowed to grow up illiterate. This is probably true, although the public system has not succeeded in wiping out illiteracy in the United States. The real problem, in such cases, is parental neglect, and the public school system has no special capacity for dealing with such neglect.

Another argument is that education is too important and too special to be treated as a “commodity.” A child’s education is too precious to carry an ordinary price tag. Who can place a value on the education that may help produce a future Einstein? Education, it is argued, cannot be packaged and delivered like cans of food in a supermarket.

The fact is, parents can and should judge their children’s educations by the standards of the market place. This is the efficient way to determine what types of education should be offered and how it should be delivered. In making such determinations, parents would have many things in mind, including the probable economic benefits of children’s education. A market place in education would also reward the more efficient school (and teachers) and would punish the poor schools.

What about the potentially brilliant scholar who might have been born into a poor family or into a family that is indifferent to his educational needs? One of the shortcomings of the public school system is that it sometimes mistreats or ignores the gifted child. However, society can provide for the gifted person simply by changing its views on education. Quite olden, the brilliant person is capable of acquiring his own education and does indeed obtain it without completing high school or college. The handicap, if there is any, is in not having educational credentials. This can be overcome simply by eliminating diplomas and degrees as requirements for professional work.

Another criticism of a free market in education is that it would tend to become largely vocational. Most parents would simply educate their children for trades and careers. The traditional courses in history, languages, and social sciences would be largely neglected. Moreover, this vocational education would become obsolete in a few years and students would be left with nothing.

Nobody can really know what kinds of education parents would select if they had to choose it and also to pay directly for it. However, parents already spend money for training and education that have nothing to do with vocational programs. For example, many parents send their children to private music and art classes without expecting them to become professional musicians or commercial artists. Parents do have considerable interest in helping their children obtain what is called a “well-rounded” education.

Some people have argued that a “voucher” system would help create a market in education. Under this system, families would receive vouchers for educational services which could be used at any accredited school. Milton Friedman, a staunch supporter of voucher programs, believes that this system would help improve public education and that both parents and students would shun the poor schools or the ones that could not maintain order.

A voucher method might be slightly better than the present system of supporting schools. It is not, however, a “free market” approach to education. It is still a form of government education, with the student receiving the subsidy rather than the tax money being sent directly to the school. Government and political factions would still use it to control the schools and to impose their own standards on “accredited” institutions. The voucher system also has the drawback of being a “third party” payment. The student or his family can “spend” the voucher only for education and do not necessarily “value” it to any great extent. But the family that directly spends its own income for education is showing considerable value preference.

There is currently no widespread movement to give parents more power over the schools by releasing education to the free market. But a quiet revolution appears to be taking place in the attitude of the public toward education. In the past 15 years, private and parochial secondary schools have been gaining ground steadily, while many public school systems that were once considered exemplary have become troubled and ineffective. The growth of the private secondary schools is astonishing in view of the fact that students have the option of attending public schools without paying tuition. It’s as if the government built free cars for everybody and still lost business to private producers who charged full market prices. This growth of private education must be embarrassing to the public educational system, and it is certain to raise future suggestions about the feasibility of a private system for everybody.

When that time comes, “parent power” may become more effective in controlling education. Right now, it does keep supermarket operators on their toes without requiring parents to become supermarket managers in the process!

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.