Parental involvement at schools must be local

First published: February 23, 2005

Getting more parents to hold schools, trustees and politicians accountable for their children’s education is a no-brainer, but there are some strange things going on at Queen’s Park that should have everyone a bit concerned.

The Parent Voice in Education project started by Education Minister Gerard Kennedy in November involves 20 parent-leaders who are charged with looking at ways to increase parent participation in the education system at the local, regional and provincial levels. Consultations began on Feb. 15 and end today (Feb. 23), asking parents to chose one of four models: either an elected parent council, or an appointed body or a mixed group of parents, teachers, staff and trustees similar to the current school councils, and, finally, a series of town meetings held twice a year. Once the results are tallied, a series of recommendations are scheduled for presentation to the minister by the end of March.

At first glance, nothing could be nobler or more democratic than grassroots, parental involvement. But one has to wonder what is really going on.

Since 1996, every elementary and secondary school in Ontario was legislated to create school councils to provide advice and consult with principals and trustees on everything from improving student achievement to fundraising, replacing the old parent-teachers associations. There are currently 60,000 school council members and they are accountable to all parents at the local schools in each community.

The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board is quick to acknowledge the valuable role these parents play. All draft policies are circulated to school councils for input, said board spokesperson Greg Kidd. There is even a regional group, made up of individual school councils that meet regularly, too.

The board circulated the request from the ministry, but is not aware of any school councils planning to make a submission as part of the consultation. The board is not participating, since the minister’s project is focused on parents, not school boards, Kidd said.

So if these school councils were working so well on a local level, why is it necessary to create this provincial body? All that needs to be done is use the school boards to tap into the school councils. But that is far too easy and may suggest there is a lack of trust between the government and school boards.

School board chairperson Diane Lloyd said there is nothing unusual about all this since it is probably a matter of the province wanting to get direct input from parents.

This may be true. But that does not seem to be the way the Liberals like running things these days. Rather, this looks like another example of the micromanaging approach that has been taken with hospital boards and public health councils. Instead of working within existing structures, Premier Dalton McGuinty and his government like to subvert prevailing local organizations and, while parents may think they are getting more direct access, it becomes a way to control things from Queen’s Park instead of empowering the community.

If the government is truly interested in getting feedback, then ask. School boards can provide school councils with any policy questions. Or by using technology like the Internet, parents can comment directly. Better still, maybe the minister can get around to regional school council meetings more often, as is proposed in Parents Voice in Education documents. Then all the redundancy can be avoided.

If the current consultations are any indication of just how serious the government is about getting input, then rural communities and school boards should be really worried. The province chose eight cities and not one rural location.

To add to this, there was little or no publicity about the Parent Voice in Education project in any media or from any communications from school councils. This would make one think the school councils knew very little about it. And while the board may have circulated the information, it would have helped for all parents to know more. The tight time lines, only five months from start to finish, also indicates this is being rammed through rather than an example of a democratic exercise.

This failure to communicate uncovers something deeper. The board, school councils and the province should be reaching out to parents far more than they already do. Most school councils don’t send out information unless it is notification of a fundraiser. Yet, they review board policy, hold administration and trustees accountable and are the vital link.

If the province is serious about reform, maybe funding school councils to do more community outreach regarding what is going on at the schools and the board would be a worthy goal. All too often it is principals and teachers who are the only ones talking to parents. This support for school councils would be far less expensive and much more valuable than another advisory body. At the very least, the province should work to enhance the current system than to create a new one.

As for doing an end run around school boards, the province should back down now. Citizens need to be involved locally. We do not need everything centralized at Queen’s Park. In a democracy, power is meant to be with the people, not civil servants and politicians. Leave the grassroots organizations alone. We know our community and our schools here in Northumberland. If you need anything, ask. If we want anything, we’ll call you.

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