School Beat: SFUSD Must Bring Parents to the Table, Not Remove Them

by Lisa Schiff on October 3, 2013

Family involvement in our public schools can be the fuel of real change, but it can also be an unrealized goal, sacrificed to the disingenuousness of empty rhetoric. While we want all parents to support their own children as much as they can, we also desperately need parent voices at all levels of decision making–from the school building to the Department of Education–in order to ensure that the day-to-day experiences of kids and their families are heard. The perspectives of those with a stake in the game need to be more squarely positioned among the driving forces shaping our educational systems, locally, state-wide and nationally.

Parents certainly have many school site-based opportunities for involvement, including helping teachers in classrooms, volunteering with PTAs and PTOs and even sitting on school governing groups such as School Site Councils (SSCs) and English Learner Advisory Committees (ELACS). But they also have the opportunity to be appointed to serve on advisory committees to address district-wide concerns and policies. Some of these committees are persistent, such as the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which advises our Board of Education (BOE). Some are legally mandated, such as the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. Other committees get established as needed, for instance the Public Education Enrichment Fund Community Advisory Committee, which is a way to connect the SFUSD community to the City in its deliberations regarding the distribution of this fund’s resources.

Getting parents at the table where they have the ability to shape policy and program choices is critical, but also extremely challenging. Whatever opportunities may exist out there to take on, parents have a hard job finding enough spare hours to tackle volunteer activities, which for the CAC’s can often be a significant contribution of time and energy. In addition, not all parents feel equally comfortable or welcome in the given culture of their child’s school, or within the institution of a school itself. Lack of sufficient translation and interpretation resources means many parents literally can’t participate. And this is just the start of a list that doesn’t begin to dive into any of the more complex barriers any individual parent or guardian may be facing.

So, as critical as their role is, it can be hard work to find parents who are interested and able to serve on an Advisory Committee. But, the need for such individuals is only growing as more parent and community engagement is embedded in policies. For instance, in California’s new funding distribution model, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) the local community is meant, or at least so Governor Brown told us, to be providing much oversight over whether funds are being spent productively. The sincerity of that message was called into question recently as it was quickly discovered that there were no parent representative on the governing board of the entity meant to have an advisory role over school districts as they develop and implement Accountability Plans under LCFF.

That’s why it is so disturbing that the SFUSD BOE is reaffirming term limits for CAC members. At the 9/24/2013 Board of Education meeting, Commissioners maintained without change the Board’s existing policy, BP 1220, that limits members to two consecutive two-year terms, with the possibility of serving again after one year off. For a body that has no term limits itself, this is a curious and disturbing policy and serves no real productive purpose. CAC members are typically appointed by BOE members, who are free to reappoint or not, so perhaps they are concerned with each other’s actions. That, however, would indicate a different, and much deeper concern.

As anyone who has ever served on a CAC knows, the real problem we’re facing is not members who are lingering too long, but the difficulty in finding parents who are willing to dive into the tasks at hand and fill all of the seats available. Instead of underscoring a desire to clear out parents who are working hard on behalf of all students, why not redouble efforts to cultivate parent leadership and fill both empty spots and those to come? Focusing on enforcing term limits feels more like a strategy to weaken parent roles instead of diversifying and strengthening them, a dubious choice given the challenges ahead.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

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