United States of America - Parents as Partners in American Public Schools - A Personal Perspective from Illinois, USA

Perhaps no other country in the world has had as much experience in trying to accommodate diversity as the US. Over and over, earlier immigrants had to adjust to newcomers, and however reluctantly, allow them to enter the mainstream. We largely ignored the indigenous Indians and the blacks who had come to Virginia as slaves as early as 1619, but sporadically at least, the assimilated Americans did try to help newcomers’ children adapt to their new country. With the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on Brown vs the School Board of Topeka (Kansas) which struck down "separate but equal" schools, yet another challenge, that of integration, was added to school board responsibility.

School Boards in the US. are charged with providing and maintaining school buildings, adopting and/or modifying the curriculum’s presented by the educators, hiring a superintendent, and ultimately passing on the hiring of teachers. In addition to these stated and recognised goals, school boards are also expected to solve social problems, many of which have not been resolved by the larger society! The mix of children in the public schools varies from community to community, and within any one community can change completely over a few years. School boards struggle constantly with the issues of fairness and justice for all.

Just as there is great diversity in the school population, there is great diversity among school boards. We have no national standards. One school board usually has jurisdiction over an entire city, town, or county; or, as in our largest cities, over just one segment of the city or even over just one school. School boards may be elected or appointed, partisan or non-partisan, chosen at-large or by district. I have never hear of school board candidates having to meet more than the basic requirements for any public office; that is, they must be citizens of the US, of voting age (18). They need not be parents.

Perhaps my progress from immigrants’ child in the public schools, to parent in the Parent-Teachers Association, to member of the League of Women voters, to School Board Chair, will cast light on the variety of roles played over a lifetime, by one citizen.

Now that I am almost eighty years old, I realise that I was the fortunate recipient of the excellent educational opportunities offered to immigrant children by the Cleveland Public Schools of the 1920s and 1930s. Admittedly many student’s dropped out, sometimes because the schools failed them, but more often because they had to work to ad to the family income or because the immediate satisfaction of having money in one’s pocket outweighed the future higher pay for which education might prepare them. Today, the low-skill jobs that absorbed so many of the young people are gone.

My elementary school was in a new building which serviced two classrooms each of k-6, had a boys’ gym and a girls’ gym, an auditorium, and special rooms for art, music, science and programmes for children disabled or mentally retarded. It had a library, and a "dispensary" where we received inoculations and dental services. thus, to begin with, we had a well-designed and maintained plant.

Our Principal, Estelle B Orr, had an advanced degree from a university in Scotland. She earnestly tried to make the immigrant parents feel valued and welcome, and I remember many "international" programmes where children brought in national costumes from "the old country" and which featured representative crafts and music from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia and other homelands which made up our neighbourhood mix. We had an excellent school library staffed with a full-time trained children’s librarian and two clerks, and every class went to the library every week. We had caring teachers who stayed after school, both to monitor pupils being disciplined, and to assist those who needed extra help. Thus, in addition to a clean, sunny building, we had adequate resources and a trained staff.

Expectations for pupils were high. those who did not meet the goals were not promoted, and at the high school level, went to summer school for make-up work. Parents, too, had obligations. They were responsible for getting their children to school every day and on time.

As a child and later as a teenager, I simply assumed that every pupils in the US had access to the same kind of education, and I was well into adulthood before I realised that not only was this not universally true, but that it was not true even for every school in Cleveland! All I can say is that the public education I write about had a profound effect on me and many of my classmates, so indelible in fact, that in 1997, over one hundred of us returned to Cleveland for the 60th reunion of the 1937 graduating class from John Adams High School (a huge comprehensive city high school with 3000 enrolment).

Obviously, all this cost money! The current slogan of anti-tax groups to the effect that we cannot solve public school problems by "throwing money at them" is particularly disconcerting. We know that money cannot cure everything, but when the schools in the affluent suburbs of Chicago spend 6,000 to 10,000 per pupil and the poor rural schools in Southern Illinois less that 4,000, it should be easy to see that money certainly makes a difference. It provides decent buildings, state-of-the-art science equipment, computers, and well-stocked school libraries. It makes possible athletic programmes, orchestras, bands, dramatics departments, art classes, and many extra-curricular activities. It attracts well-prepared teachers. We all pay lip-services to the fact that democratic government depends on an educated citizenry, but today, we are very divided about how to distribute the costs.

Public Education has always had problems. Financing, teacher training, dysfunctional families and poverty, but many today are new: easy availability of drugs and guns, school vouchers, and unresolved tensions between bussing for integration and the neighbourhood school, to name a few. It is no wonder we are focusing on parents to help change things for the better. They are the ones with the largest stakes, and they are at hand.

Parental involvement, however, seems to mean many different things. Is it parents holding up to their children the importance of education for their future? Setting high standards? Providing a place for doing homework? Reading to children who cannot yet read? Taking their children to the public library? This kind of involvement grows out of a "positive attitude" toward education and it undergirds the other two. Parents who have it may go on to provide a "helping hand" volunteering time to be teachers’ aides, to work in the school library, to monitor the halls, to help with athletics, or to tutor children who need it. Further, parents may help raise "extra money". Usually limited to modest sums, it supplements school budgets to provide such items as encyclopaedias, volley balls, musical instruments, and computer programs for the neighbourhood school. All of these things, separately or in combination, are done somewhere in the US every day.

With so many mothers working outside the home, however, much of the "helping hand" and "extra money" raising has been cut back. Lack of time can be regrettable for well-off communities and devastating for poor ones. There, parents struggling to survive have neither the time nor energy to attend PTA meetings. They may not speak English. They may have so little education themselves that they cannot help their children with homework. the rest of us must take care not to dismiss them all as uncaring or irresponsible. We must also resist the urge to write them off as possible contributors to the making of school policy. In the US volunteer groups are legion and may, with no stated goals of training members to speak in public, nevertheless give their members the chance to voice concerns and gain enough confidence to appear someday before school boards. The Parent-Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Urban League, and now Hispanic and Oriental groups are among those who fill this role.

The world’s record on brotherhood is a sorry one. Even after the worst of the blood-letting was mitigated the religious faiths holding political power jealously guarded opportunities for education, work, and promotion for their own adherents. Although may sects came to America for religious freedom, they often sought it only for themselves and not for others. Americans finally decided "to separate church and state." Religious groups would be free to worship as they pleased and to set up their own church schools, but public spaces and public tax funds were not to be used for any religious purposes whatsoever. Public school boards wrestle constantly over how to interpret this broad concept. We have only to look at Catholics vs Protestants in Ireland, Jews vs Moslems in Israel, and Hindus vs Moslems in India to appreciate the mechanisms we in the US have set up to resolve difficult religious conflicts. If local negotiation does not work, we resort to the courts, surely better than bloodshed.

Parents co-operating with schools can accomplish a lot, but we must not forget the dissidents. Overthrowing the southern segregation laws would not have been possible without the courageous black parents who brought the suit Brown vs the School Board of Topeka (Kansas) which challenged those laws. Northern segregation is more subtle but often results in the same "separate but unequal" status that was once so normal in the south. It often comes from unequal distribution of funds or lack of enforcement of equity laws already on the books. Once again, we can turn to the courts for a remedy if a brave parent or someone "with standing" brings a suit.

In the US all three levels of government, federal, state, and local, have a say in what happens in our public schools. Congress and the Supreme Court deal with laws that apply nation-wide: such as desegregation, equalising treatment of girls and boys in athletic programmes, and education for disabled children. Federal funds, however, constitute only five per cent of local school budgets. The main responsibility for education has been left to the states where it is the state legislatures that write the states’ rules. With these rules local school boards must comply, and they do, albeit with grumbling, for complying usually takes money. State legislatures and local school boards fight constantly over the proportions of their contributions to school financing.

Critics of public education bemoan the slow pace of reforms, citing teachers, administrators and school boards resistance to change. Beginning with dissidents at the local level though, dissidents can and do have successes. Here in Urbana (population about 40,000) black and other poor parents have succeeded in placing on the ballot, and then passing, the method by which school board members are elected "by district" rather than "at-large". Neither system if foolproof, but "at-large" candidates often come from only one part of town, leaving several schools with no one to speak for their particular concerns. Meanwhile in our adjacent city of Champaign (about 68,000 population), black parents have for years complaining over the fact that black children were bussed to white schools for integration whereas white children were able to stay in their own neighbourhoods. The unfairness of this practice all over the US should be obvious. Had white parents set foot in some of the black and other poor schools, and experienced for themselves the peeling paint, broken toilets, inadequate heating, and such, they would surely have stormed school board meetings to demand changes! Even where buildings and staff are relatively equal all over town (as is true in Champaing), why should the inconvenience and travel time not be shared by all? Under threat of a civil rights lawsuit, the Champaign School Board hired professional consultants to devise a system of "controlled school choice." Parents may now choose their neighbourhood school or any one of the eleven elementary schools in town each of which will have a particular theme (art, music, science, etc.). If nothing else, this, at least, allows parents to make the decision between the convenience and "solidarity" of their neighbourhood school and the perceived "better quality" or "speciality" somewhere else.

We cannot overstress the importance of good and fair laws. Over time, they do change bad behaviours and where they are ignored or unenforced, their existence is the peg on which to seek redress. In East Saint Louis, Illinois (the poorest community in the state), parents still must send their children to public schools that are unsafe and inadequate. Since their local school board has allowed this to happen, black parents in 1995 (with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union), sued the State education officer in Lewis E vs Joseph A Spagnolo, citing lack of instructional materials, poor staffing, unsanitary bathrooms, and a host of other ills and asking the state to force the local school board to remedy the situation. In November 1998, the case finally reached the Illinois Supreme Court.

Finally, neither co-operating nor challenging parents are enough. Certainly in the area of school finance, they need allies to help the push! As Congress withdrew federal money and handed many responsibilities back to the states, schools found that state legislators did not want to be "the bad taxing guys" either. In Illinois, they refused to raise state income taxes to replace federal dollars withdrawn from various programmes. Instead, they diverted the state’s share of education money to cover the shortfalls, and the state’s contribution to the common schools dropped from 48% in the 1970s to about 34% in the 1990s. Local property taxes have had to pick up the slack. since Chicago and its suburbs have substantial taxable property and poor southern areas along the Ohio river very little, the funding discrepancy has widened. Years of co-ordinated lobbying by individual parents, PTAs. LWVs, Farm Bureaux, and many other groups were needed to wrest from the state legislature even a temporary solution. Because the economy is currently healthy, legislators used money from the state surplus, and from a few minor taxes to raise the floor of state aid to local schools. Again, they ducked raising the income tax which would have provided a long-range, more stable solution. School finance will surely have to be revisited.

Adequate funding for the goals we profess is a must. At various times, all taxpayers, in the name of public good, pay for roads we never use, pools we never swim in, perhaps even libraries we never enter. So each generation must pay for the education of the next, whether we have children in the schools or not. All my life I have been grateful to the generation preceding mine!

Mary Novotny Blair