External Author Name: 
Adam Emerson

Whenever a legislative measure is aimed at the imbalance of
power between parents and public school interests, it’s often the poorest
families who suffer the greatest indignity in the debate.

After Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed a sweeping
voucher program for low-income students, the head of the state’s teachers
union, Michael Walker Jones, told
the New Orleans Times-Picayune

that parents living just out of poverty’s reach would have neither the time nor
the knowledge to make the right educational decisions. In another case, an
Orlando Sentinel editorial
panned
a proposed “parent trigger” bill working its way through the Florida
legislature by asserting that parents in the worst performing schools would be
unable “to face a steep and brief learning curve in making such a game-changing
call.”

So what can a sample of relatively poor families in Mexico
do to inform the conversation? That’s
what a team of researchers set out to explore in several rural Mexican states

participating in a decentralized government education program we might consider
almost revolutionary in the United States.

Paul Gertler, Harry Patrinos, and Marta Rubio-Codina
examined an initiative that directly involved parents in the management of
schools located in disadvantaged communities. The program, Apoyo a la Gestiόn Escolar (School Management Support), gives
seed money to parent associations so that they can make improvements to a
school’s resources and materials. In return, the parents must commit to greater
involvement with the school and they must receive instruction in school-based
management.

Parents, even
those a step above poverty, are ready to exercise more control over their
children’s education.

The results of the study were published in September in the Journal of Development Economics. The
program, the authors concluded, showed increased parental participation in
school matters and improved communication between parents and teachers. Parents
involved in the management of school affairs were more likely to complain about
poor teaching and teacher absence, and they were more likely to know when their
child was performing poorly and when to intervene.

And because parents were more accountable for their
children’s performance, the researchers found that their intervention led to a
decrease in failing grades and a decrease in grade repetition for students in
primary school grades. Students moved ahead by about a year in reading and math
after dropout rates fell by more than 1.5 percentage points.

“The AGE project shows just how much improvement a simple
parental and community empowerment program can achieve when it is implemented
properly,” said Patrinos, a World Bank education economist, in
a blog post last week
.

The program isn’t perfect. The researchers didn’t find any
improvement among Mexico’s most extreme cases of poverty. But, just as school
choice policies do in the United States, the project is one tool to help
educators become more responsive to the needs of low-income families. It opened
up a communication and information link to parents, something that school
districts and teachers unions in the U.S. say they want to do. But Apoyo a la
Gestiόn Escolar goes a step further by
giving low-income parents power and holds them accountable for their
performance.

Florida is just the latest state to call for a trigger to
give parents that power and the waiting lists of families to obtain the mature
tax credit scholarship options in Florida and Arizona show that parents, even
those a step above poverty, are ready to exercise more control over their
children’s education. We would do better to help them make the right decisions
than to point out their limitations.

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