United States of America - Encouraging Partnerships in Education - Ohio Perspectives

The issue of active parent involvement in the education of their children has been an on-going public policy debate in America for generations. With the current majority of homes being supported by two wage earners less time is available for school activities for countless families. Athletic teams seem to be a cause that registers with families but doubtless the leisure hours when these are played, coupled with the fellowship thus engaged, assist in its support levels at the same time the single parent phenomenon that affects today’s society is an obstacle to parent participation to a great degree because of time constraints.

Educators want parents to better prepare their children for the tasks of school, respectful of the order and discipline that must take place in any learning centre, rather than have them at the school, per se. There is a limit as to how much educators really desire parents "underfoot" as it were. Many parents feel respectful of the teacher corps, suspect that teachers are better educated than they and maybe are not completely comfortable in their company. Countless educators encourage and appear elitist to a measure, thus keeping parents at a distance.

Though government programmes often insist on open houses and similar offerings for participants these events are often sparsely attended. Former Ohio Governor George V Voinovich - now a US Senator - launched the Ohio Families and Children First Initiative in an effort to define children and families as a major priority of his administration. In keeping with his interest in government reform and applying corporate management techniques to state operations he envisioned the Ohio Family and Children First Initiative as a method for reforming entrenched state bureaucracies by devolving responsibility for service co-ordination to the local level. As a predominately county-administered state Ohio has had a rich history of local government control. The initiative has received little national publicity despite its steady growth from a pilot project in a handful of counties to a state-wide effort with strong bipartisan support. In 1996, Voinovich re-energised the initiative by expanding its staffing capacity six-fold (chiefly by re-assigning existing agency employees) and successfully sponsoring legislation for a Wellness Block Grant Programme to the counties.

Parent participation, per se, was only part of this initiative but the process was valuable in identifying various means of implementing change that impacted on families. The 21st century family has challenges to its stability that earlier generations could never imagine. Who could have written a script that resembled the Clinton scandal of 1998 - no one.

Two programmes in Ohio are now being pursued: Family and School Partnership Initiative and Voinovich’s Ohio Family and Children First Initiative.

 

1.1 Family and School Partnership Initiative

When John Goff was named superintendent of public instruction in 1995 he announced that under his leadership the Department of Education would engage in an intensified effort to increase the involvement of parents and families in the education of Ohio’s children. Within this new initiative the Department’s purpose is to provide leadership, knowledge, skills, energy, and resources to a statewide family, school and community partnership initiative, ensuring that such partnerships become integral to all of Ohio’s school communities and the on-going work of the Department. Various activities have been implemented since the initiative began in August 1996.

The State Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council is comprised of persons active in their children’s education as well as representatives of several parent organisations. The Council is always available to review and comment on any activity and publication planned by the Department of Education. In order to support the work of the initiative a steering committee including a co-ordinator, one Department employee, two PTA volunteers, one person from the Ohio Parent Information and Resource Centre, and a regional family co-ordinator with Family and Children First meet regularly to plan and undertake activities outlined in the initiative plan. Steering committee members are organised to focus on one of three broad purposes - programme support, public awareness and professional preparation and in-service.

The most visible activity in the initiative to date is the creation of the Ohio Network of Partnership Schools. The Department provides planning grants to schools that join the network. As part of the network schools establish teams of parents and educators to work on a planning framework for setting goals and activities that will strengthen school-family partnerships designed to strengthen student achievement. These schools are then encouraged to submit implementation plans. Three hundred and seventy five schools have joined the network. Twenty one school districts have identified district co-ordinators who have now been trained to provide orientation to parent/teacher planning teams, thus expanding the pool of partnership trainers.

Plans are also underway to engage a professional public relations agency to develop a public awareness campaign. Preliminary thinking is that such a campaign can be focused on informing parents how they can use district and institutional information as a stepping stone for a constructive dialogue with educators.

2.1 Primary Issue

Current concerns include embedding the notion of family and school partnerships in all Ohio Department of Education (ODE) work that aims for improved student performance; providing effective tools to districts and schools that will assist them in including family partnerships as a continuous improvement strategy; deciding whether or not to limit the application process to schools with greatest rather than to any school that desires to apply (as is now the case) and deciding how the initiative will continue at end of the four year grant currently available.

3.1 Ohio Family and Children First Initiative

The Ohio Family and Children First Initiative marks a historic first. Never before have the state’s education, health and social service systems and Ohio families concentrated on achieving the shared policy goal of ensuring that all children enter school ready to learn. This partnership is critical because no single system has the resources or capacity to meet this goal alone.

Oversight of the initiative is provided by the Family and Children First Cabinet Council. Members include the state superintendent and the directors of the departments of alcohol and drug addiction services, budget and management health, human services, mental health, mental retardation and development disabilities and youth services. The governor chairs this council. This cabinet council provides statewide policy leadership, directs efforts to streamline state government operations and prioritises funding for prevention efforts.

All 88 Ohio counties have voluntarily created a Family and Children First Council. Local council membership includes family members (consumers), representatives of public agencies, schools, courts, and private providers. Each council determines a local course of action to achieve school readiness for their county’s children.

3.2 The Future of the Ohio Family and Children First Initiative

Three important constituencies have been identified and their support will be necessary for the initiative to succeed over the long term:

  1. The state associations of county commissioners, juvenile judges, health boards, alcohol and drug addictions boards and human services and child welfare directors.
  2. Advocacy groups, including child care agencies, the school nurses association, Ohio’s Children’s Defence Fund, Parents for Drug Free Schools and the United Way. Gaining the support of left-leaning advocates will be crucial to the success of a Republican-led reform initiative.

The challenges that the Ohio Family and Children First Initiative faces are certainly formidable: fostering the development of viable county councils, changing the way entrenched state bureaucracies operate, co-ordinating with welfare reform implementation and avoiding political landmines, not to mention hitting the ambitious outcome benchmarks the Governor has set.

When the US Supreme Court voted 8-1 (November 9, 1998) against intervening to stop Milwaukee’s innovative school-choice programme it was widely interpreted as the latest sign that the battle for the parental right to choose was fast gaining an almost irresistible momentum. But could this latest tactical victory for school choice signal something even bigger: the opening phases of the latest American taxpayer revolt?

Like California’s Proposition 13 (which 20 years ago brought sky-high state tax rates earthbound through the ballot initiative) many courts and legislatures are now ignoring the contempt of sneering elite’s in order to empower parents to shop for responsive schools with their feet.

Still, even in light of the impressive string of heartening developments for the school-choice movement all across the country, we advocates of this newest American civil rights struggle are taking nothing for granted. The Luddite mentality, which equates any change in the current funding system with blasphemous assaults on children themselves, has traditionally given sentinels of the status quo the ability to block all forms of change. As National Education Association President Bob Chase has said, "Education is the modern world’s temporal religion" and, through their traditional domination of the political and media debates on education, these elite’s have succeeded in painting anyone who disagreed with them as somehow unholy.

Nevertheless the door has just opened enough to permit school choice programmes such as those in Ohio and Wisconsin take root even in the most hostile environments. These states have been in the forefront of reform, either because their school system situations were worse or their governors more willing to take the withering criticism or both. In any event their trailblazing has not gone unnoticed: and counterparts in other states are now emboldened and energised by the Ohio and Wisconsin experiments.

Parental educational choice is an historical movement destined to succeed, powered by the same moral imperatives which made the civil rights movement’s success inevitable. School choice is an authentic 90’s grassroots movement which neither the courts nor the constitution can deny because school choice is an affirmative action and a civil rights issue for the new millennium.

Charles A Byrne