Seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal as a fiery young mother standing up for the kids in Won’t Back Down will be a shocker for many parents active in their local schools across Canada. Joining up with a passionate teacher, played by Viola Davis, to ‘Take Back the Schools’ would be a stretch of the imagination. While “parent power” is bubbling up in California and six other American states, active parents and school advisory groups in Canada’s provincial systems are either glorified “PTAs” or Parent Councils suffering from a “power outage.”
The feature film Won’t Back Down is being dismissed by prominent movie critics as a Hollywood melodrama with a strident, patently obvious message. The Globe and Mail’s fine critic, Liam Lacey, to his credit, recognized that it was far more than another Hollywood confection. One of America’s leading education policy wonks, Andrew J. Rotherham, writing in TIME Magazine, weighed in with a column entitled “Why the Education Movie Matters.” Bring out the popcorn — and take out a Kleenex –Parent Power has now gone mainstream.
With Don’t Back Down hitting the movie theatres, the time is ripe for a look at the state of parent activism and involvement in Canada’s provincial school systems. And, by sheer coincidence, the film’s release coincided with the appearance of the latest report on the health of School Advisory Councils, the 2012 People for Education review of Ontario’s School Councils. Each year, for the past 15 years, P4E has been issuing such reports, all pointing at the same deficiency — local Parent Councils revert back to fundraising when they are afforded little opportunity to do much of anything else.
Active parents supportive of their local public school are prime candidates for School Advisory Councils, especially in school districts where the Home and School Association is either weak or non-existent. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for such positions on School Councils normally guided or dominated by the principal or a trusted senior teacher. Such parent councils, created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, normally end up doing nothing of the sort and back organizing fundraising bake sales or, in Nova Scotia, hosting ice cream socials.
Parent Advisory Councils have proven very effective in keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding principals from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies. Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically intert of the two groups.
What’s really going on inside the schools? The Ontario case is the best documented example. Some 80 to 84% of over 720 school councils surveyed from 68 different Ontario school boards now do fundraising and spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events. They spend, on average, about 10% of their time working on School Improvement Plans, discussing educational standards, and ensuring local public accountability. Fewer than a dozen parents are actually involved on the Parent Council in the vast majority of public schools.
Since the abolition of the Ontario School Council in 2003-4, local school councils have fallen under the influence of the publicly-funded lobby group, People for Education. A Parent Voice in Education report in March 2005 completed the evisceration of any semblance of Parent Power in Ontario schools. Today “student learning” is the stated priority, but P4E under Annie Kidder is best known for promoting education spending and gutting Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.
Parent Advisory Councils have, for the most part, served to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. In the case of Ontario, “partnering” is definitely in and rocking the boat is decidedly out in the teacher-friendly world of People for Education. Looking across the country, school advisory groups are all over the map and remain, for some reason, under the de-facto umbrella of provincial Home and School Associations. Provincial school council organizations only exist in Manitoba, British Columbia , and Alberta.
Some provincial Education Departments go to great lengths to ensure that School Councils remain strictly “advisory” in law and in practice. Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils, under the Education Act (Section 22), play a very limited role described as “advises the principal on behalf of the school community, especially parents.” Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 420 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.”
Parent involvement in Nova Scotia is a carefully managed domain. The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.” In many Halifax Regional School Board schools, SAC’s may exist, but so do Home and School groups, and the members of the SAC’s are not posted on public websites and accessible only through the school principals.
Parent in-service programs run by the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations accept and reinforce the “School Code of Conduct” setting out “duties” for parents that sound like those intended for a primary class. Raising your voice or being unpleasant on school grounds is “specifically forbidden” in that Code. All legitimate school reform groups with “political agendas” like Students First Nova Scotia , Save Community Schools, and Choice Words operate outside the lines and continue to be effectively marginalized by the core interests that control the system.
Will the feature film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing and perhaps ring a few alarm bells here in Canada? Will concerned parents begin asking why School Advisory Councils are so weak and are inclined to attract parents best described as ” teachers pets”? How can public education lobby groups like People for Education get away with the duplicity of neutering parent councils, then fretting about why they still busy themselves with “bake sales’? Most importantly, how long will the Parent Power outage continue in K-12 Canadian education?