This was written by Arnold Fege, director of Public Engagement and Advocacy for the Public Education Network, and Edwin C. Darden, director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a nonprofit network of public interest justice centers.
By Arnold Fege and Edwin C. Darden
Like apple pie and motherhood, everyone speaks affectionately about parent involvement in public schools.
Yet despite that warm and fuzzy endorsement, more than 60 Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) will meet their demise on September 30, 2011, when federal funding is due to expire.
For 16 years PIRCs have helped low-income families, school districts and state governments nurture high-quality parent involvement programs. The PIRCs help families understand school accountability data and what it means for their children; they prepare educators to engage families in both children’s learning and school decision-making; and they support family leaders in becoming active participants in the development, implementation, and review of school improvement plans.
We aren’t losing a bureaucracy here; rather, we are enduring a real loss that will reverberate across all 50 states and several U.S. territories. What makes this cut a shame is that PIRCs demonstrate a commitment of taxpayer dollars to ensure that the home-school partnership remains strong.
The investment is not just good public relations. Decades of research prove that family involvement and academic success go hand-in-hand, especially for kids in poverty. Yet, left to their own voluntary strategies, too often states and school districts either resist meaningful partnerships with low-income parents, or fail to see parent involvement as an integral element of education change and reform.
The PIRCs have helped change that perception. They share social science journal articles, demonstrate best practices, work with parents on positive engagement strategies, marshal the resources of the state, support pre-school parents, and suggest research-based approaches to harnessing parent power as a means of raising student test scores.
Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Education made the decision not to continue funding the Parent Information and Resource Centers, after first favoring lumping PIRCs in block grant, then — over strong grassroots and congressional opposition — eliminating funding for them entirely.
We applaud President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan when they frequently talk about the home-school connection, but the Department of Education has not consistently translated their ideas into action, accountability, or policy.
Take a look at A Blueprint for Reform , the Education Department’s major statement about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most recently known as the No Child Left Behind Act; or consider Race to the Top, which has districts competing for federal dollars on school reform; or look at the Investment in Innovation grants, designed to spark new ideas locally; or, review the School Improvement Grants, which focus on “turnaround schools.”
In all of those programs, parent and family engagement is hardly mentioned, much less required. Where a few minimal requirements are set forth, they commonly feature weak accountability mechanisms, meager monitoring and little or no dedicated funding. The PIRCs were a bright spot, a way to translate the words of the bully pulpit into effective, accountable policy and on-the-ground outreach to parents.
Indeed, the PIRCs have had amazing results. According a recent survey conducted by the National Coalition of PIRCs:
*Eighty-eight percent of families said that because of the information and services received from PIRC, they were better able to support their children’s learning at home.
*Ninety-three percent of educators reported that because of their PIRC, they have learned new strategies to engage families in their children’s education.
*Ninety-four percent of educators reported that because of their PIRC, they have increased knowledge of how to work with families to improve academic achievement.
Gone are: 62 PIRC directors, over 500 staff, their boards of directors, their parent advisory committees, their leadership at the state and local levels, and their organizational and infrastructure capacity to work with low-income parents in understanding, supporting and demanding change from their public schools.
Both the Public Education Network and Appleseed (our organizations) have worked for years to gain better information from schools and meaningful involvement in schools for parents of students at all grade levels. Those efforts will certainly continue, make no mistake.
But instead of having the sheer power and one-stop-shopping of the PIRCs on our side, our efforts and those of our colleagues around the nation will be more diffuse and surely more diminished.
Admittedly, some PIRCs were better than others, but in general, their abiding presence was a firm statement by the federal government that parents are an indispensible partner.
Instead of eliminating the current PIRC network, a next logical step would be to establish a district-based PIRC in each of the lowest performing five percent of the Title I school districts (as proposed by the Department) to network with the state PIRCs.
With the September 30th deadline looming, the Education Department has given no indication that it will reinstate the PIRCs. Across the land, however, legions of parent involvement supporters are hoping that perhaps there is an 11th hour rescue.
If not, the impact of living without the PIRCs will be immediate and dramatic — a major blow for kids in high-poverty communities, the parents who love them, the school districts who teach them, the communities who care for them, and a nation that relies on them.
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