2009-06-26 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Parents And Their Schools
By William C. Thompson, Comptroller City of New York

In re your editorial ("Give School Control Back to the Professionals, Parents," June 5), The Wave could not be more on target. Parents are essential stakeholders in our public education system, and there is no group more invested in the success of our students. Yet too often in our city recently, our parents have been told to sit quietly on the sidelines as others make the critical decisions about their children's education.

Clearly, a well-run education system needs and depends upon the input, passionate commitment and insight of its parents for success. In New York City, there are three key ways for parents to become involved in education policy decisions affecting their children: through local district Community Education Councils (CECs), school-based leadership teams (SLTs) and through Parent Associations (PAs).

My office just released a report - available at www.comptroller.nyc.gov - exploring the nature and quality of parental involvement in those bodies through discussions with officers of 24 of the City's 32 CECs, members of SLTs, PAs and other parent leaders. What we found was deeply troubling.

Designed to represent elementary and middle school parents at the community school district level, CECs are effectively blocked from exercising the powers and duties given to them by the Education Law. SLTs likewise are of very limited effectiveness, while far too many schools do not even have a functioning Parent Association or Parent/Teacher Association.

At least 10 different provisions of the Education Law governing Community Education Councils currently are not being followed by the City's Department of Education (DOE). Most significantly, CECs are not consulted by Tweed before the opening, closing or reconfiguration of schools in their districts. At the same time, CECs have been largely unable to evaluate the Superintendents in their districts because the Superintendents have been reassigned to spend up to 90 percent their time working to improve achievement in schools outside of the district.

This has all occurred as a direct result of DOE decision-making. In fact, the CECs have at times needed to resort to court action to maintain parental powers codified in state law.

For instance, it took a lawsuit to prevent the DOE from eviscerating CEC authority to approve proposed changes in school zone attendance lines in Harlem and Brownsville. And the justfiled District 2 CEC lawsuit states that DOE created zones for the two new schools now under construction in lower Manhattan without seeking CEC approval or even consulting the CEC, a disturbing illustration of DOE's disregard for CECs.

Additionally, many schools across the city do not have functioning SLTs. And, with respect to parent associations, State Education Law requires that every school have a PA or a PTA, but unfortunately, the most recent data suggests that close to 18 percent of our public schools have either no parent association whatsoever, or an association with so few parent officers it cannot effectively function.

While parents have struggled to play a meaningful role in all of these bodies, the increased time spent by superintendents out of their home districts has left them unavailable to assist parents.

Understaffing at the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy has stymied its ability to fill the gap. There are at most only three Family Advocates per district, and some districts have only one. Because they report to Tweed rather than the district superintendent, their ability to resolve parent concerns is limited.

To clarify and strengthen the role and authority of parents serving on CECs, SLTs and in PAs, district superintendents should work primarily in their home districts, as the State Legislature intended and a State court has ordered. Also, State law should be amended to ensure that principals collaborate fully with SLTs to prepare comprehensive education plans and assure the SLT has complete input into the school-based budget.

We must also upgrade the training required by law for parents who serve on SLTs and CECs, and amend Education Law to ensure that CECs are notified and have ample time to advise and be consulted before significant actions are taken that affect a district school or schools.

Further, superintendents must be in charge of District Family Advocates. And, we should streamline the current structure for parent engagement, and publicly disclose basic information about which schools have functioning SLTs and parent associations, along with data regarding the performance of CECs.

Implementing these measures would go a long way toward giving parents the kind of meaningful role in the development and implementation of education policy that they deserve and to which they are largely already entitled under current law.

The Department of Education must fundamentally rethink its view of the role of parents in our city's education system and ensure that parents feel that they are welcome partners in it.

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