Mama Says
Parent involvement critical to child’s education

by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, November 2004) Let’s make this simple. To achieve a fair formula for school funding, let’s just make all state funding of education voucher-based. Calculate how much money we can afford statewide for education, divide it by the number of school-age residents, and cut them all identical checks to cash at the private, charter or traditional public school in the district of their choice, or to spend on home schooling curricula and materials.

Sounds beautifully simple and democratic, doesn’t it? So then, what would happen if we actually did this?

I think the best-case scenario is this: the pot would be vigorously stirred for a little while, and then we’d all be able to watch while the contents settle into predictable clumps. Children from families with highly motivated parents would clump together in certain schools, while other children whose parents were less motivated would be left behind to struggle on. Again.

For decades, there has been progress — sometimes sudden and sometimes glacial in its pace — toward trying to raise and level the grade in public education. There have been gains in equalizing opportunity for boys and girls, white and black. And now we are working on the difficult problem of raising and leveling the grade between rural, urban and suburban districts. Eventually, no doubt after a long and painful struggle, we’ll make progress on this issue as well.

But even if Ohio is successful in establishing a formula for school funding that can overcome the geographic hurdle of overreliance on property taxes as well as the obstacles of inequity based on gender, race and household income, we still face another problem. How do we moderate the difference between children whose parents really care about their kids’ educational experience, and children whose parents can’t be bothered?

It’s tempting to assume that the level of parental commitment to education and the family’s financial well-being always go hand in hand. We even have the overused term “socio-economic” to link these factors together, as though they are inextricably entwined. But most people who have lived for any length of time in a diverse community like Cleveland have encountered examples of parents living at or below the poverty level, heading a household without a partner, and lacking a college or even high school diploma, who nevertheless staunchly support their children’s education. We may have also known families who appear to have all the usual ingredients for success in school, and yet somehow still lack the crucial keystone of parent involvement, without which their children are less likely to get the most from their educational opportunities.

Exceptionally strong and self-motivated children can sometimes excel in spite of a lack of parental support, particularly when a good teacher steps in to provide encouragement and mentoring. A determined school administration can beat the bushes for every resource that might fill in for support that’s lacking — for whatever reason — at home. They can serve free breakfast as well as lunch, they can mind the children before and after school, they can recruit community members to spend one-on-one time reading with a child. But even the best educators can’t fill the emotional gap left by a parent who will never attend a child’s open house or band concert, who doesn’t have the energy or motivation to drill the spelling words or check the homework, whose commitment to her child’s education ended with signing the kindergarten registration form.

When all other factors have been addressed, this inequity will remain. No correction will come from the legislature, but that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t have a societal solution. The fix will come from creative educators and involved parents who brainstorm ideas to constantly enlarge the circle of supportive families in their schools. We’ll have to reject the cliques that too often form among parents as well as students. We’ll have to multiply and diversify the opportunities for communicating and coming together parent-to-parent. And we’ll need to look past differences in culture and parenting style to focus on the common goal of bringing our kids into contact with more and more classmates who will challenge them to do their best.

I have often heard Barbara Byrd-Bennett and other educators point out — quite rightly — that the parent who does no more than get the child to school on time every day has already made an important contribution to her child’s success. Every family has its obstacles to overcome, and sometimes, it’s as much as we can do to just get them on the bus.

But every little bit more support that a parent is able to offer brings the scale into better balance, so that no child of any sort of parents does get left behind.


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