“Imagine the parents of a child in an underfunded, under-resourced public school district. They want the best for their child, so they’re thinking about how to register their child in a neighboring, better-resourced school district. But they realize it’s harmful to their home school district when parents manipulate the system and move their kids elsewhere. What should they do?”
The Answer: This is indeed a very difficult question. On one hand, we insist that all children should have the best opportunities to learn, with necessary resources to make that possible. On the other hand, we know we cannot transform the quality of schools unless parents, students and teachers come together to demand change, equal funding and resources for schools in their communities.
Parental Choices and Moral Lessons
Children’s ethical views and moral formation are shaped by parental actions. When parents act to manipulate the system for the gain of their children and at the expense of peers, their children learn that ignoring the larger communal impact is acceptable and that the primary focus of life should be achieving individual success and personal advantage. The importance of larger collective concerns are diminished.
Parents’ desires for an excellent education for their children as well as all children need not be mutually exclusive. For example, when Chicano parents, teachers and community members in the late 1960s banded together for educational change in East Los Angeles, home to a very underfunded public school district, the children grew up with improved educational opportunities and a deeper sense of their moral responsibility, as well as a more grounded belief in community empowerment and social change.
Civic Participation as a Moral Imperative
Nonetheless, collective participation by parents and teachers is rarely cultivated, nourished or sustained in school systems, despite rhetoric about parent involvement. Instead, parents from poor and working class communities are perceived by policy makers, administrators and teachers as being as deficient as their children. In the process, parents’ views are often dismissed.
Especially disconcerting is that when teachers take up the mantle of civic participation, they may find themselves “pink-slipped” or transferred to another school. Such was the case in San Diego a few years back when teachers worked with Latino parents to create a community advocacy group. Parents trying to enact a culture of participation, dialogue and shared decision-making were met with resistance and disdain. Undocumented immigrant parents were treated poorly by school officials, prompting disabling anxieties in them about their participation at public meetings.
In contrast, when parents and teachers feel connected to their communities and work for the well-being of all children, they are more likely to build a moral environment of civic participation. Parents recognize that collectively they can bring about change to district policies. They also see that they can provide their children a deeper understanding of the power of social agency, the importance of community dialogue, the value of political self-determination, and the necessity of ongoing civic participation genuine democratic life.
Challenging the Immorality of Inequality
Problems in education often reflect far greater social problems. We live in a society that privileges individualism, competition, quantifiable phenomena and a bootstrap mentality that always seems to lead us back to inequality. Meanwhile, poverty and educational difficulties are blamed on the most vulnerable populations, rather than on policies that privilege the wealthy, bolster a permanent culture of war, destroy the environment and suck dry the coffers of resources that should be in the service of many, rather than a few.
We who are educators carry a responsibility for the values we communicate to students and parents. If we were to participate more actively with students and parents in the everyday struggle to transform schools, rather than being so focused on professionalization, all would fare better. For only through such a grounded approach will we avoid dumping the problems of underfunded and poorly resourced schools on the shoulders of parents. And the immorality of inequality could, at long last, be challenged at the root.