Thursday, September 16, 2004


One of my kids had a teacher in grade school who was obviously having personal problems that interfered with her ability to do her job. She was shouting at the kids, didn’t have any lesson plans prepared, never got around to social studies, and oozed smiles at us to our faces, while she mercilessly ‘’dissed’’ parents behind our backs.

I know this because I volunteered as the school gardener. One time she and a group of kids -- not my own, of course -- and another mother were watching me work on our school’s ‘’learning garden’’ through the classroom window. This teacher said, clearly, so as to NOT be misunderstood: ‘’There’s Mother B_itch.’’ In front of KIDS! When the kids told my daughter, and the other mother told me, I went to the principal’s office about it, expecting apologies and explanations.

Got nowhere. ‘’I’ll talk to her,’’ the principal said. Fat lot of good that did for my reputation and feelings, not to mention my daughter’s. Meanwhile, what was I there doing? Contributing lots of hours and my own money and plants, trying to help teachers like her by providing the learning garden for the kids and the beauty of flowers for a little stress relief for the teachers, too.

Sheesh. THAT went well.

I could go on and on, but no doubt you have a ‘’war story’’ like this. It’s striking how bad relations have gotten in many schools between staff and parents. I hear from parents all the time that they are merely pumped for more money but not valued -- that they are ignored and talked down to and gossiped about by the public servants entrusted with our children and paid at our expense.

In our case, after a number of other incidents and because our child was having nightmares and wetting the bed, we asked to have our child moved to the other classroom, and everything was fine after that.

But I still felt bad that the teacher ‘’got away with’’ what she had said. I chalked it up to the power of the unions and the bureaucracy being able to trump taxpayers and parents, even though we supply the two key ingredients of their jobs -- enrollment and tax dollars. Even so, they can and do ‘’diss’’ us. That’s just the way it is.

But we can change it. An idea was floated by Nebraska education leader Rick Savage Wednesday in Go Big Ed to go to total open enrollment in Nebraska public schools. The aim would be to put parents in the driver’s seat on how tax dollars should be spent in K-12 education. That sounded a lot like the mixture of charter schools and traditional public schools which is apparently working so well in Arizona. Another reader sent this story from the Opinion Journal along those lines:


No Class
Why are "public" schools closed to the public?
LOWER MERION, Pa.--It's back-to-school time. Unfortunately, despite school report cards and mandates like No Child Left Behind, many public schools still treat parents like mushrooms: feed them guano and keep them in the dark.

This occurred to me when, like any good parent, I called the principal's office at my local public elementary school to check it out before sending my son. Alas, despite spending $20,000 per child, our school had trouble returning three phone messages left during normal business hours. On my fourth try I reached a live person, and had a brief conversation:

"Hi, I'm Bob Maranto. I'm a parent who lives in [your school's] attendance zone. My son will be old enough for kindergarten next fall. He's actually right on the edge, so he could go next fall or the following fall, and I was wondering if I could come visit the school sometime."

"We don't have any visiting this year," the administrator replied. "We're doing construction and a lot of things are going on."

"Could I watch a class in session?"

"No, even when there's no construction you could not watch a class."

"Well, could I meet my son's teacher?"

"No, the teachers are busy teaching all day and then they go home."

As we used to say when I was in government, this is customer service worthy of the Internal Revenue Service. It also corresponds to playground gossip about this school, which has test scores lower than nearby schools.

A mere five months and 22 phone calls, faxes, and e-mails later--to the superintendent, school board, principal, and various other "public servants"--I was allowed to visit my son's likely school. Someday, I hope to watch a class.

But must it be so hard? Why not open public schools to the public?

In fairness, as my local school administrators complain, parents are a pain. Some have a "gotcha" mentality, some are rude, and many try to get a special deal for their kids.

Yet parents are not the only ones to blame. Traditional public schools view parents less as partners than as ATMs. Only 4% of American education schools offer courses on working with parents. Journalist Elinor Burkett estimates that the typical principal must comply with 470,000 federal, state, and local regulations. After all that bureaucracy, principals have no energy left over to work with parents--better to distract them with bake sales.

But some public schools do better. Last year I led an accreditation visit to an Arizona charter school, Tucson's Academy of Math and Science. I slipped away from the guided tour, roaming the parking lot as school let out to question parents about how school staff treated them. Thirteen of 14 parents said their school welcomed their input. As one put it, "if you complain about something, they let you act on it to fix the problem." Parents designed the dress code and sports program, and helped evaluate teachers. Half the parents had watched classes. As one lady assured me: "it's easy--you just talk to Mrs. Shannon at the front desk, tell her which class you want to go watch, and she'll tell you which room it's in."

Why can't all public schools work like that?

After seven years of research, I'm convinced that Arizona public schools cater to parents because of school choice combined with heavy reliance on state funding rather than local property taxes. Unlike most states, Arizona has open enrollment across district lines as well as 500 charter schools--many started by teachers--so parents unhappy with one school can easily find another. In addition, state funding means that education dollars follow enrollment, so schools that alienate parents lose money--which in turn alarms school boards and makes principals unemployed.

In response to competition, particularly competition from charter schools, Arizona public schools increasingly offer Montessori options, back-to-basics programs and a wide range of other innovations to keep parents from going to other public schools and taking state dollars with them. And they do all this on budgets far less than in my state.

But until my state's politicians get their act together, parents like me will have to make a nuisance of ourselves just to see the inside of a public school--never mind influence its policies. How public is that?

Mr. Maranto teaches political science and public administration at Villanova University.

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