During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
Mobilizing Parents to Support Governance Reform
Last week, three cities pursuing portfolio strategies held elections. In Denver, voters kept a pro-reform majority on the school board. In Boston, a strong pro-reform mayoral candidate lost, but to a man who serves on a charter school board and favors continued charter expansion. In New York, the mayoralty was won by a candidate who adopted anti-reform rhetoric but in truth kept his options open.
In each of these three cities, education reforms are working; schools are markedly improving. Yet as a proxy for reform support, the vote tallies were mixed. Why is that?
Smart education leaders know that families are the indispensible constituency. If parents don’t think their schools are getting better, they won’t buy in to ongoing reforms. Reformers reason that if parents know their children are learning more and are in safer, more supportive schools, they will support the reforms they believe are working.
Yet when schools improve, parents attribute it to teachers and principals, not the governance system. When opposition groups like teachers unions try to derail progress, the pro-reform parent constituency has proven tough to mobilize decisively. Moreover, unions can use teachers’ unique influence to bring out other parents, including those who have cornered the best district resources for their children and fear change.
When it comes to the visible signs of the public’s stance on reform—how many parents wear t-shirts, carry signs, show up for a public hearing, or demonstrate in ways that will get on local TV—reform opponents have advantages. Unions in particular have been controlling school politics for a long time, and have the edge in experience, money, and organization. Even parents who are happy with reforms rarely are that vocal in saying so. Even if a large majority of parents know their children’s schools have improved, the naysayers are often louder.
Parent support, though, is still the bedrock of reform politics. Other groups—church leaders, local philanthropies, business and civic leaders, and college and university heads—are impressed by improvements in citywide student outcomes in ways that parents aren’t. But they also understand the importance of parent satisfaction. They are rightly critical when reform leaders take dramatic actions—even technically correct ones—without providing good explanations and showing parents how their children, and their community, will benefit.
Reform leaders are often tempted to shoot first and answer questions later. Even when doing so results in stronger outcomes for students, those improvements are seldom dramatic enough to stop these brusque actions from alienating parents and thus shaking other pillars of support.
In New York City and New Orleans, reform leaders learned this lesson a little late. They’ve recently done a lot more to explain actions and bring parents along, yet satisfied parents in New York were so quiet that when campaigning, Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio could safely go all-out in appealing to union members and leftist organizations. In Denver, a city where the balance of support for and opposition to reform has consistently been just a shade above 50-50, leaders have always tended a balanced coalition of families, neighborhoods, and civic leaders. Superintendents Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet before him have encouraged vocal parent and neighborhood support before taking controversial actions. They didn’t just wait for support, they campaigned for it, in part by encouraging groups that wanted new options for their children to become active.
As additional cities adopt governance reforms that will allow them to create previously infeasible schooling options, the lesson is clear: Parents alone are not enough to defend reform, but without them reform won’t get needed support from a broader civic coalition, and pro-reform candidates won’t get into (or stay in) office.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).