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Commentary Education

Kalman Hettleman: Parental rights and wrongs in education politics

Stock.adobe.com photo by pingpao.

I strongly oppose the political views of Dan Cox, the Republican candidate for governor and an all-out Trump follower. But we agree, sort of, on one thing: the importance of parental rights in public education. We just disagree almost entirely on what those rights are and should be.

To Mr. Cox and conservative politicians across the country, parental rights is a rallying cry to use public schools as a wedge issue in national, state and local politics. It worked for them in the 2020 elections. Parents are being inflamed and school boards politicized over pandemic policies, critical race theory, gender equity, book-banning and you name it.

Mr. Cox calls his education platform “Defending Parental Rights” and highlights his “stands against CRT and gender indoctrination.” At the sole gubernatorial debate, he said the state should “end indoctrination … in the classroom.”  But these are peripheral talking points, not specific proposals for parental rights that can enhance school reform.

What, then, are the parental rights that are truly needed and widely wanted?

Here are major ones:

The parental right to economic opportunity that will increase family income. Schools matter mightily but they can’t do the job alone. The oldest lesson in school reform, since the famous Coleman Report in 1966, is that the biggest determinant of student success is not the school but the parents’ economic circumstances. Liberals are far ahead of conservatives in addressing the roots of economic and social inequality, but the nation and Maryland have a long way to go.

The parental right to adequate and equitable school funding.  As a state delegate, Mr. Cox voted against the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Even moderate Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the Blueprint (the veto was overridden by the Democratic majority in the General Assembly). The new governor and General Assembly must not only wholeheartedly support the Blueprint but strengthen some elements, which especially shortchange students who are poor and of color.

The parental right to “choice” in school options for their child. Parents want choice, which can push individual schools to raise their game. Liberals and conservatives agree on some choice policies like open enrollment and magnet schools. But liberals should also hear the cry of parents for charter schools and join conservatives in supporting them.

While conservatives are passionate about all forms of school choice, their agenda encompasses vouchers, tax credits and sweeping privatization that could undermine public schooling altogether.

The right to parent-friendly information on how their child is doing individually and how their child’s school stacks up against other schools. School systems are notoriously non-transparent. Federal and state laws require lots of information to be posted, but the data is typically too hard for parents to access or understand. Even student report cards are often partially fiction: rife with grade inflation and cover-up of “social promotion” (which occurs when students are passed from grade to grade without actually achieving grade-level standards).

Beginning with implementation of the Blueprint, Maryland officials must convey more information in a more parent-friendly way. Of note, the Maryland Association of Counties will seek, as a legislative priority, more transparency to increase “clarity and accountability in school spending.”

The parental right to meaningful engagement in their child’s education. This is the right that is closest to home, so to speak, and lends itself to practical local action. Parent and teacher associations have traditionally been the main vehicles for independent parental involvement; however, membership in the national PTA organization and state and local affiliates has shrunk by 75 percent over recent decades.

In Maryland, the PTA picture is emerging from chaos. In mid-2021, the National PTA  revoked the charter of the Maryland PTA, alleging improper fiscal management and creating a new statewide organization called Free State PTA. (My attempts to reach the old Maryland PTA group were unsuccessful.) Free State PTA is actively trying to support local district councils of PTAs (which exist in seven large school districts) and individual PTAs (which exist, it says, in about 850 of about 1,400 individual schools statewide). These efforts need to be expanded. .

Beyond PTAs, local districts generally have in place other modes of parent engagement that comply with federal mandates. These are incorporated in Maryland’s “Family Engagement Framework” and monitored by state officials.

It’s relevant too that school boards should be a channel for parent engagement. But many of these in Maryland and elsewhere have become more politically polarized.

The parental rights I’ve outlined won’t be achieved without overcoming current political divisions and distractions. Public education has always been blown here and there by shifting political winds, but these have been balmy compared to the political hurricanes now raging.

To calm the storm, we must be alert to how extremists on parental rights disrespect and interfere with teachers’ professionalism. Parents should be deeply involved in their child’s learning. They should be cheerleaders, provide emotional support, help with homework, attend parent-teacher conferences and join the PTA. But parents must stop at the classroom door and not try to dictate teaching curricula and materials, including books.

The ”silent majority” of parents who respect the boundaries must step up to the challenge. Part of the reason extremists are having such a field day is because the failure of past reforms has  dimmed expectations and decreased mainstream political action.

This is changing in Maryland as the Blueprint recharges our school reform batteries. Advocates for parental rights that really count must support the Blueprint and, in the process, not allow political opportunists to give the good cause of parental rights a bad name.