Why Are "Public" Schools Closed to the Public?
Why are "public" schools closed to the public?
BY ROBERT MARANTO, Wall Street Journal, Thursday, September 16, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
LOWER MERION, Pa.--It's back-to-school time. Unfortunately, despite school report cards and mandates like No Child Left Behind, many public schools still treat parents like mushrooms: feed them guano and keep them in the dark.
This occurred to me when, like any good parent, I called the principal's office at my local public elementary school to check it out before sending my son. Alas, despite spending $20,000 per child, our school had trouble returning three phone messages left during normal business hours. On my fourth try I reached a live person, and had a brief conversation:
"Hi, I'm Bob Maranto. I'm a parent who lives in [your school's] attendance zone. My son will be old enough for kindergarten next fall. He's actually right on the edge, so he could go next fall or the following fall, and I was wondering if I could come visit the school sometime."
"We don't have any visiting this year," the administrator replied. "We're doing construction and a lot of things are going on."
"Could I watch a class in session?"
"No, even when there's no construction you could not watch a class."
"Well, could I meet my son's teacher?"
"No, the teachers are busy teaching all day and then they go home."
As we used to say when I was in government, this is customer service worthy of the Internal Revenue Service. It also corresponds to playground gossip about this school, which has test scores lower than nearby schools.
A mere five months and 22 phone calls, faxes, and e-mails later--to the superintendent, school board, principal, and various other "public servants"--I was allowed to visit my son's likely school. Someday, I hope to watch a class.
But must it be so hard? Why not open public schools to the public?
In fairness, as my local school administrators complain, parents are a pain. Some have a "gotcha" mentality, some are rude, and many try to get a special deal for their kids.
Yet parents are not the only ones to blame. Traditional public schools view parents less as partners than as ATMs. Only 4% of American education schools offer courses on working with parents. Journalist Elinor Burkett estimates that the typical principal must comply with 470,000 federal, state, and local regulations. After all that bureaucracy, principals have no energy left over to work with parents--better to distract them with bake sales.
But some public schools do better. Last year I led an accreditation visit to an Arizona charter school, Tucson's Academy of Math and Science. I slipped away from the guided tour, roaming the parking lot as school let out to question parents about how school staff treated them. Thirteen of 14 parents said their school welcomed their input. As one put it, "if you complain about something, they let you act on it to fix the problem." Parents designed the dress code and sports program, and helped evaluate teachers. Half the parents had watched classes. As one lady assured me: "it's easy--you just talk to Mrs. Shannon at the front desk, tell her which class you want to go watch, and she'll tell you which room it's in."
Why can't all public schools work like that?
After seven years of research, I'm convinced that Arizona public schools cater to parents because of school choice combined with heavy reliance on state funding rather than local property taxes. Unlike most states, Arizona has open enrollment across district lines as well as 500 charter schools--many started by teachers--so parents unhappy with one school can easily find another. In addition, state funding means that education dollars follow enrollment, so schools that alienate parents lose money--which in turn alarms school boards and makes principals unemployed.
In response to competition, particularly competition from charter schools, Arizona public schools increasingly offer Montessori options, back-to-basics programs and a wide range of other innovations to keep parents from going to other public schools and taking state dollars with them. And they do all this on budgets far less than in my state.
But until my state's politicians get their act together, parents like me will have to make a nuisance of ourselves just to see the inside of a public school--never mind influence its policies. How public is that?
Mr. Maranto teaches political science and public administration at Villanova University.
We must not build the future for our youth,
we must build our youth for our future.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt