An Valley school district feeling hard the effects of declining enrollment several years ago appointed a committee to examine the situation and make recommendations to the school board about how to deal with it.
This group of about 30 active, well-meaning people might have actually succeeded, although it’s rare to even think a committee that large can accomplish anything. But the panel’s composition contained a flaw destined to entangle it in a quagmire of finger-pointing and drawbridge-raising.
It was made up entirely of parents.
I am not a parent, but if I were one, I would have acted just as these folks from Scottsdale did: Go into the committee’s meetings hopeful about making tough choices about shifting spending, cutting costs and maybe even closing a school or two … but when push came to shove, do anything to keep my kid’s school open and untouched.
Which is why, as important as it is that they have seats at the table, active, well-meaning parents can’t be the only ones to make such weighty decisions about public schools.
Yet this is the thinking underlying Senate Bill 1204, which passed the Arizona Senate last week and is on its way to the House of Representatives.
The bill contemplates the opposite of that Scottsdale situation: It gives parents whose children are not getting a good education the sole authority to close their school, force its conversion to a charter school or have the principal fired.
SB 1204 requires the school board to take one of these three actions within 30 days of receiving a petition signed by a bare majority of parents whose children attend or feed into schools that the state has given a grade of D or F.
Should tough measures be taken regarding seriously struggling or failing schools? Absolutely. But if we have learned anything in the last decade or two about public education, it’s not merely a personal matter of filling each youngster’s head with stuff that’s nobody’s business besides his or her mom and dad’s.
Society itself — parents, of course, but also the rest of us who pay taxes and run businesses — has a real, demonstrated interest in the quality of education and how it is provided.
The 21st century will be increasingly one where success is based on more technological proficiency and a deeper understanding of the growing complexity of the relationships between people, nations, cultures and economies.
Once districts stop appointing only parents to their advisory committees, and include representatives from the taxpaying, business and other local communities, solutions with greater dimensions and reflecting compromise between competing interests is sure to result.
Yet Senate Bill 1204 is a dumb idea even if it were amended to include more stakeholders as eligible signers of those petitions. Its three options, one of which would have to be taken within a month of the signatures being filed, can well lead to problems that are just as big as those that led to the petition.
If a school closing is immediately mandated, there might not be room in any nearby schools to take its students without serious overcrowding, one of the biggest reasons students encounter trouble learning.
Conversion to charter status is no assurance that a school will succeed. Many charter schools do a wonderful job, some merely an adequate one, and some don’t do a good job at all. How does a school board make the right decision in the rushed environment this bill sets up? Because if it doesn’t, students may be in similar bad straits again.
Finally, we live in an age of too many parents whose only conversations with principals and teachers consist of their firm denials that their child’s behavior or lack of academic application has anything to do with why he or she is failing.
Principals, like teachers, take a defensive posture now, caving in to parents much too often to keep them from complaining to the superintendent and school board. Imagine a principal who might otherwise be capable of bold, effective innovation and enforcing scholastic discipline having to check the schoolyard equivalent of the Gallup Poll to see how popular he or she is with certain segments among the parents?
No one should dispute the right of parents to have a major say in public education, as their stake in it is pre-eminent. But as K-12 education for a child is a legal obligation the state places on his or her parent, all of us have a stake and a say. That’s why we elect school boards, to reflect the entire local community, to make the tough decisions based on opinions from all quarters.
It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a properly raised and educated child to someday run that village right. Senate Bill 1204 won’t help make that happen, as it limits who gets a say-so, but more importantly, reduces the options to fix what needs fixing in public schools.