Parents and Public Schools

Tensions were running high during the public comment period of a school board meeting.  A parent was addressing the Board. “I expect when I send my son to school, when I put him on the school bus in the morning, that he returns home at the end of the day in exactly the same condition – not a hair on his head hurt!” The parent was pleading for more safety measures. He was yelling at us, so great was his fear.

This was in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, during my tenure on the Guilderland School Board, a suburb of Albany, New York. Speculation that terrorists might hit ‘soft’ targets like schools was in the news and Columbine had happened less than 18 months prior.  We had, in fact, taken steps to secure our buildings and were reviewing procedures and options for cameras, to see if more should be done. As always budgets were tight.  It was a fraught time.

I had two children in district schools at the time. As much as I sympathized with the parent’s fears, I thought his demands were impossible to meet. We could not guarantee the kind of safety he was looking for, no matter what we did. Children fall on the playground. They get into tussles with their peers – never mind guarding against a determined gunman. If we are lucky children will come home from school with some minor bumps and bruises – either the physical or emotional kind. I knew we could do more to protect children from intruders and from fellow students who might turn to violence – prior to these tragedies school doors weren’t even locked in our district. No one wore I.D. We could pay more attention to student mental health. There were lots of steps to take, but the essential truth was, and still is, that there are limits to what can be done. We can only protect our children so much.

I was reminded of that challenging time when I read a quote last week from a school board candidate in my district who was running under the banner of parental control. Elections are coming up in one week. The gist of what the candidate said was that she did not accept the premise that the school system was a partner in raising her child – instilling values and guiding her child was her responsibility. She went on to say that schools should stay away from those controversial topics that strayed into morality or hot button political issues. This may seem on its face to be unrelated to the safety issue described above, but I believe there is a common thread that connects them.

Both reflect the desire for parental control. We want our children to be safe and we want to be the ones imparting values. We want to ward off undesired influence. I would argue, though, that when you send your child to public school you relinquish some of that control. Once a child boards a school bus, they are hearing all kinds of things. If you aren’t comfortable with that then home schooling or sending the child to a private school that is in accordance with your philosophy and approach is probably a better option.

I am not suggesting parents don’t have a role in public schools – they have a critical role. For one thing, parents serve on school boards. I did –  for 9 years. I wanted to represent other parents by bringing forward concerns I heard about or experienced myself. That’s the main purpose of the board: to serve as a conduit between the community and the administration, sharing information and facilitating two-way communication. As a board member, though, I was one of nine – I did not have power as an individual. I had input, but majority ruled, as it should in a democracy. It is a well-calibrated system of checks and balances. Board members, as parents themselves (though not all members are parents) or as representatives of parents, shape policy and set the big picture course for the district. Individual board members are effective to the extent that they can convince colleagues of their position.

Aside from presence on the board, parents are essential partners in the success of public school systems– from the highest level (district-wide excellence) to the achievement of individual students. Contrary to the belief of the candidate in my district, schools are also essential for the development of our children. Our children should not grow up in a vacuum. I would argue that schools should not avoid those issues. They should not purposely seek them out, but often they emerge as a natural outgrowth of innocent conversations about current events or sharing of family stories. When a child hears something that is inconsistent with lessons from home, it provides parents with a teachable moment. They can either explain how/why we differ or consider another perspective and perhaps adjust. Either way the child’s life is enriched, and the family’s bonds are strengthened. Children are capable of understanding that different rules apply in different spaces – they figure that out pretty quickly when their parents take different approaches (ask dad first?) and/or grandparents, not to mention different teachers, or behavior in a house of worship versus the playground.

One last point that is essential to understand if one advocates for ‘parental control.’ School boards operate in the context of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The pandemic, with its mask mandates, was another flashpoint for those angry with school boards. Initially boards may have been free to make their own rules, but once the federal, state or local health department stepped in, there was no choice. Railing at school board members was pointless. But, even when (or if) school boards are not constrained by those rules, think about this: Boards are faced with many parents demanding masks (or some other policy counter to your own), and masks are of limited use if they aren’t universal. It isn’t as simple as ‘you want your kid masked, so mask them.’ The effectiveness relies on widespread use. This is true in other contexts too – in most cases curriculum can’t be divided up so that groups of children in a given classroom learn different things. So, which parent voice wins? Whoever yells loudest? And what about staff risks and attitudes?

Add to that the fact that districts have their own ‘medical directors,’ a position designated by the board – a person who meets state licensing requirements who is giving guidance in just this scenario. If the medical director advises that children and staff should mask, the board shouldn’t substitute its own judgment. If they did, they would open themselves up to legal liability. In the case of non-health related issues, the board will have likely received input from other experts (educators, engineers, architects, accountants – depending on the topic). Those considerations, the well-being and wishes of the entire community, expert guidance and the legal context, weigh heavily on board member decisions – and they should.

Parental control may sound good, but in the real world it has limitations. In my experience, parents have many opportunities for input and influence in public schools. And they receive lots of information (though districts can always improve in outreach). Those parents that are not willing to accept the constraints (and in some cases even welcome them) are probably best served by home schooling or choosing a private option.