Originally published in Forbes – November 10, 2021
When civil rights activist and education reformer Howard Fuller became Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in 1991, there were those in the establishment who cautioned him to stay away from those ‘crazy’ parents who wouldn’t stop calling, writing letters, or attending school board meetings. When his tenure ended in 1995, he told me that ignoring this advice was the smartest thing he did.
“Parents are the ones who tell it like it is,” he said. “They aren’t viewing the system through layers of bureaucracy and administration. They’ve got a front row seat – and if they are taking time out of their busy lives to tell you what’s what, you know there’s something going on that is worthy of your attention.”
During the pandemic, parents haven’t had simply a front row seat, they’ve had the chance to peek under the tent in ways they never have before – and many haven’t liked what they’ve found.
As a result, school and system leaders no longer have Howard Fuller’s choice when it comes to engaging parents, listening to their concerns, and acting on what they hear. A new era of activism and accountability is upon us – and for proof, we need look no further than the results of November’s gubernatorial election in Virginia. A state that went blue for now-President Biden and Vice President Harris went red for Glenn Youngkin, largely because he supported more parental involvement in education policy.
Here on the cusp of 2022, parents believe they have momentum on their side – and they don’t intend to squander it. Alisha Morgan, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives and spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Public School Options, recently told me that this new era of parental involvement is only just getting started. “Parents are realizing just how much power they really have,” she says. “They are thinking ‘I am the one who supports this system with my tax dollars, I am the one with the power to choose where my child goes to school, and I don’t have to settle for the status quo anymore.’”
Colleen Dippel, the Founder and CEO of Families Empowered, believes that parents aren’t just seeing themselves as consumers of education, but as customers who deserve higher levels of service than they’ve been accustomed to. “Parents want to know that schools and school systems are going to be responsive,” she says. “That means leaders are going to have to listen, communicate, and – most importantly – act on the belief that parents know their kids best and have more at stake than anyone else.”
Just what does all this mean for the administrators and policy makers who now must share the tent with the parents they serve? How can they demonstrate the kind of responsiveness and accountability that Ms. Morgan and Ms. Dippel now see as essential to their jobs?
Double down on quality and safety
School quality and safety are always top priorities – but they’ve taken on added significance as the post-pandemic normal begins to take shape. Gallup found that parents’ satisfaction with schools dropped 10 points to 72 percent in 2020– a figure that has climbed just one point to 73 percent in 2021. As brick-and-mortar students head back to in-person classrooms, data from McKinsey and Company found that the average brick-and-mortar student was five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Parents are keenly attuned to this phenomenon and want to know what schools are doing to help students catch up.
At the same time, the school safety conversation has intensified as well. Prior to the pandemic, 34 percent of parents said they feared for their child’s physical safety at school. Those anxieties around issues ranging from mass shootings to bullying still exist – and now added to the mix are concerns about COVID-19 and the policies in place to contain it. Just prior to the start of the ‘21-22 school year, one third of parents reported that they don’t feel well informed about those policies and 60 percent reported a desire for more specifics from school leaders. At the very least, those leaders must do more to ensure parents have the information they want.
Revitalize the curriculum
Parental concern during the pandemic hasn’t just been about how children are being taught; it’s about what children are being taught. Today’s parents want more time devoted to problem solving and critical thinking. They want more opportunities for collaboration and the development of soft skills. And they want more personalized content that resonates with students and encourages them to learn.
And then there is the issue of erasing content related to racism, discrimination, systemic inequities, and people’s lived experiences from curricula, which has inflamed passions on both sides of the issue. There is a case to be made that debates over Critical Race Theory helped propel Glenn Youngkin to victory in Virginia (whether those concerns are founded or not). There is also a rising majority of parents—particularly Black and Brown parents—who want to see issues of race, ethnicity, and bias more openly discussed in the classroom. Moving forward, it will be incumbent on school leaders to listen carefully to their constituents to strike a balance that works best for each system.
The Power of Choice
All of the above notwithstanding, what parents want most is the ability to choose different options for their kids when quality, safety, or the curriculum doesn’t meet their needs – and this is especially true in communities that are traditionally underserved. According to Alisha Morgan, “70 percent of Black parents favor choice – with charter schools being at the top of their wish list.” A survey from Edchoice in June 2021 found that 81 percent of Black parents support voucher programs. And a May 2021 from Stride found that 70 percent of parents overall want a post-pandemic online option.
And as more opportunities for choice are created, parents want it to be easier to take advantage of them. When it comes to charter, vouchers, and online options, Colleen Dippel sees a landscape that is littered with red tape and too difficult for many parents to navigate. “Applying to get your child into a quality school is like applying for a mortgage,” she says. “The process has to be easier – because what good is choice if the options available can’t be accessed?”
Under the tent and here to stay
I think Alisha Morgan put it best when she told me what parents are really learning about themselves during the pandemic. “The bottom line is that they saw their children do better when they got more involved,” she says. “They’ve seen the impact they can have when they do more than just check homework or attend an occasional PTA meeting – and now that they recognize just how powerful they are, there’s no going back.”
To me, that assessment is spot on. Parents are under the tent and they’re here to stay. That leaves school and system leaders with a simple choice: either channel your inner Howard Fuller or find yourself on the outside looking in.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, host of the What I Want to Know podcast, and President of Stride, Inc.