More Power to the Parents: The Parent Power Index

All parents want their children to attend excellent schools — but not all families have access to the types of learning environments they would like. Learn how the Parent Power Index is putting information into parents’ hands so they can make the best education decisions for their children.

There is a new kind of reform on the education scene these days, and it’s all about power to the parents. Why? Because parents are the squeaky wheel in education policy.

Parents are starting to exercise their political heft to get better schools for their kids, and a recently-revamped tool called the Parent Power Index (PPI) helps them in this effort by scoring every state based primarily on parents’ ability to find high-quality educational options for their child.

What is the Parent Power Index?

Parental power refers mainly to access to educational choices, says Michelle Tigani, spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform (CER). This Washington, D.C. group ranks every state in the union in its annual Parent Power Index, which takes into consideration state (and the District of Columbia) laws on charter schools, school choice, teacher quality, transparency, and online learning opportunities.

The PPI has been around for several years as a formal index, but the ideas that underlie it have existed in one form or another since the 1990s. The findings were originally issued in a quarterly magazine, but CER eventually organized them into a single index that it releases around the start of each school year.

The 2015 PPI gives Indiana first place with the most parent power, followed by Florida, Ohio, Arizona, D.C., Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Utah rounding out the top ten.

For a comprehensive guide to what options are available where you live, read this state-by-state guide to school choice.

What Does the PPI Value?

The PPI scoring heavily weights the strength of a state’s charter school programs in its rubric. Charters are, for the most part, schools that are publicly financed but operated independently of district rules and teacher union requirements, a set of circumstances that affords them greater freedom in curricular and hiring decisions than most other public schools are permitted.

Indiana, with some 20,000 students participating in school choice options, has a “pretty strong charter school law” and “one of the most expansive voucher programs,” says Tagini. The charter school mandate also applies statewide, a reach that gives the maximum number of parents the greatest degree of choice in educational options for their children.

What Do Political and Educational Leaders Think About School Choice?

School choice” is still a politically-loaded term referring to a set of options that teacher unions have traditionally opposed, claiming that they undermine the public education system by unfairly siphoning off the highest-achieving public school students and draining resources from district schools. It has, by contrast, long been a rallying cry of conservatives, who have historically sought to limit the power of teacher unions, which they have argued have had a sclerotic effect on public education.

Today, the popularity of school choice has expanded far beyond traditional political affiliations. For example, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, was a staunch supporter of charter schools when he served as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He continues to advocate for improvements to public education through the expansion of charters, saying that the current educational system is broken.

How Do Parents Feel About the Issue?

The politics of education, however, are not at the top of the list in most parents’ quest for good schools for their children.

“Families are not tuned in so much to the debate around school choice,” says Ashley Jochim, research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) in Seattle, Washington. “They don’t care. They just want a good school for their kid.”

CRPE is a research organization based at the University of Washington that examines national, state, and local educational policies and practices. A recent survey it conducted of 4,000 families in cities across the U.S. found that, while school choice provides options, it also creates a challenging maze for parents who often struggle to understand how the selection and admissions processes work across their district, how to navigate multiple applications to different types of schools, and how to rank schools in order to improve their chances of admission. And these hurdles are, of course, even more challenging for families of English-language learners.

When it comes to school choice, Jochim suggests that families discuss what they want in a school and factor in logistical concerns, such as location and transportation. She advises engaging with social networks to learn about schools, as well as setting up visits to those of greatest interest. Half of all families in CRPE’s recent survey reported that visiting provided the best way to learn about schools.

The Expansion of Charter Schools

Charter schools are becoming increasingly prevalent. More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting charters. The broad growth of this educational option has been aided in particular by strong charter states, which are those that have multiple charter-school authorizing agencies, generous caps on the number of charter schools allowed, and public funding structures that enable charter schools to function independently.

And the state with the best charter school laws in the nation, according to the PPI? It’s actually not a state, but the District of Columbia. Charter schools, which serve 45 percent of all D.C. public school students, are authorized by a powerful and independent public entity, the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB). No other city, with the exception of New Orleans, has more charter school students.

The impact that charter schools have on a district’s overall educational system arises not only from the power to create new learning environments, but also from the ability to close those that are failing. Charters have much greater latitude to fire underperforming teachers and to make structural changes that hold the promise of improving outcomes for students.

“That is the beauty of charter schools … if they aren’t working, if they are not being effective, they need to be shut down,” says Tigani, who adds that many charter schools are themselves borne of struggling district schools and typically take at least three years to turn around.

While K–12 education is largely undertaken at the district level, state laws provide the frameworks to guide the composition of district educational systems. Recently, Oklahoma expanded its charter school mandate to allow every district in the state to have charter schools, instead of just two original districts. “Education is mostly local in school districts. But state policies allow schools to be strong,” Tigani says.

Other Components of PPI

Along with the presence of charters, school choice — that is, the ability of parents to choose which school their child attends — is another key factor on the PPI. If families aren’t happy with their local school, do they have other choices? Will the school help them get to those alternate options? Is access to other schools available to all families, or only to wealthier parents? In 14 states and the District of Columbia, mandated vouchers help parents pay tuition and other costs associated with enrolling a child in a school other than her district assignment.

Equal funding, transparency, and teacher quality are still other items on the PPI rubric. Some states, such as Maryland, allow charters but require them to hire district teachers, a mandate that is not ideal if a school isn’t able to hire the strongest candidates among a large pool of applicants.

“We call it the ‘dance of the lemons,’ where an ineffective teacher is just shuffled around and never fired,” says Tigani. “Teacher unions have prevented our education system from moving forward. Education is about kids. It should be whatever is best for the student. The union’s job is to protect teachers.”

Why Some Parents Push Back

In some cases, though, it is parents who are stepping in to help teachers confront what they perceive to be unfair evaluation practices, mainly in the form of standardized testing.

While dissent has not quite constituted an uprising, many families are nonetheless opting out of standardized tests in support of teachers (and often in protest against what they believe is too much testing overall, as well). Some groups that are opposed to excessive testing, such as the New York State Allies for Public Education, have urged parents to opt their children out of state assessments. While the organization says it supports public education, they don’t think these tests are the correct barometer of what’s going on in the classroom. Moreover, they argue, basing school funding or teacher pay on student test scores is wrong. Many parents agree.

“Not only do you have to advocate for your child, you have to advocate for your teachers as well,” said Danielle, mother of a fourth-grader in the Bronx, New York. “They [teachers] have no way to defend themselves,” she added. She opted her son out of testing because she didn’t think it was fair that 50 percent of teacher evaluations were based on student performance on standardized tests. She believes that so many factors could negatively impact how well a child does on a standardized test that it seemed patently unfair to use them in evaluating teacher performance.

That said, how and when to use standardized test scores in teacher and school evaluation systems has yet to be determined in many states, according to a recent article in The Hechinger Report. Only 13 states are presently including these measures in their evaluation of teachers, and for those that currently rely on them or plan to do so in the future, most intend to incorporate them as one metric in a more complex evaluation process.

Whether you come down for or against charters and other school choice options, parents want the resources to make informed decisions about their children’s schooling. The Parent Power Index is one tool making this a reality for more and more families.

Sources:

Charter Facts | DC's Public Charter Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Focus.

Cory Booker at the National Charter Schools Conference: A Collection of Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from School Choice Now!.

DeArmond, M., Jochim, A., & Lake, R. (n.d.). Making School Choice Work. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Hoberock, B. (2015, April 25). Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signs bill to expand charter schools statewide. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Tulsa World.

Just the FAQs-School Choice. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from The Center for Education Reform.

Law Database. (2014, January 16). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

McAodd, M. (2015, March 5). Do charters 'cream' students? You bet! Retrieved May 1, 2015, from United Federation of Teachers.

Mongeau, L., Felton, E., & Butrymowicz, S. (2015, April 29). Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low. Retrieved May 5, 2015, from The Hechinger Report.

National Center for Education Statistics. Charter Schools (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from National Center for Education Statistics.

(n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from National Council on Teacher Quality.

Parent Power Index. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from The Center for Education Reform.

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