Can parents have too much power?

Our news & views

March 08, 2012

Parent unions are cropping up across the United States. They have vastly different goals, but all of them start with the premise that parents should have more say in what goes on in their schools and education systems.

From Education Week, by Sean Cavanagh, March 7, 2012:

Whether they’re organizing events, buttonholing legislators, or simply trading ideas and information, a growing number of “parent unions” are attempting to stake out a place in policy debates over education in states and districts, amid a crowded field of actors and advocates.

As the term implies, some of these organizations see themselves as countering the political might of teachers’ unions, though others see the labor groups as allies. Still other parents’ unions are less concerned with teacher and labor-management issues than with advancing their own tightly focused—or very broad—agendas. Those agendas include improving school gifted-and-talented programs, for instance, and closing achievement gaps between minority and white students.

…As they take a more forceful role in education debates, some parents’ unions have drawn more scrutiny, and criticism, for their work and their alliances with education advocacy organizations representing various interests and ideologies. If there is a common thread linking the parents’ organizations, though, it’s the belief that parents’ voices have been shut out of policy debates for too long.

To read the full article, click here.

People For Education Viewpoint:

The idea of parent unions raises a number of concerns:

Parents have a key role to play in their children’s education, but parent advocacy is a complicated beast.  Parents are not a single, like-minded entity (despite people’s predilection for saying things such as “parents think” or “parents want”). Parents have views across the social, political and educational spectrum, so it is hard to imagine a way that a single parent organization could ever say it represented the views of parents.

This is not only true for parent unions.  All the actively involved parents who volunteer on councils or committees in their schools or boards or provinces do incredibly important work, but can they say they “represent” – in the true sense of the word – all or most of the parents in their school or board or district?

And just as it is impossible to relegate all parents into one category, it is vital to remember that the capacity to advocate is not distributed equally among all parents. Advocacy often requires a great deal of social capital  (education, class, language skills, knowledge of educational policy) along with an ability to know how to “work the system.”

As parents it’s important to recognize that while we may know our children well, we may not be driven by the objective knowledge necessary to make decisions that will benefit all students. By the same token, those in the education system need to recognize that parents have a great deal of knowledge and insight to offer to our schools and to the system as a whole.

As with most things – it’s all about balance.  What is the right balance? How can we listen to parent voices – whether they are on school councils, involved in advocacy organizations, or just individuals with problems – but at the same time ensure that education policy is not swayed by the voices with the greatest capacity to be heard? Knowing that parents have vastly different views, what should their role be in the decision-making process about things like educational or school policy?