Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Turnout Leads to Turnaround

There’s still some pumpkin pie left in the fridge, but the “best and worst” lists of the year already are trickling out.
The first of these I’ve seen on the education front comes from the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning think tank at Stanford University.

The group’s Top 10 education events of 2011 include “the reinvigoration of school choice via opportunity scholarships and vouchers” (good) and the Atlanta cheating scandal (bad).

I think most of us would agree that cheating — especially when it involves collusion by dozens of teachers, principals and administrators — is a bad thing. However, some of the other items on the Hoover Institution’s list are more open to debate.

On the think tank’s “good” list is the California State Board of Education’s rule that would force a public school to convert to a charter school (or undergo some other “transformational remedy”) if more than half of the school’s parents request it.

Frankly, getting that many parents to sign a petition for just about anything should be considered some sort of victory.

Often, a small — yet vocal — minority makes the decisions on behalf of parents who are either too busy, or too disengaged, to participate in the process.

A few years ago I wrote about Las Vegas’ public schools planning to adopt stricter dress codes — typically tan or navy skirts and pants, worn with solid colored collared shirts. The Clark County School District called this “standard student attire,” which is obviously a lot less scary to parents than “uniform.” (The semantics still weren’t enough of a red herring to dissuade the ACLU from challenging the policy.)

The Clark County School District’s policy required that majority of parents surveyed had to be in favor of the change. But the policy didn’t set a minimum requirement for how many surveys actually had to be returned.

At one elementary school with over 800 students, just 24 surveys were returned, with 70 percent in favor of adopting the stricter dress code. A middle school, with over 1,500 students, also switched to the stricter dress code after getting 75 surveys, with the majority in favor of the policy change.

For more on California’s “parent trigger” rules, check out a recent editorial from the Los Angeles Times (click here for the link).

According to the reporting, a Compton elementary school was the first test of the policy, and the community was soon embroiled in the “stuff of high educational drama — claims of intimidation from both sides, an intransigent school board that put parents through ridiculous hoops to verify their signatures and, eventually, legal defeat when the petition was found lacking on largely technical grounds.”

Even if the Compton test case was messy, the new policy seems to be having a positive effect in unexpected ways. The L.A. Times reports that throughout the state parents are forming advocacy groups aimed at improving their own public schools.

While it might not be as quick as pulling a trigger, that kind of engagement can lead to real reform.