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Will California Lead Meaningful Parent and Family Engagement?

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By Devin Corrigan

Since the 19th century, the education of children in the U.S. has largely fallen under the purview of compulsory mass schooling systems. This momentous shift away from private tutoring and homeschooling has long generated debate about parent and family engagement with schools. In California, where state and federal laws have formalized such engagement in new ways, another shift may be underway.

Two reports express cautious optimism that parent and family engagement could reach long-touted potential, but they also assert that effective parent engagement has thus far proved elusive for many California districts.

Ready or Not: How California School Districts are Reimagining Parent Engagement in the Era of Local Control Funding Formula, a forthcoming report from Los Angeles-based nonprofit Families in Schools, and Two Years of California's Local Control Funding Formula: Time to Reaffirm the Grand Vision a brief by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), offer concrete suggestions and tools to districts for effective parent engagement. Research findings suggest that districts should take the issue seriously; scholars have demonstrated a positive relationship between parent engagement and student academic achievement.

Both reports rely on local stakeholder interviews across multiple districts to gauge the state of parent and family engagement since California's Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was signed into law in 2013. Under LCFF, California school districts have more authority to make funding decisions, including the allocation of extra funds for English Learners, foster youth, and low-income students. LCFF designates eight priority areas for districts including Engagement, which explicitly includes parental involvement.

The PACE report situates "community engagement" within a holistic take on the various challenges and successes of LCFF's implementation. Essentially, they conclude that despite strong efforts on the part of districts, challenges persist, such as a lack of proper outreach and public awareness. The authors advocate a sustained, deliberative approach that goes beyond collecting the opinions of those with the loudest voices, instead focusing time and resources on training sessions for district personnel, assistance from intermediary organizations, and data-driven conversations.

"Ready or Not," the report from Families in Schools, echoes many of the same problems and proposed solutions, also in the context of LCFF implementation. First categorizing the challenges cited by respondents, the report then provides six policy recommendations:

  • Develop statewide standards for parent engagement
  • Build relationships and partnerships between parents and school staff
  • Invest funding and resources in parent engagement to meet Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) goals
  • Partner with community groups and other external organizations
  • Tailor programs to the different needs of parents
  • Provide professional development on parent engagement

Both reports stress the importance of partnerships, professional development, and a diversity of voices, as well as the point of view that effective parent and family engagement is worth the effort.

Of course, that effort costs money, which is why many advocates of family and parent engagement (such as the National PTA) cheered the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA authorizes grants - $500,000 at a minimum - for Statewide Family Engagement Centers, which will support partnerships with technical assistance, professional development, and outreach. The law also calls for statewide sharing of effective engagement practices, and directs more engagement-related funds toward disadvantaged students. The California State PTA issued a statement supporting the Centers but also urging the federal government to do more: "We need regulations that make it a priority for schools, districts and states to engage parents in supporting their schools and engaging in decision making and accountability."

While there is room for debate about whether ESSA goes far enough, the law irrefutably increases support for family and parent engagement in K-12 schools. Coupling this additional federal funding and guidance with lessons learned from two years of LCFF, California finds itself in an unique position to lead.

In the foreword of "Ready or Not," Dr. Karen Mapp writes, "[The LCFF] is a window of opportunity for California school districts to invest the necessary energy and resources to get home-school partnerships right, and show the rest of the nation the potential and future of family engagement." 

With the passage of ESSA, that window just opened a bit wider.

 

Devin Corrigan is an 'On California' research assistant and a recent MA graduate of the International Comparative Education program at Stanford University.

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