The Truth About School Councils
"The purpose of school councils is, through the active participation of parents, to improve pupil achievement and to enhance the accountability of the education system to parents" - Ontario Regulation 612 (2.1)
When the school council was first inaugurated at my children's school many years ago, there were well over a hundred parents in attendance. All were hopeful that they could finally have some meaningful input into their own children's education. There were questions and advice about math programs; how French Immersion was affecting classroom space and scheduling; and how prepared our students really were for high school. Meetings were well attended and, over the next few years, parents like me tried, often in vain, to get effective reading and math programs in our school to make sure students were achieving to their potential. The pressure to continue a fundraising focus was always there and so eventually I became less involved as my children went through the school.
A few years after that, when my youngest was in Grade 8, I reluctantly decided to attend the first meeting of the new school year. I was shocked that I was only one of two parents in attendance besides the council members and principal. The discussion was all about fundraising. I never went back. No wonder parents were turned off and tuned out. It was disheartening, but not surprising.
The latest report on school councils is hardly earth-shattering news. The People for Education School Council Report 2011 recommends that the government change the councils' current mandate of monitoring student achievement to that of communication and outreach. To no one's surprise, councils are not doing a very good job at the former and are being encouraged to do the latter. It would be the final esmasculation of an ultimately powerless institution.
When school councils were proposed back in the 1990s, P4Ed was mostly against them. I recall a certain 1997 debate with Annie Kidder on TVOntario that I participated in. I was for them, Ms. Kidder was more tentative. Why were school councils so scary? The reason: because they would be populated by parents who could highjack the agenda and have too much influence at schools. As if. In hindsight, the educrats of the day were not going to let anybody have any real power over schools. Unless you were going to maintain the status quo of cookie-baking and fundraising, the message was: parents, don't rock the boat by actually demanding some accountability for achievement. Lo and behold, what does this latest report complain about? Too many school councils are spending too much time fundraising and not enough parents are involved with them. School councils were highjacked all right. My own experience bears that out.
The Ontario government has spent about $14 million to date for Parents Reaching Out Grants to get parents involved in school councils. People for Education themselves have received $47,000 in regional grants over the last two years from the Ministry to fund their annual conference (TVOntario, a branch of the Ministry of Education, televises the event online). Individual schools can get up to $1,000 to find ways to get parents involved at the school level. Here‘s an example from the PRO list of a school council parent involvement project:
"Educating & Engaging Parents -The Environment & New Technology--A series of information nights about how to care for the environment and embrace new technology in order to help our children better adapt in an ever-changing world."
Or, how about these school-based PRO events:
"Parents will be invited to a presentation by authors about literacy at home."
"Presentations by authors for parents, to emphasize the importance of literacy and creativity at home to support student achievement. "
"Multicultural math and literacy nights to help parents understand the curriculum and provide strategies to reinforce numeracy and literacy skills at home."
While these may be laudable information nights, readers may ask, "Why do we bother sending them to school?"
We know that meaningful parental involvement in their children's schools is an indicator of school success, but we also know that the best way to have real accountabilty is to give parents the ability to transfer their children to a different school.