Charter Schools: Parents as a Survival Strategy

Over 700 public charter schools around the country have started because active parents joined with teachers and community partners, getting state or local permission to operate outside district constraints. Once these schools open, they depend more than most on their parents for help in key startup areas. Though vital, such help can also raise problems in every area from management to equity.

Many charter schools, for instance, require parents to sign contracts promising their participation in areas ranging from governance to volunteer work. But does this practice implicitly or explicitly select out families whose ways of contributing do not fit neatly into the expected model, or for whom such expectations create an undue burden? Do contracts create a socially controlling “compliance” model that regards parents not as equal partners but as consumers?

With or without such contracts, studies show that parents in public schools of choice have a higher investment in participation. A study of California charter schools sponsored by the Southwest Regional Laboratory showed that 50 percent more parents attended evening student performances than in the comparable public schools, roughly twice as many helped out or taught in classrooms, and four times as many did committee or governance work. Teachers in these schools did far more than their counterparts to involve parents at home by such means as creating homework that required parental involvement, though regular public schools had more outreach efforts like parent drop-in centers or classes. (Even in the charter schools, the numbers of parents involved were fairly low; only a small minority could get even a quarter of parents to help in a classroom, for example.)

For more information see Henry J. Becker, K. Nakagawa, and R. G. Corwin, “Parent Involvement Contracts in California’s Charter Schools: Strategy for Educational Improvement or Method of Exclusion?” April 1995, Southwest Regional Laboratory; and Abby R. Weiss, “Going It Alone: A Study of Massachusetts Charter Schools,” March 1997, the Institute for Responsive Education, Boston, MA.