The fifth anniversary of California’s parent trigger law, the ascent of national advocacy groups like MomsRising and parents posting their political views on everything from Common Core to the merits of schools vaccinations raises the question – have we reached the age of parent power?

As my own mother might say, the proof is in the pudding.

We certainly may have opened doors for parents to wield more influence in schools. The spread of parent empowerment laws like the Local Control Funding Formula support this fact. We’ve also even seen greater attempts from districts to engage parents within public schools through parent advisory boards and hiring committees.

However, setting the table for parents to get involved is one thing. Genuinely inviting them to join the dinner party is another.

Ryan J. Smith

Ryan J. Smith

Today state officials and school districts neglect to build the capacity of parents to exercise their rights. Many parent advisory boards serve as nothing more than rubber stamps for school leaders decisions. While some districts get it right, underperforming districts have no real incentive to encourage parents to hold them responsible for success. A United Way of Greater Los Angeles study conducted last year found that out of 1,000 LAUSD parents surveyed, the majority did not feel like equal partners with their school district in educating their own students.

This happens while state policymakers haphazardly turn over more power to thousands of parents underprepared to hold large districts accountable. Sure parents can serve as effective watchdogs but only in systems that genuinely encourage that type of participation.

This dilemma disproportionately affects black, brown and poor parents. Having worked with parents in communities like Watts and East Los Angeles, I’ve witnessed firsthand how schools label a well-intentioned mom advocating for her son’s education as nothing more than a nuisance. Parents in poor communities can find that their calls for more resources, more qualified teachers and less violence in schools lead to their own exclusion. Frankly the very parents left with no seats at the table are the very ones who should be seated at its head.

The recent passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) serves as a prime example of this challenge. The landmark law gives parents and families a say in how districts invest millions of dollars in funding to support English learners, foster youth, and low-income students. According to a recent Ed Trust–West report, through the LCFF process school districts saw higher levels of community engagement and proposals to implement parent engagement programs in the local control and accountability plans.

Far too often though, we documented school districts that lacked the knowledge or resolve to give parents more say in decision-making. Some of our interviews revealed an absence of adequate translated communication as well as parents receiving documents filled with undefined acronyms and jargon. School districts also tasked parents with understanding complex budgets and data without proper training and guidance. For low-income families, attending the LCFF meetings and participating on advisory boards proved tough, causing inequity in who’s providing input in spending decisions.

We did see bright spots. The San Francisco and Berkeley unified districts, along with strong partners from the community, provided parent-friendly budget documents, meetings at times where parents could attend and worked with community advocates more broadly. Also, networks of community-based organizations created seats at the table for parents, students, and community members to have a real voice in the process.

If California is serious about parents and community members holding districts accountable more must be done. School districts need more guidance from the state and parent engagement experts on how to earnestly partner with our mothers and fathers. It’s also time for the state to work together with the philanthropic community to sufficiently resource large scale parent empowerment programs. Additionally, the state should impose clear consequences when parents and community members report attempts to dissuade their contributions.

More importantly, we need to go to the experts for support. School districts should work with organizations – like CADRE in South Los Angeles, Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network – who have shown results helping parents exercise their rights. We should arm these groups with the means necessary to help parents ask the critical and important questions of school and district leaders.

Can we ask California parents to do a task that even expert educators and lawmakers have found challenging – helping poor performing schools and districts improve? If we don’t make deep investments in parent know-how we run the risk of widening achievement gaps across the state. The move toward LCFF provides the perfect opportunity to finally support meaningful relationships between districts, schools, parents, and community members. Now let’s make sure to bring California parents along in the process.

Ryan J. Smith is executive director of Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization in Oakland. He is also an Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Parent News Opinion 3 years ago3 years ago

    Message For Reporter, Mr. Ryan J. Smith, This is one of the best articles written about parent involvement I have ever read and it is too bad so few parents have opportunity to read it on EdSource, what, say 5 or ten parents max, not sure, you may wish to check the number of hits of who reads your articles. I ask you find some way to get your articles more mainstreamed and I think … Read More

    Message For Reporter, Mr. Ryan J. Smith,

    This is one of the best articles written about parent involvement I have ever read and it is too bad so few parents have opportunity to read it on EdSource, what, say 5 or ten parents max, not sure, you may wish to check the number of hits of who reads your articles. I ask you find some way to get your articles more mainstreamed and I think you could do this by e mailing all P.T.A. groups in all schools (with P.T.A. approval) to ask that the P.T.A. groups start going to Ed Source too to click on category of “PARENTS” and read your fine articles. Also, why not e mail a massive copy to all P.T.A. membership and ask the P.T.A. if you can put your articles in their newsletters too.

    I agree that when we parents drive over to eat and participate in conversation at the so called dinner table of LCAP or COMMON CORE or SCHOOL SITE COUNCIL, we speak and often nothing at all is done. We write letters and often nothing is done.

    I think many parents do not know about the U.C.P. complaint. I ask you do an indepth article on what it is and the rights of a parent to file one after they believe something important to education that should have been done was not done and after they have asked in writing for the district to do this or that to properly follow ed code or state law.

    So, I want to leave you with this thought. I think both parents and teachers (I have seen some speak publically) are tired of LCAP already because the excitement of expressing views was not acted upon by district management in some school districts in my opinion. So the exercise of the LCAP has been lacking and due to issues with authentic parent involvement not in my opinion taking place, and authentic teacher requests for change with regard ot things, well, the LCAP seems to be a sort of hoop districts hop through and in my opinion parent input is heard but perhaps often not acted upon.

    What I think is so key is monies spent. Often the LCAP did not show where the monies went till the last say 5 days of approval by the school board, so monies were just presented in general terms and the specifics of how monies are spent and where, in my opinion have been lacking.

    I think now, if we can ensure that the P.T.A. is not too political in how it acts (not sure if we can) that the P.T.A. will need to be the fulcrum of possible parent VOICE in the years to come. The P.T.A. but, if you Mr.Smith look at the new blueprint for all California Schools (released July 2015 and is 20 pages) I do not see that the P.T.A. or parents were asked to come to the dinner table and voice PARENT VOICE with regard to the 20 page blueprint. Maybe the C.D.E. just wants parents to clean the dishes and take out the trash. Can you Mr. Reporter, Mr. Ryan J. Smith, pick up the phone and speak directly to Mr. Torlakson to ask why the P.T.A. was not invited to the dinner table, and if they were, why the P.T.A. was not shown as a contributor to the new 20 page blueprint on back pages, can you please follow up on this and ask why.

    Parent News Opinion

  2. Replies

    • Parent News Opinion 3 years ago3 years ago

      Dear Ms. Urbanek, As a parent, I greatly appreciate all of the effort you did in writing that open letter County Office Of Education. I think you may find that the C.O.E.'s do not have much power in anything and often just say that they offer advice to school districts but the school districts are a local entity and blah blah blah. However, it is true that the C.O.E. do look over financial things, … Read More

      Dear Ms. Urbanek,

      As a parent, I greatly appreciate all of the effort you did in writing that open letter County Office Of Education. I think you may find that the C.O.E.’s do not have much power in anything and often just say that they offer advice to school districts but the school districts are a local entity and blah blah blah. However, it is true that the C.O.E. do look over financial things, I am a parent and do not know that much about it.

      Now, my suggestion for you and children. I think your area needs to put on the ballot a parcel tax measure to lower class sizes for grades K, 1,2,3, (not sure if you have done this). The voters often pass such parcel tax measures because they increase property values and of course many school districts do this so that all the lower classes have only 20 children in the classroom to one teacher.

      So, you have done a tremendous effort. You have. Just know often you will get only silence for all of your efforts and footwork as a parent. Just silence.

      I hope you put all your strength and efforts into (and I know this is hard to stomach) working with the Capastrono School District to get a parcel tax measure ( you can get advice from the many many school districts that have passed parcel tax measures) and you can also start a non profit to promote with flyers and things the parcel tax.

      Let us think of the children, they come first. If you did get the parcel tax approved, if you did, you might do the single most wonderful thing ever done in the history of that school district for helping children.

      You need not be friends or like the school board members, you don’t, and as tough as it is to have written your open letter, I just think the parcel tax idea is good.

  3. Don 3 years ago3 years ago

    There's been a democratic system in place for decades that gave a voice to parents (more or less depending upon the principal, the parent participation, etc.) called the school site council. Had passage of the LCAP been predicated on getting a majority of SSCs to pass it, the districts would have been much more focused on the getting the support of communities. That would have been collaboration in action. LCAP input and oversight at schools … Read More

    There’s been a democratic system in place for decades that gave a voice to parents (more or less depending upon the principal, the parent participation, etc.) called the school site council. Had passage of the LCAP been predicated on getting a majority of SSCs to pass it, the districts would have been much more focused on the getting the support of communities. That would have been collaboration in action. LCAP input and oversight at schools could have been integrated as a key resource, but I suspect that sort of collaboration was deemed too intrusive upon districts – too unwieldy. Instead, Governor Brown chose to ignore this institution for community input and come up with an entirely new and untested system. As it is now, few parents will take an interest at the district level unless LCAPs target to schools by name. But there are few if any mentions of individual schools in LCAPs from what I’ve seen. These documents are simply nothing more than another version of mission statements, that is to say, shelf ornaments.

  4. Barbara Allen 3 years ago3 years ago

    Mr. Smith clearly articulates the complications and contradictions of parental involvement in California schools. Personally, I would like to see a change in the culture of school administrations. Perhaps efforts to legislate such change is a start as it acknowledges resistance and obstruction to parents’ inclusion at the deciders’ table.

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 3 years ago3 years ago

      Yes, a “decider.” Recall it was G. W. Bush who asserted the importance of the role of the “decider” in varying events. Look how that all turned out.

  5. Don 3 years ago3 years ago

    I'm not a religious person, but God bless Ryan Smith. He was blatantly honest about the shunning of parent participation by unscrupulous school districts. And he did it without insulting anyone! I'll only add that the SFUSD LCAP outreach was primarily targeted at the low income community where they held numerous meetings. The rest of the community had few opportunities to provide input and when they did one had to sit through 2.5 hours … Read More

    I’m not a religious person, but God bless Ryan Smith. He was blatantly honest about the shunning of parent participation by unscrupulous school districts. And he did it without insulting anyone!

    I’ll only add that the SFUSD LCAP outreach was primarily targeted at the low income community where they held numerous meetings. The rest of the community had few opportunities to provide input and when they did one had to sit through 2.5 hours of SFUSD commending itself before being allowed to put post it notes on scripted topics where the input then ended. The modus operandi of the district is always to have community input constrained then strangled in its bed. Our parent advisory committee exists to promote the district line, not the parents.

    Replies

    • Dawn Urbanek 3 years ago3 years ago

      I am a parent who continues to be appalled at class sizes in the Capistrano Unified School District. Once again- without any parent in-put the District entered into a contract with CUEA which increased compensation and raised class sizes (10th straight year) to pay for that. The LCFF says that the intent of the law is to have districts work towards 24:1 in grades K- 3. So how is it possible that our District is … Read More

      I am a parent who continues to be appalled at class sizes in the Capistrano Unified School District. Once again- without any parent in-put the District entered into a contract with CUEA which increased compensation and raised class sizes (10th straight year) to pay for that.

      The LCFF says that the intent of the law is to have districts work towards 24:1 in grades K- 3. So how is it possible that our District is able to continue to increase class sizes across all grades to pay for employee compensation increases?

      AVERAGE Class sizes are now:

      Transitional K 33:1
      Kindergarten 33:1
      Grades 1- 3 32:1
      Grades 6-8 32.5:1
      Grades 9-12 34.5:1

      A mom from Ladera Ranch elementary school stood at a Board meeting and said that the District was planning to have 64 kindergarten students in one room. The argument being that the early bird: late bird and some other bird would only be together during non-academic periods.

      With average class sizes of 32- 33- 34 in all other grades, we have some classrooms with over 40 kids to a teacher.

      The bottom line is that there really is no where for parents to go to seek any audit, recourse or help. I stand at Board meetings and speak my 3 minutes- How Did the District pass a budget that changed class sizes and increased employee compensation back in June when there was no new CUEA contract that negotiated those changes? No response- just a vote to pass the budget with a positive certification

      Every month for 9 months I have stood and asked where is the new teachers contract? No response.

      Last week the Board voted to accept a tentative agreement for the current year that increased class sizes across all grades and increased teacher compensation by $4 million dollars.

      When I contacted the County Board of Education I was told they could do nothing because the District filed a “Positive” Budget- I asked how was that possible when the District did not know 92% of the costs of its budget because employee contract negotiations were not complete?

      No answer- except we can do nothing.

      When I call the State- it is the same- they have no ability to police class size because it is now a “local” issue. Meaning the intent of the LCFF is to work towards K-3 class sizes of 24:1 but if the District and its employees agree to something else there is nothing that can be done.

      Well – I would like to put everyone on public notice that there are health and safety and bathroom issues with continuing to raise class sizes to give employees whatever they want. If something happens to a single child because of the reckless disregard for the education, health and safety of the 52,000 students in CUSD all of you people in the education field in California should be held responsible.

      There is no ability for parents or the public to participate in the collective bargaining process- there is no ability for parents or the public to have any meaningful in-put into the LCAP and the only recourse a parent has is to pull their child from the public education system.

      • Parent News Opinion 3 years ago3 years ago

        Ms. Urbabek, I appreciate your efforts in your trying to help the welfare of children and not being afraid to speak out. Here are some things you may not be aware of... 1. Ed code. This is the language of county offices and the California Department of Education. Ed code. This is what can assist you in finding out if you have power as a citizen to request change. 2. U.P.C.?.. Before you file … Read More

        Ms. Urbabek,

        I appreciate your efforts in your trying to help the welfare of children and not being afraid to speak out. Here are some things you may not be aware of…

        1. Ed code. This is the language of county offices and the California Department of Education. Ed code. This is what can assist you in finding out if you have power as a citizen to request change.

        2. U.P.C.?.. Before you file this you should write the district, and do not ever expect a response unless you hand write or type that. Irequest a written response on this important matter.

        3. Allow for months of time, however once you file the UCP complaint I think the school district mus respond in say 30 days, just google UCP complaint California Ed code

        4. Join other parent groups, on this edsource site a reporter wrote of PARENT REVOLUTION and som other coalition for parents, so explore joining some groups.

        Hope you get this comment for you posted 3 months ago,

        AND CHECK OUT SOME KIND OF PARCEL TAX to drop class sizes, California is a state that can do parcel taxes many other states can’t.. Did your school district try one for lower class sizes?

        If possible , can you reporter Ryan smith e mail ms. Urbanek and just notify her more comments have recently been posted on your article

    • Parent News Opinion 3 years ago3 years ago

      Yes, I as a parent also came to experience that the LCAP got lots of post it comments and yet there was a sense that parent input was not used. Instead, the district leadership,in the end, made, in my opinion 95-98% of decisions as to where and how monies were to be spent. It was such a farce, I as one parent do not believe it is worth my time to participate, and … Read More

      Yes, I as a parent also came to experience that the LCAP got lots of post it comments and yet there was a sense that parent input was not used. Instead, the district leadership,in the end, made, in my opinion 95-98% of decisions as to where and how monies were to be spent. It was such a farce, I as one parent do not believe it is worth my time to participate, and the California Department of Education, seems, in my opinion not to care.

      Such cavalier attitudes will welcome in more charter for profit schools in my opinion, so, it might be good for someone to speak to the C.D.E. and let them know that for vast parent input and teacher input, not much change in the status quo in how districts operate, and lawsuits filed in news for districts not allegedly allocating monies well to often underrepresented groups.

      I think stronger oversight is strongly needed in how all school districts expend state and federal monies to ensure equity of learning is taking place across all schools.