Congress should help parents help their kids

Parental involvement has long been a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but the 2001 reauthorization, NCLB, provided parents with greater control over their child's education. Under the law, schools must report to parents on the status of their achievement in an understandable format and language. When a school underachieves and is identified for improvement, parents must be notified and can use the information to transfer their child to another public school. If the school does not improve in the subsequent year, parents may get immediate help by choosing from a list of approved tutoring services (SES providers) for their child.


The law is innovative and sensible, because it allows parents the option of doing something for their child immediately while the school works out whatever may be going wrong. The child is the priority and the parents, as consumers of education, are valued.

This is a significant change for school districts, and it has not come easily. The funds designated for tutoring represent lost revenues in their eyes, so too many districts do not provide parents with adequate information about their choice and SES options. According to the most recent National Assessment of Title I survey, only about half of eligible parents were aware of their tutoring options, and those parents were notified about school choice options after the start of the school year. Of those who knew about their choice and tutoring options, many found the notification letters and process confusing.

Consequently, the participation rates for choice and SES have been low. According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, "[D]uring the 2008-2009 school year 2.7 percent of all students eligible for public school choice took advantage of this option. […] In addition, 15.6% of eligible students took advantage of the availability of SES." [See "Accountability Issues and Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (CRS: Dec. 15, 2010).]

Denying parents their right to choose help for their students is not new, and recent headlines illustrate the point. Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar ignited national furor when she lied about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district and ended up in jail. How could wanting better academic services land a good parent in jail? The consensus, not surprising, has been wildly in favor of the mother's right to do what is best for the child. Both research and anecdotes indicate that parents care deeply about access to quality education choices and services. What's fair for the rich, it turns out, is also fair for the poor.

The Bush administration tried to improve on district implementation at the close of its term. In 2008, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued new regulations to better inform parents about their options. Districts now have to provide parents an explanation of the available school choices sufficiently in advance of, but no later than 14 calendar days before, the start of the school year. Districts must also provide timely and accurate information on the status of choice and SES on their websites by posting easily accessible and understandable information on students who were eligible and the number of students who participated in choice and SES.  The new requirements, however, have not gained much traction with districts.

The Obama administration has also beat the drum for parental choice and information. As Duncan put it in his glossy 2009 Time interview, "Arne Duncan: The Apostle of Reform," "I'm a big fan of choice and competition, and in our country, historically, wealthy families have had a lot of options as to where to send their children. And families that didn't come from a lot of money had one option - and usually that option wasn't a good one."

Now, however, the secretary has indicated that he would consider waiving the very provision that provides these options. If the secretary were truly an apostle of reform, he would work with Congress to do the opposite - double-down on choice and SES and help parents get the information and services that Washington promised. Parents need to receive timely, clear and accurate information. They need real school alternatives and quality tutoring services.

There is plenty about NCLB that Congress should change, but it should maintain one of its prime strengths: putting the interest of the parent and student before the district. Congress needs to help parents like Kelley Williams-Bolar, not reward districts for dragging their feet.

Lisa Keegan is the former Arizona superintendent of Education and founder of the Education Breakthrough Network. Kevin Chavous is board chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options & Democrats for Education Reform.