Elected officials and candidates for public office really love parents. At least, they say they do. They promise to listen to parents. They wax nostalgic about the sacrifices their own parents made for them. They engage in games of rhetorical one-upmanship with rivals to demonstrate that they truly deserve the support of parent voters.
But when you scrape beneath the surface, parents are not given all that much consideration in major policy decisions. When given a chance to protect the interests of families or those of the systems they oversee, elected officials rarely step up for families.
Consider New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. Shortly after taking office in 2014, de Blasio appeared before congregants at Riverside Church and unleashed a full-bore offensive to claim the mantle of parent champion. Here are a few quotes from his office’s own press release:
“I want the parents to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them.”
“Nothing would help a child more than recognizing, and I say this as a parent, a public school parent, a proud one, that our parents are the first and last teachers of our children.”
“That means systematically supporting parents in their efforts to help their own children, showing them how, reaching out to them, bringing them in, because that’s the greatest value added when the parents are at the table, as part of making our schools work better.”
Here’s a guy who is going to the mat for families. Right?
A centerpiece of de Blasio’s apparently parent-friendly approach to education was a school improvement program called Renewal. Where de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, implemented tougher accountability measures and closed low performing schools so they could be replaced by new district schools and charter schools, de Blasio promised to fix struggling schools by showering them with financial resources and support.
But Renewal failed spectacularly. After spending $773 million, most schools remained low performing and de Blasio pulled the plug on the program—at least in name. In one of the year’s best “read between the lines” pieces of reporting, Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times explained that the schools “will continue to receive indefinitely much of the same support they did as Renewal schools, but without the Renewal label.”
To recap, these expenditures are not helping the schools serve families better, but the city plans to keep making them. The only change is the name.
Even worse, de Blasio and his administration have known for some time that many of the Renewal schools weren’t improving. The Times reported on it months ago. They knew that kids were attending dead end schools, but they kept them there anyway. Why? Because admitting failure would be politically damaging.
What happened to the guy who said, “I want the parents to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them”? He did exactly what he said he would not do.
Parents, rightly, are naming that. “These kids didn’t receive anything close to a sound or basic education,” Mona Davids, the head of the advocacy group NYC Parents Union, told the New York Post. “This has been nothing but smoke and mirrors.”
Tina Thompson, a Brooklyn mother of two, said the money had been spent on all the wrong things. “Every year, they get these big checks. What are they doing with it? I don’t understand.”
On top of that, the administration is trying to hide these failures from families. The Times reported that “Schools will not be publicly labeled low-performing, in part to avoid the stigma that the Renewal label gave schools, which city officials believe led to dwindling enrollment as parents searched for other options.”
So the schools might be terrible, but if we don’t let parents know about it, maybe they’ll send their kids anyway? Remember when de Blasio was at Riverside Church, saying “the greatest value added [is] when the parents are at the table, as part of making our schools work better”?
The truth is, parents were only important when they could be a source of political support. When forced to choose between serving parents and serving his own ambitions, it wasn’t a tough call for New York’s mayor.
Bill de Blasio is not some sort of supervillain politician. He’s sadly typical. The lesson is to watch what leaders do, not what they say. When it comes to parents, they all say more or less the same things. But precious few do the right things.