Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

[Ap]parent Involvement: Reflections on Parents, Power, and Urban Public Schools. & Responses

by Michelle Fine - 1993

With this article, I hope to provoke a broad-based conversation about urban public school reform--asking how parents are being positioned as subjects, but also as objects, of a struggle to resuscitate the public sphere of public education.

Organizing for parent involvement is like bringing the ocean to a boil. --Don Davies

As discourse on "parent empowerment" floods the 1990s, I find myself suspicious about my own work and that of others. Parents are being promiscuously invited into the now deficit-ridden public sphere of public education, invited in "as if" this were a power-neutral partnership. Many would argue that parents in urban districts are being asked in when it is too late, asked in to "fix" the damage of racism and an economy with the bottom carved out. Conservatives' call for parental involvement only thinly drapes a strategy of victim blaming, yoked to a federal retreat from the public sphere, a concerted effort at union busting, and an energetic agenda for privatization. When not reifying "choice" and private-sector vouchers, the Right has committed to disinvesting in "those" schools and "those" children. But it is not only the Right that is mobilized.

Progressives and conservatives alike are appropriately distressed by a failing public sector, by broken promises of "professionalism" and empty dreams of reform 1980s style. Together, perhaps oddly, they are pressing parental involvement/empowerment in the vanguard of educational reform. Sometimes parents are being organized as advocates for their children, other times as teacher bashers, often as bureaucracy busters, more recently, as culture-carriers, increasingly, as consumers. Parents enter the contested public sphere of public education typically with neither resources nor power. They are usually not welcomed, by schools, to the critical and serious work of rethinking educational structures and practices, and they typically represent a small percent of local taxpayers. It is, then, an opportune time to take a critical look at what role(s) parents might play, with whom, and toward what ends.

In this article three major parental involvement projects are described from urban school districts across the country--Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In each city, there is a political movement under way to strengthen parental presence inside schools, and around concerns of education, through some form of "collaboration." Each case reflects the hard work of activists, parents, educators, and often friends. Across cases we have an opportunity to dissect, closely, what it is parents say they want from this work. These cases are presented along a continuum of increasing power, control, and activism by parents. For each case, practitioners, organizers, parents, and activists have been good enough to respond to drafts of this text. As you will see, their comments have been spliced into the article; they are "in conversation" with me. With this article, I hope to provoke a broad-based conversation about urban public school reform--asking how parents are being positioned as subjects, but also as objects, of a struggle to resuscitate the public sphere of public education.


In "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," Nancy Fraser borrows Habermas's notion of the public sphere as "a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about common affairs... it is a site for the production and circulation of discourse that can in principle be critical of the state."(n1) Within this frame, the public sphere has been defined, and bordered, by exclusion: "Despite the rhetoric of publicity and accessibility, the official public sphere rested on, indeed was importantly constituted by a number of significant exclusions."(n2) And for public schools, these exclusions have been embodied by parents, community, and public interests.

Fraser offers four assumptions she finds problematic undergirding the current conception of a public sphere. These four assumptions deserve critical unpacking, if we are to engage a truly democratic public sphere:

1. The assumption that it is possible for interlocutors in a public sphere to bracket status differentials and to deliberate "as if" they were social equals;

2. The assumption that the proliferation of a multiplicity of competing publics is necessarily a step away from, rather than toward, greater democracy and that a single, comprehensive public sphere is always preferable to a nexus of multiple publics;

3. The assumption that discourse in the public sphere should be restricted to deliberation about the common good, and that the appearance of "private interests" and "private issues" is always undesirable;

4. The assumption that a functioning democratic public sphere requires a sharp separation between civil society and the State.(n3)

If we consider these four assumptions with respect to parents(n4) in and with their public schools and districts, we see good reason for Fraser's concerns. First, in current school reform movements, parents do not even enter school-based discourse "as if" social equals with educators, bureaucrats, or corporate representatives. With some exceptions, the history and contemporary face of public schooling suggest their explicit exclusion. Parents feel and are typically treated as "less" than the professionals, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.(n5) In upper-income communities, parents are often seen as overinvolved and intrusive.(n6) Second, most public school bureaucracies' appetite for diversity, plurality, and critique from parents is about as rich as schools' appetite for diversity, plurality, and critique from students and educators. Indeed, one might argue that the structures and practices of big-city educational bureaucracies serve to split teachers from parents. In such contexts, teachers and parents are set up as adversaries, fighting over inadequate resources and authority, while the grossly disproportionate share of both remains centralized within the halls of central districts. Indeed, centralized bureaucracies, in their profound alienation, fragmentation, and hierarchy, may be well served by the warring bodies of teachers and parents, each of which defers to the central district to calm the other down. This is a point to which I will return. Third, discussions of the "common good" typically occlude the real reason parents come to school, which is to represent their "private interests"--their children. What is justified as "good for all" (tracking, labeling, education for employment, discipline and order) is constructed through a discourse of efficiency, privileging the interests of capital and the state rather than the needs, passions, desires, strengths, and worries of parents and their children, which are framed as if simply private. Fourth, the role of the state as monitor and controller of public education remains relatively unproblematized in current literature on public schooling. The bureaucratic apparatus of public education is seriously remote from workers' or consumers' interests.

It will be clear from the following three cases that questions of power, authority, and control must be addressed head-on within debates about parental involvement in public schools. To avoid these issues is to trivialize the rethinking of the urban public sphere. The presumption of equality between parents and schools, and the refusal to address power struggles, has systematically undermined real educational transformation, and has set up parents as well as educators involved with reform.

In scenes in which power asymmetries are not addressed and hierarchical bureaucracies are not radically transformed, parents end up looking individually "needy," "naive," or "hysterical" and appear to be working in opposition to teachers. Rarely do they seem entitled to strong voices and substantial power in a pluralistic public sphere. Rarely do they have the opportunity to work collaboratively with educators inventing what could be a rich, engaging, and democratic system for public education.


The Baltimore project is probably best described by its director:

In the summer of 1987, the "With and For Parents" program opened its office in a community service center located in the heart of the community.... The National Committee for Citizens in Education made a three and a one-half year commitment to work closely with a significant number of families of incoming middle schoolers and to remain with them through their children's entire middle school experience. We worked collaboratively with the Baltimore City schools as a community based, family resource to promote increased parent knowledge about and participation in the education of their children. We entered the community believing unquestionably in the potential for African-American inner-city parents to become confident, well-informed and influential people in the education of their children and in the educational life of the community.(n7)

Donnie Cook, on the faculty at University of Maryland, and I evaluated "With and For Parents" over a three-year period.(n8) We had a chance to watch this well-conceived program, which was designed to be collaborative with its middle school and to empower parents individually, change over time from what was called "empowerment" into what became "crisis intervention." We learned that projects that focus on individual parent advocacy without a commitment to redistributing power and/or material resources inadvertently fall prey to the overwhelming depth of family needs. If a project does not negotiate power explicitly, at the family-school level, then the needs of family flood the work of school reform. Service replaces reform--which might be necessary, but constitutes a very different project.


This community has all the troubles and vibrancy of a poor African-American urban community in the 1990s. Relative to itself twenty years ago, this community suffers substantially in terms of impoverished material conditions, scarred social relations, and an uncertain future.

Materially, the neighborhood is solidly low-income and African-American. The experience and talk of drugs and violence are omnipresent. Mothers report that they are "happy I don't work outside--who would walk my child to school--it being so unsafe?" others delight that the "With and For Parents" project takes their children on recreational trips, away from the streets and from worries about sex and drugs. Many of these families are cut off from their kin networks. In ways historically unprecedented, and yet compatible with national literatures on concentrated poverty, they are cut off from church, neighbors, and public institutions. Most of these mothers manage creatively, alone and at the wire.

In such a context, social relations among neighbors are often cautious. In a community so homogeneously low-income, the public schools are filled with students who have been classified as low-ability. Special education rates at this school soar well above the city's average, and varied forms of discipline, ranging from disciplinary removals (ostensibly for three days) to suspensions (for forty-five days), define the school's sometimes quite hostile climate.

The situation today is most unlike that of the 1970s described by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot:

The heightened cohesiveness of black communities during this period allowed a pooling of frustrations, resources and initiatives--much of which was focused on the school as the battleground, the most visible and vulnerable social institution within the community that was perceived as the only avenue that their children could take out of the hopelessness and poverty of ghetto life.(n9)

Instead, because of the federal abandonment of cities and the devastating impact of drugs and accompanying violence, one hears little of trust among neighbors, much criticism of those who live nearby, and whispers of anger at public institutions.

We hear a premium placed on privacy and self-protection, and an ambivalent desire to believe in social institutions. Even if anger is saturating the community, self-denigration runs high and institutional critique runs low. Mobilizing an educational advocacy core proved difficult.


We interviewed twelve women about their experiences of "empowerment," as defined by the project. From them we heard the biography of the Reagan and Bush administrations, voiced in talk about housing, drugs, street crime, and violence perpetrated by the state, and talk about barely getting by. Ms. Blay stated:

You see I work ten hours a day, and I can't be, cause, society blames it on the parents a lot. And I think, I think that I'm a good parent. I don't take drugs, I drink occasionally but I don't do drugs, I don't have drugs in my house and so it's not something he's seen me, he hasn't seen me sell drugs, so I don't know what he does, but then society says well, you're supposed to know what your children doing at all times. It's not so. I take two hours to travel to work, two hours to travel back and I'm on my feet ten hours a day. So, that's like fourteen hours a day, I'm out of the house. So I told him, I said, cause as well as you getting into trouble, I can get into trouble too because I know ladies that, the judge done told them well, you're going to have to change your work schedule, or you're going to have to find another job because you're going to have to be somewhere around to let us know where your child is. And I think it's wrong, but that's what they say you know and they're on probation and everything. Have to pay fines because they kids didn't go to school. And he done hook school and all that stuff in my house and I've been through it. He's been, he was just put away.

Ms. Blay has to negotiate complex public institutions--schools, juvenile justice, mental health agencies--each with its own rules, norms, determination of eligibility, labeling mechanisms--and a son who is wandering across these systems, all in a society in which her capacity to mother is deeply suspect.

Ms. Jones confirmed the tensions of living between public institutions and neighbors who, at once, cannot be and need to be trusted.

He told me, one time he was approached by, one of the boys asked him to sell drugs and I asked him what did he do? And he told me he just told the boy no and he walked away. Because I was afraid he was, selling produce and stuff on the street with his grandfather.... He said, "Ma," so I said "What's wrong?" He said, "This boy was in my face." I said, "For what?" He said, "I don't know." I said, "Who was this boy?" I don't know who, he didn't know who the boy was, there was three boys and they were like just picking on boys. I said, three boys, they could have beat you and left you for dead. I mean, I know where I live. I live in a high crime area. I mean, but I said, you have to live. You've got to know how to survive.

Ms. Jones wanted at once to give her son love, teach him to avoid trouble, and help him survive the violence that has infiltrated their neighborhood. When one of these women trips, she watches her fragile supports disintegrate. Ms. Shell explains:

I think it bothers her [daughter] because I noticed, I was real sick, she didn't want to go to school that day. She knew I couldn't, I didn't have no one go with me....

She said a lot of people are going to see you out there and they're not going to help you. So that did make sense, so I took her down to the clinic and she did help me and she did help me, she had to help me get out of the chair and she had to open the doors for me and put me in the cab, it was, but she helped me, she helped me.

Many women explained that their personal illnesses could provoke dramatic, adverse consequences for their children's schooling, particularly in terms of attendance and grades. These women not only sit at the nexus of racist, classist, and sexist institutions and violent streets, but they know that when their own resources (e.g., health) go, there is no ease. When their fragile balancing act falls apart, everyone blames them. As is obvious from their narratives, low-income mothers are holding together the pieces of a society torn apart by a federal government that, over the past decade, has shown disdain for and has severely punished those living in poverty. They themselves are the only ones holding their lives together.

These mothers have woven a form of "collective empowerment," spreading across social contexts and within social networks. Ms. Darden described how she works with other parents from the school:

There is that idea that we, by being in the black community, black parents don't care about their students, that's not true. I think they are very concerned. The fact that a lot of people, a lot of blacks do not have that education, a lot of them may not have gone to tenth, eleventh or twelfth, they dropped out of school, they feel as though the school system may not have done what it should have done for them, so I'm going to put my child in that school system and I'm not going to be bothered. I'm just going to let them teach and that's that.

... feeding and feeding, that just like you would to do a child. You have to keep saying well, we need to nurture the parents. And being a parent is not so easy as people think it is, whether you're black, whether you're white, whether you're... it doesn't make any difference. Being a parent is not an easy process and parents is still growing just as well as their children are.

Psychologist Brinton Lykes distinguishes social individuals from autonomous individuals when she writes:

Social individuals are active and involved in circles well beyond immediate family or neighborhood.... They participate in a range of activities... which reflect both a sense of their own individuality... and a commitment to social change through collaborative or collective action.

In contrast, autonomous individuals tend to describe their current communities... not in terms of human relations or interconnections. Independence and autonomy are themes.... There is little evidence... of commitment to or engagement in action for social change.(n10)

Listening to Lykes, we can hear the leadership of women in "With and For Parents" as preeminent social individuals. Working in circles together, they are committed to broadening these circles, across communities and generations, and "with and for" other parents who could not, or would not, be as active as they. They feel best about themselves when their children and their communities are thriving. At the foundation of their work is not only a sense of reciprocity, and a deep understanding of the full lives of their neighbors, but a thoroughgoing commitment to community life in African-American communities. The members of the Parent Group echo powerfully and passionately the words of sociologist Cheryl Townsend Gilkes:

Four basic struggles... shape the consciousness of Black women--the struggle for human dignity, the struggle against white hypocrisy, the struggle for justice, and the struggle for survival.... No matter how high they rise, and no matter how diverse and how many places they go to build, Black women community workers are the ones who will come home to the community.(n11)


The early model of "With and For Parents" vacillated between a sense of giving these women what they say they need and a commitment to empowering a critical community of educational advocates. For two reasons, the project tipped toward the former. First there was no clear strategy, a priori, for dealing critically with the school-parent partnership. In fact, the collaboration among the school, the project, and the families was seen as necessary for the project to be launched, but it inadvertently washed out the possibility of systemic critique and silenced the naming of power asymmetries. Second, the form of empowerment nurtured by the project was initially quite individual- oriented--that is, organized around the particular problems a child or parent was having with the school. The combination of a failure to negotiate power asymmetries with the school and the individualistic frame on advocacy tilted the project toward crisis intervention. Jocelyn Garlington captures this complicated turn toward service:

Parents of children who are doing poorly in school are treading water, like their children and keeping fingers crossed that each new day will not bring with it another crisis. In a very profound sense for these parents no news is truly good news. Parents, needing some part of their daily lives to be free from raging urgencies, accepted a role of not having to deal with school unless called, and yet we were on the scene daily, nudging, trying to fill relatively calm pockets with activity, concern and even alarm. Education issues for families whose kids quietly slip through the cracks is like high blood pressure; the symptoms can be quiet but deadly. Many overburdened parents understandably needed to focus on the pulsating migraine. These headaches were not dropout prevention-related. Monitoring and planning for low-range goals often got put aside.(n12)

What surfaced from the women was their needs, which the staff served responsively. But in that process systemic change of their schools moved to a back burner.(n13) In being responsive, a turn from parental empowerment to crisis intervention may, ironically, feed the impression that the problem lies squarely in the family system. Much of the early work on parental involvement, prior to the 1980s, was generated explicitly from maternal blaming/ supporting frameworks. At that point in time, "parental involvement" classes, in low-income schools, involved learning how to "parent" more effectively. Parents were offered workshops on loving the unlovable child, dealing with a latchkey adolescent, and assertive discipline, all of which derive from an implicit model of helping the (particularly low-income) parent cope with, and control better, an uncontrollable child.(n14) Even when work with parents is done well, however, power issues, among and between families, schools, and districts, usually remain buried.

"With and For Parents" explicitly resisted such strategies. Yet, over time, parents grew beleaguered with and suspect of the politics of organizing. Quoting Garlington again:

I find myself cringing a bit when I think back on many of the conversations I have with folks truly committed to some form or type of parental involvement for low income, low achieving students in urban areas. Long lists are inevitably generated--parents need to this, this, and this. It is our mission to prod, push, beg and insist. Or is it? When parents do all of these "essential" things--learn all there is to know about how schools work, invest endless hours in working with their own children at home while fully participating in the life of school, join all the right committees and be well-informed and active in all levels of decision-making, and make a commitment to being a continual and relentless thorn in the side of anyone of influence, all will be right. Or will it?(n15)

Garlington rightly calls the "God question." Nevertheless, the "responsive turn" toward crisis intervention can reproduce the very discourses and practices that depoliticize the needs of low-income parents. If services are responsive and appropriate, individual needs may swell insatiably. While, as Anne Wheelock notes in a personal response to this chapter, some services can be as seen supporting empowerment, the likelihood of collective public struggle in such contexts is often diminished.(n16) Schools slip gently off the hook, although Garlington again poignantly argues:

We did not feel we were releasing the school from any responsibility. We were hopefully helping to illuminate the process for sensitive and effective ways for families with limited resources to solve problems. We shared our lessons with the school and encouraged the school to think beyond the obvious interventions and be more thoughtful and creative about solutions when problems arise. We invited parents into every facet of the process and readily admitted that we did not have all the answers. We made suggestions. We listened, we researched, observed and came back to parents, often with different suggestions.(n17)

Only in retrospect can we see that the slip from parental involvement to service delivery is a lot like the ideological slip that argues that parental involvement will, in and of itself, transform student learning. This assertion, benign and liberal, depoliticizes educational outcomes and exempts district and school policies and practices from accountability.

To explain: For funding purposes and, I think, because we all wanted to believe it, "With and For Parents" was originally premised as a dropout-prevention program. The logic argued that parental empowerment should produce more educationally supportive households and, in turn, improved student outcomes. To test the second assumption, we conducted statistical comparisons of the children of parental activists versus those of nonactivists on indices of student achievement after three years of the program. Our data suggest that while a solid leadership core developed, over time, the assumption that empowered and involved parents produce educated students can simply be laid to rest. Our data demonstrate instead that while empowered parents may "stick with a school" longer, they do not, in and of themselves, produce in the aggregate improved student outcomes in the areas of retention, absenteeism, California Achievement Test scores, or grades.(n18)

Parental involvement is necessary but not sufficient to produce improved student outcomes. Without a serious national, state, and community commitment to serving children broadly, and to restructuring schools in low-income neighborhoods and their surrounds, deep parental involvement with schools will do little to positively affect--or sustain--low-income students or their schools or outcomes. As Comer, Wheelock, and Epstein note, it is not enough for families to become more like schools; schools and districts must also become more like families.(n19)

Over the past decade, federal and state governments have tried to shift responsibility and blame for educational problems onto the backs of low-income parents. Individual parental involvement projects cannot restore a rich, critical, and creative public sphere. Only with a powerful, supportive, and activist national agenda for children can parental involvement thrive--and only then if parental involvement provokes thoughtful, critical inquiry into public bureaucracy. We all need parents to become critical activists in their homes, in their schools, on the streets, and in the halls of Congress. And yet, to quote Garlington:

Being an activist these days mean[s] standing out like a sore thumb among your peers. Gone forever, it seems, is the age of Afro wearing, angry, fist-raising Black folks determined to reclaim their communities and rattle this political system at its core. The rage is far more subdued. Sadly, there is no rage where so much is warranted. Unfortunately, we found that the activists in the community are viewed somewhat as weirdos, no matter how noble the cause or how many people in the community received direct benefit from the activist's fervor. Most parents just want to parent, love their children and experience some success in making things better for their future. They are not ready to carry placards, spend hours in planning meetings, keep vigilance in the schools, and show up at every important community event pressing the need for community response and interest in education.

In communities, there are impressive "little engine that could" groups of parents (mostly women) with a sprinkling of community folks huffing and puffing and pushing themselves to the limit for some favorable but limited outcomes for kids. They must fight attitudes and perceptions that date back centuries and a school system whose resistance to change is unparalleled. But still these hardworking, devoted parents manage to make a dent--regardless how small. Then what? Their children leave the school (hopefully graduate) and the battle must start afresh. The system remains unchanged and the victories, while important to the parents who struggled to realize them, more often than not, are quickly forgotten when those parents are off the scene.(n20)

Without relentless attention to systemic power and critique, parental-involvement projects may simply surface the individual needs of families, which will become the vehicle to express, and dilute, struggles of power. If unacknowledged, power may hide, cloaked in the "needs" or "inadequacies" of disenfranchised mothers, and schools may persist unchallenged, employing practices that damage.



The Philadelphia story is one in which I am far more deeply involved as an activist researcher. I narrate this analysis, in part, as autobiography. Having been on half-time leave for four years (1988-1992) from the University of Pennsylvania to work as consultant with the Philadelphia Schools Collaboration,(n21) I have a lot invested in what does and does not happen to the parents involved with the comprehensive high schools undergoing restructuring.

In June 1990, the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative entered into an agreement that this district would pursue shared decision making and school-based management (SD/SBM) in all schools that could generate radically innovative educational plans and then seek a 75 percent approval vote, by the faculty, for those plans. once such a vote is achieved, control over the resources of that school would move from central district to the school; waivers from state, district, and union policies would be considered; and shared decision making would be in place at the school site. It is this process of shared decision making, involving parents, to which our attention now turns.

As required by the guidelines of SD/SBM, all schools pursuing school-based management operate under the direction of governance councils, comprised of administrators, teachers, and parents, and established to assure that important "decisions of educational renewal will be made by consensus and with respect for the elements of choice, diversity and risk taking that characterize a renewal effort." The council is expected to:

a. establish processes to assure broad consultation and involvement of the school community in curriculum, instruction and educational renewal including posting of criteria and selection of personnel for posted positions;

b. provide the vehicles for assessing the effectiveness of the school program;

c. determine distribution of resources (financial and personnel) allocated to the school;

d. regularly report to the school community;

e. request waivers for changes in School District policy and/or contractual agreements and/or state regulations.(n22)

Councils were designed to be comprised mostly of educators, but to enjoy substantial parent representation. Each fifteen-person council consists of the principal, an assistant principal, a building representative from the union, four parents selected by lottery from among those interested, one noninstructional staff member, one department head, and six teachers. While parents do not constitute half--much less a majority--of the council, they comprise a substantial block, and all decisions are to be made by consensus and not majority vote.

Early on, involvement of parents was recognized as politically imperative on the councils and throughout the school communities. It was expected that with SD/SBM, schools and their governance councils would eventually enjoy adequate resources and autonomy to become critical, struggling, public democracies of difference among and between educators and parents. These councils were to have broad decision-making power, and would therefore need representation of all members of the "school community" in order to reinvent the structures, practices, and outcomes of urban high schools. Parents were invited not to represent exclusively their own children's interests, but to import "parental perspectives" into critical policymaking conversations.

It was clear that it was not only necessary to have parents on these councils, but that without substantial support, parents would either feel like or come to be seen as tokens. They could be isolated or become hysterical quickly. As a player in the design of SD/SBM, I worried about all the possible problems--parents will not know all that they need to know to make serious educational decisions; parents are not represented fairly; parents will not feel empowered to speak their minds; parents will not get a hearing when they do speak their minds; educators will not work with parents as full partners.

In some schools, these concerns were realized. In other schools they were not. In many schools parents are decision makers working closely with teachers. In other schools their input is trivialized. Some parents feel absolutely entitled to speak their minds. others feel so proud to have been selected to be on the council that they would not dare contradict the educators. James Sims, a father on the council at one high school, said early in the process: "I am concerned about those educators making decisions alone about my child, and his schooling. But right now I also feel like who am I to tell them. They're professionals."

Sims's initial concerns rang true for many of the forty-eight parents who represented the twelve high schools pursuing SD/SBM. Six months later, Sims is no longer ambivalent. He is co-chair of his school council, and astonished to find camaraderie--"They're just normal like the rest of us." Echoing Sims, another parent explains: "Teachers are just like the rest of us. They get off track, don't follow through, and nit-picking, argue about little things. You know, they have more education, but same feelings as regular people, if you know what I mean."

On the first Saturday that we all met, in January 1991 (we being the parents, some representatives from the district and the union, and those of us from the collaborative), I was concerned that turnout would be terrible, parents would resent the "extra" attention, or (flying to the other extreme of paranoia) they would grow too dependent on us to provide "answers." of course I was wrong on all three counts. The turnout was fantastic: Thirty-six of forty-two selected representatives showed up on a beautiful Saturday morning. They appreciated the opportunity to organize, decided they had to meet one Saturday a month, with a Monday-evening dinner between meetings. By the third session, they asked me (and the rest of the district, union, and collaborative folks) to leave so that they could have some time among themselves. So much for my overprotective fantasies.

In July, interviews with these parents surfaced a number of issues, all rotating around the question of what parents are being asked to represent in the name of parental participation in schools. Parents today are getting better access to their educational communities, but to what end? To be "better parents"? To be advisors on community issues? Or to be fully entitled partners in school decision making? Are they there to play out their private interests or to engage, with teachers, in creating a shared vision of a school community? Why have we not dealt, explicitly, with the parent-teacher/administrator struggle over power?

Among this group, it is clear that they have collectively, if unevenly, developed a rich set of voices. They enjoy a democracy of differences. Some have been, and continue to be, strongly oppositional to schools--believing that neither the district nor the union has their children's interests at heart. Most are still solid collaborators.

The issue that has emerged most frequently from these interviews concerns a distinction one woman made between "getting a voice" and "getting a hearing." Here again the politics of power surface. No one among this group is inviting a shift from activism to service delivery, but quite a few complain that their activism is being ignored. Still others, however, are delighted with the opportunity to work in struggling partnership with schools. As Jerome Spearman, co-chair of his governance council, indicated:

We have the opportunity to influence the schools where our children are being educated; I'm surprised at how much work needs to be done. But we can't go in there and mouth off without knowing what we're talking about. They need us, because without parents, things get lopsided; that is, they care more about jobs than about the whole picture. But with us there, they get a dose of reality.

Parents take several but, at minimum, two stances about their role on the councils. There are those who maintain a parents' rights perspective, historically rooted in an oppositional, nontrusting, adversarial relation with the school district. They confront educators regularly and use their councils to do what they consider "parent business"--trying to get more parents invited to participate on the councils, trying to secure more resources for parental involvement, and trying to "get rid" of teachers they consider problematic. Given the historic marginalization of parents, such a stance may be understandable, but is not always appreciated by other council members. Then there are those who have taken this opportunity to try to work collaboratively with educators toward a collective vision of a school community. They press for more resources for parental involvement, and try to learn all they can about schools. Many provoke critical conversation about educational practice, tracking, multiculturalism and racism, and the splitting of vocational and academic curricula.

What has become difficult, however, is that school-based management in Philadelphia, as in the rest of the country, has emerged at a moment of public-sector retrenchment, not expansion. School-based resources and decision making have been narrowed, not expanded. School-based councils feel "empowered" only to determine who or what will be cut. So fights fall along predictable lines of teachers versus parents, representatives of color versus whites, administrators versus teachers. In some contexts the tension is carried at the fault line of educator-parent. This seemingly oppositional relation of parents to educators is, however, neither inevitable nor healthy.

In retrospect, our decision to organize the Philadelphia parents as a collective may have inadvertently reproduced the impulse to "equip" (fix?) parents, rather than to transform the workings of bureaucracy so these oppositional interactions were not so overdetermined. In some ways we may have replayed the dilemma of the Baltimore project. In the name of empowering parents, the politics of systemic change may have been papered over.

Fraser identifies two dilemmas of the public sphere: the illusion of bracketing inequalities and the difficulties of engaging real talk among counterpublics. For Fraser, counterpublics

contest the exclusionary norms of the bourgeoisie public... which claim[s] to be the public... signal[ing] that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs.(n23)

In Philadelphia, inequalities cannot be bracketed, and those parents who are prepared to engage as counterpublics are looking for conversational partners within the central district and on their councils, although the struggles are most visibly played out on the councils. Manuel Ortiz, father and council member at one high school, sent an open letter to his school principal:

Due to the fact that the participants of the Governance Council are from a very specific situation--all are teachers/administrators, are from the same school, and have been oriented through the years to a particular system and culture--the language, thinking and dialogue left me always playing catch up ball with such important subjects as meaning of words and concepts, philosophy of education, and contextual questions that relate to [this high school]. This promotes a high level of frustration, sense of uselessness and very limited participation. When there is participation, it is difficult to know whether or not you have made your point because of the underlying homogeneity existing in the group.

In Philadelphia, given our ambivalent address of power, one might probe whether parents are being asked to "contest exclusionary norms" as Fraser points out, or invited to engage with educators in spinning images of the common good (as if power were irrelevant). Robert Bellah and his colleagues have written that "private interests" interfere with the emergence of a common good:

The focus of public debate must move away from a concern for maximizing private interests... toward the central problems of a sustainable future in our own society and in the world. The focus must be on justice in the broadest sense.... Without a healthy social and natural ecology, we put at risk everything we have received from our ancestors and threaten to have nothing but violence and decay as the inheritance of our children and grandchildren.(n24)

If parents' interests are shaped as private, and schools' interests as "public," then a conversation toward a common vision is nearly impossible. Parents (as well as teachers) cannot simply be added to the mix of decision making unless the structures and practices of bureaucracy--school-based and central district--are radically decentralized and democratic.

Slowly, now, within councils, teachers and parents are beginning to talk within groups, if more heistantly across. Parents sometimes feel that they never have enough information to be truly informed, that they cannot frame the "right questions," that educators blame parents for students' educational difficulties, and that some educators are not committed to collaboration with parents, refusing to grant parents a hearing. once they are snubbed, parents default to "rights." Oppositional politics follow.

But most parent council members, after six months, are organizing-- together and with teachers. Wonderfully, they are figuring out and playing with the power dynamics. No longer waiting to be invited to speak up, they are invading the space between finding a "voice" and getting a "hearing," dancing with some teachers through the politics of power. Many are working collaboratively with teachers for change. Sarah Gilliam, a mother of three sons and a council member at a high school, noted:

I love being on the council; being a pioneer; they need a parent's perspective there. And it has made me, more than anything, feel a sense of belonging; made me want to become part of what's going on with Phillip. It's created a bond with me and him, an obligation. It made me open up my eyes to what's going on in the system. But sometimes, I wonder that they are overly nice, maybe a bit patronizing to us. The biggest thing is that the schools are not working, they haven't figured out how to motivate my sons. The majority of kids in Philadelphia are "at risk"; I'll tell you, the motivation is not lacking at [her home address]. I been through blaming myself. It's not here. I'm sick and tired when administrators and teachers don't have an answer, they blame the parents. Motivate him! They dump that back on us when they can't figure it out. But it's not my job; it's their job to stimulate my son. And if they can't, don't blame me. So, my sitting there keeps that from happening! Sure, sometimes they must think, oh God, we shouldn't have gotten her started. But now I feel respected. I don't wait for them to call on me, or notice my hand up. I bogart my way in; say what I need to; interrupt when I want.

When asked what parents contribute to the council, Ms. Gilliam answered:

They need a parental point of view; they get so boggled, when they get stuck and can't answer, they turn to me. They need to spend less time debating and opposing each other. Now I'm comfortable. I realize they respect me. once I started speaking, they thought, and "She's not dumb" and "A rather interesting parent." Still and all, my opinion makes a difference but they don't see me as an equal. I'm still climbing the ladder. I started down here [points to floor] and now I'm up here [points midway up her body] but I'm not here with them [head]. They started up here. I don't make them earn my respect.

On these school-based councils, parents are often among the first voices of critique, possibility, and common vision. They crack the silences of bureaucracy, prying open the questions that have historically been shut down inside schools--questions of authority, culture, and community. I quote again from Manuel Ortiz's letter to his principal:

I am, in my limited understanding, committed to a school-based philosophy that depends on parents as a significant entity in fulfilling local school goals. As a parent, I am concerned about a number of issues which include the high dropout rate in our school system, the percentage of non-college bound students, the issues of early drop-out when the students arrive on campus of a particular college, the issues of SAT scores particularly among the Black and Hispanic students but certainly the whole school, the subject of functional illiteracy for those who do not graduate, the problem of misrepresentation of grading where a student is in the star program with a 3.5 average or higher and is shocked by the reality of their inability to compete on many of our college campuses to the point of discouragement and possibly early drop- out.

Another issue is the growing multi-ethnic population and, in particular, issues such as no Hispanic faculty with close to 30% Hispanic student population and no Hispanic counselors other than one man who may not be qualified to give college guidance.

The final concern that I have is the community around our High School. Block busting has been evident, homes are for sale on every block and these homes will be occupied by non-white families.... I am not sure where the faculty live. I would assume that few, if any, live in the immediate area. The issue that I raise is a matter of working closer with the community, which includes businesses, social service agencies, religious institutions, and other assistance programs.

For most parents, the work of school reform is expressly about challenging and transforming the politics of public education. From their stance, few of these tensions are a surprise. When they joined the governance council, they anticipated that they would be treated as invaders. They understood that respect would be slow in coming, if forthcoming at all. They have been delighted, oddly enough, to discover what one mother confessed with glee, "They [teachers] are just like normal people." At many of our high schools, parents are pursuing the critical work of restructuring through tough questioning, probing, and persistence. They want to believe that a common vision is possible but they know that class, race, and status politics will prevail unless constantly challenged. More than they expected, they are finding allies in teachers.

Three years into restructuring, parents are now pressing questions of power, demanding that the public sphere embrace their concerns--the concerns of the public. They often feel they are being stonewalled. When they seek to change a Eurocentric curriculum; when they press questions about special education, ask about student outcomes, demand a welcoming building, or question why teachers are being bumped, they describe confronting blank faces.

Today in bureaucratically controlled and strongly centralized urban school systems, parents may be voicing passion and outrage for everyone. Like the family member who "carries" everyone's anger, parents, citywide, are carrying on, "out of control." "They don't act professionally." If low-income and of color, they may be seen as needing containment. If high-income and white, they may parade their outrage in calls for "parental choice" or vouchers, in a well-dressed, regulated, controlled, elite etiquette.(n25) We need to hear the critique parents carry, and mine their concerns for the rich possibilities they embody. My point is simply that we need to see the teacher-parent adversarial relation as largely constructed by and serving the very bureaucracies (local, state, and federal) that are underfunding and overcontrolling public education.

Indeed, we must resist relentlessly the splitting of parents' and educators' interests in their struggles to transform public education. It is only through organizing parents and educators, as a democratic coalition, that both privatization and controlling bureaucracy can be confronted.

As Chantal Mouffe has written:

The progressive character of a struggle does not depend on its place of origin--we have said that all workers' struggles are not progressive--but rather on its link to other struggles. The longer the chain of equivalences set up between the defense of the rights of one group and those of other groups, the deeper will be the democratization process and the more difficult it will be to neutralize certain struggles or make them serve the ends of the Right.(n26)

Mouffe aptly theorizes the socially constructed antagonisms between parents and educators, particularly in urban areas Both bureaucracy and privatization may be well served by instigating antagonisms between educators and parents, mitigating the emergence of a democratic struggle. Three years into our work in Philadelphia, many educators and parents are beginning to recognize each other as friendly critics and allies in the struggle to reinvent urban high schooling.


Chicago is, today, the urban scene in which questions of parents, community, and educator power have been taken most seriously. The brilliance and exuberance of Chicago school reform is unprecedented, and unparalleled nationally. once you arrive in the city, you can ask your cab driver or waitress, gynecologist or librarian, and they will tell you, in detail, some story about reform, or maybe reveal that they are local school council members. Bureaucratic traditions of authority, control, and decision making have been radically reversed through community control of schools.

In 1989, school reform legislation passed by the Illinois State Legislature called for each school within the Chicago public schools to be governed by a local school council (LSC), comprised of six parents, two community representatives, two teachers, and the principal. Their collective job would be the hiring and evaluation of the principal, and working with the principal on school improvement plans and budgets. By systematically transforming the nature of school-based power dynamics, the law sought to dismantle the paternalistic power of the central administration and to decentralize public education in Chicago. At the school site, power was addressed radically. But, as we will see, the span of control held by the central district remains relatively intact.

One might consider Chicago school reform a poststructural dream. A multiplicity of voices can be heard. A decentralized central administration can be discerned. A deep community-based challenge to traditional bureaucratic power relations has been launched. By design, little unity or coherence can be found. Schools that are flourishing look very distinct from one another.

Chicago parents are, today, positioned as the primary decision makers within schools. They are intent on importing concerns of culture, class, and community into their schools, as is obvious in the rise of interest in African-centered curricula, afterschool programs, and community-service schools. So, too, they interrupt the monopoly power of "professionals." The Professional Practice Advisory Councils, comprised of teachers responsible for curriculum development, are advisory to the principal and to the parent-led LSCs. As Don Moore has articulated, parents as "outsiders" can:

*Place new problems on the school's agenda that weren't previously acknowledged (for example,... the lack of sufficient substitute teachers; students' fears of physical attack in bathrooms, on playgrounds, on the way to and from school).

*Suggest and act on new ways of solving problems (for example, locating space that can be rented in the neighborhood to reduce overcrowding).

*Draw on their own political and organizational networks to get the problems solved (for example, making a major public issue of late bus arrivals through appeals to the media and to elected officials; getting their employer to donate management consulting help to the Local School Council).

*Bring to bear supportive parent and community resources that were not previously available (for example, recruiting community agencies to counsel students and families; organizing parent safety patrols).(n27)

The scene in Chicago is a radical reversal of traditional school politics.

With Michael Katz and Elaine Simon of the University of Pennsylvania, and with support of a Spencer grant, I have had the opportunity to study school reform in Chicago: attending LSC meetings; creating conversations among teachers, LSC chairpersons, parents, principals; visiting schools; talking with bureaucrats at the central district, the union representatives, and individuals in high-level policymaking positions. Most of our time has been spent with parents and other activists who helped to instigate and facilitate reform Chicago-style.

We all have been enormously impressed by the vibrant sense of democracy, responsibility, and community involvement that defines so many of Chicago's schools. With reform, parents and community constitute a social movement, often--but not always--with teachers inside and outside their schools. As Richard Elmore has written:

Chicago has embarked on a novel and far-reaching educational reform. This reform stands apart from virtually all others of the last decade, an unprecedented period of educational reform across the nation. First, it originated from a grass roots political movement, formed around a nucleus of business, philanthropic, and community organizations, in response to increasing evidence of chronic failure of schools to educate children....

Second, the Chicago reform is, more than any other, based mainly on the theory that schools can be improved by strengthening democratic control at the school-community level....

Third, the Chicago reform is probably more ambitious--some would say radical--than any other current reform in its departure from the established structure of school organization. The creation of 542 Local School Councils with significant decision making authority for schools, is, by itself, an enormous departure from established patterns of school organization.... Those with a concern for the future of urban public school systems are watching Chicago closely.(n28)

Before I detail the reform and its power implications for parents, I should note that even in Chicago there yawns a large space between the ideological power granted to parents and the material power still held by the central administration and the financial elites in this urban community. Should this national round of reform come to a halt, precipitated by crashes in urban and national economies, the callousness of late capitalism, and the brutalization of urban communities, we may hear that activist parents, particularly urban, low-income, African- American parents, are to blame for the failure of public education. And we will know this is a lie.

This concern between ideological and material power bubbled up one evening when Elaine Simon, Michael Katz, and I joined a group of parents and community members in one of Chicago's poorest elementary schools. At the school, parents, teachers, and community members were interviewing their top four candidates for principal of their school, in front of a gymnasium filled, from 5:00 P.M. until 8:00 P.M., with parents, community members, children, teachers, and food and drink. Over seventy people assembled, listening to each other, arguing, questioning, carrying voices of power, critique, and possibility. There were public debates over corporal punishment in school--and at home. One mother explained, "I'm tired of hearing in our community the only way to handle a child is with a 2 x 4!" The conversation wandered thoughtfully from school to home to community life. We were moved deeply by these parents' sense that they owned this school, and their desire to struggle with the candidates for principal to improve public education. Private troubles were public issues. Former snipes or feelings of alienation were discussed publicly. The smells of democracy, in the streets and in the gymnasium, were sweet.

The next day we interviewed several top administrators in the central administration building, the union, and the Chicago Finance Authority. From all of these top-level policymakers, we heard: "Our hands are tied. Since the legislation we have no power, and the whole thing is likely to collapse under the weight of budget cuts. But there's nothing we can do. And as you know, we expect $200-$300 million deficit."(n29) From the eightieth floor of a high rise in mid-town Chicago, looking down, it was sobering to realize that the Chicago adults who feel most empowered around public education are those living well below the poverty line. Those who hold real power claim to be "out of control." Ideological power has been reversed, but the bulk of material power has yet to be relinquished.


William Ayres summarizes Chicago school reform when he writes:

On December 12, 1988 Governor James Thompson signed Public Act 85-1418, and the most far-reaching mandate to restructure a big-city school system in American history became law.... The intent of the law was crystal clear: power was to shift from a large central office to each local school site, and a bureaucratic, command-oriented system was to yield to a decentralized and democratic model....

In this context the Chicago experiment is remarkable. As opposed to blue- ribbon commissions and top-down recommendations, it is based on radical decentralization and broad popular ownership. Instead of elitism and benevolent dictatorship, it relies on significant authority and responsibility among the full range of interested parties. In place of prescription, it relies on invention and flexible structures. The reformers resisted the notion that a benevolent bureaucrat or an enlightened professional held the key to change. Instead they turned to the people with the problem, saying, in effect, that those with the problems are key to crafting adequate solutions. They explicitly noted that in a democracy the solutions to problems are generally more, not less, democracy. The reformers wanted a shift in power, and they defined, therefore, the problems as structural (not personal) and the solutions as social (not individual). Their goal was a wider sense of efficacy, agency, and initiative among those previously excluded from participation, and end to passivity and victimization As Mrs. McFerren said, "Poor people are the real experts on the lives of poor people."(n30)

Three kinds of questions about parental involvement spin out of the Chicago school reform story. The first addresses the differential levels of "cultural capital" that characterize these LSCs, including both what people bring to the LSCs and how they are received. Across schools, we have seen very different displays, and receptions, of what Pierre Bourdieu and Annette Lareau call "cultural capital."(n31) As Lareau has written:

Upper-middle-class parents' educational knowledge, disposition to critically evaluate teachers' professional performance and friendship networks with professionals constitute cultural capital and social capital to comply with teachers' requests for assistance. Overall, upper-middle-class parents possessed more, activated more effectively, and received more benefits from their cultural resources than did working- class parents....

Working-class parents' inability to display cultural capital impedes their children's school success--not so much because of the intrinsic merit of the cultural displays--but because of teachers' definitions of the standards for success in educational organizations.(n32)

But as Fred Hess of the Chicago Panel on School Finances rightly points out, schools have always been deeply stratified by class. This is not peculiar to the reform agenda and, he argues, reform is unlikely to fully destratify:

The issue really is, "Will empowering parents, who have differential cultural capital at their disposal, increase or diminish the current differences in privilege among Chicago schools?" The centrist bureaucracy had already distributed the system's resources (dollars and staff) inequitably, giving disequalizing power and positions to the privileged (e.g., magnet schools were given the right to select staff without regard to seniority in 1981 and were given four extra teaching positions; they also, frequently without formal authorization, were given the right to select students). The reform act moved to correct these inequities by requiring an equalizing of basic program resources at all schools, extending teacher selection by merit to all schools, and reallocating resources significantly towards schools with the most low income students enrolled. Thus, the empowering of parents through LSC decision-making was only one part of the power rearrangement going on under reform.(n33)

As Hess and we have found, many LSCs are flourishing in Chicago. Indeed, many low-income schools are taking off educationally. But some schools cannot get a quorum. In some middle-class schools the LSCs are incorporating so that they can raise money. Some white working-class LSCs are considering redistricting their school boundaries to attract more "good [read white] kids," while others opt to become selective magnets. In some low-income schools, the technical training needs run high (how to read a budget) whereas in more affluent or magnet schools, budget expertise sits at the LSC table. In some sights, questions of cultural capital and "safety nets" linger awkwardly in the midst of a city filled with enormous school-based energy and transformations.

Even Chicago parents live with a second chronic urban dilemma--a bloated and controlling public school bureaucracy that will not go away. This concern involves the role and persistence of bureaucracy in the midst of revolution. The central district in Chicago conveys a wait-and see-attitude--"Districts that are serious about school-based management, whether parent led or not, have not yet adequately struggled with what to do with the Central administration."(n34) It appears that not enough has changed. There is a premature move to announce that reform has failed, and always a move to recentralize. While the schools have been "liberated" they may be quite near fiscal "abandonment." Since reform, the central administration has cut 840 positions, as stipulated by the legislation. But the workings of the administration--its posture, support, span of control, and trust of schools--have not been reoriented.

Indeed, if schools are "in charge" and the central administration has changed little, schools are quite vulnerable to devastating, decentralized budget crises. One school principal, quoted by Darryl Ford of the Chicago Panel on School Finances, joked that in Chicago school-based management emerged just when the schools were about to go broke. As this principal said: "You and I are driving in a car, arguing about which way we ought to be going. I run out of gas and say, 'Damn it, you drive! You know how you get to choose the route, which is great. But until somebody puts gas in the tank it doesn't make much difference!'"(n35) Indeed, if community control, Chicago-style, goes down the tubes, we may hear that the experiment failed because parents ran the schools into the ground, when they were never given all the resources needed to drive the car.

A third concern raised by Chicago, but not distinct to Chicago, is the question of how counterpublics--teachers, parents, community representatives--can possibly engage together in collective educational projects. We know from Baltimore and Philadelphia that power is never absent. In Chicago, the politics of power have been confronted and reversed. Parents call some important shots. Principals can be fired. LSCs determine school-based budgeting. Given that Chicago represents an astonishing moment of the "public" taking back the "public sphere," the question that needs to be pressed is which contexts and practices need to be put in place, or invented, so that diverse counterpublics can engage in critical conversation and common projects. How can a democracy of differences breathe life into educational reform?

In Chicago, and to a lesser degree in Milwaukee, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, parent and community groups do, as they should, import their politics explicitly into shared decision-making meetings. These politics are often generated out of prior, well-established adversarial relations with schools. Given that the reforms of the 1980s focused on "professionalization," and typically ignored and marginalized the publics of parents and community, today's activist voices of parents, educational advocates, and community-based organizations have been shaped, historically, against and in opposition to traditional educational institutions, educators, and unions. In many districts these voices are considered "trouble." More than anywhere else, Chicago is struggling to invent strategies that detour the automatic turn to oppositional interests and create, instead, ways for adults and adolescents to nurture trust, critique, and hold conversation within educational democracies.

So it is in Chicago, in this fantastic moment of participatory democracy within the public sphere, that we view this "next generation" of struggles around parental empowerment--differential levels of received and imported cultural capital, the persistence of bureaucratic waste and obstruction, and the need for ongoing creative conversations among parents and teachers within a rich democracy of differences. Chicago holds unprecedented possibilities and moves us all forward, with the sense of serious engagement by and for parents, families, educators, and students.


The point they miss is that the classroom, and the school and school system generally, are not comprehensible unless you flush out the power relationships that inform and control the behavior of everyone in these settings. Ignore those relationships, leave unexamined their rationale, and the existing "system" will defeat efforts at reform. This will happen not because there is a grand conspiracy or because of mulish stubbornness in resisting change or because educators are uniquely unimaginative or uncreative (which they are not) but rather because recognizing and trying to change power relationships, especially in complicated, traditional institutions, is among the most complex tasks human beings can undertake. The first step, recognition of the problem, is the most difficult, especially in regard to schools, because we all have been socialized most effectively to accept the power relationships characteristic of our schools as right, natural, and proper outcomes.(n36)

Reflecting on these three scenes of parental involvement, and the above quotation from Seymour Sarason, we can see the power of power. Typically unaddressed in and around schools, parent voices surface adversely in the shape of needs, outrage, or silence. As Michel Foucault would tell us, when power asymmetries are confronted and reversed, as in Chicago, they resurface through the stubborn persistence of dominant institutions and the deceptive withdrawal of material power from now "empowered" groups.(n37) So we see parents in the 1990s being thrown into a public sphere of public education that has lost democratic vibrancy, authentic representation, richness of critique, social legitimacy, and the depth of possibility that it once enjoyed, if only romantically. In this postmodern moment, the public institutions of schooling have been declared ineffective by activists from across the political spectrum. Clothed as crusaders, parents are being invited--by us all--to crack this sphere open through threatened exit (e.g., vouchers) or through critical voices in school-based decision making (e.g., restructuring, community control). Simply stated, we are, as a culture, asking parents, in the 1990s, to engage the work of interruption, intervention, and repair of the public sphere.

Public-sector bureaucracies are troubling today because they have swollen uncritically, remain staunchly committed to their shape and breadth, trust neither the educators nor the parents/students "in the field." They assume that their policies and practices reflect what Hess called a "disinterested common good" (as if one could exist).(n38) This public sphere is troubling because educational data, to the extent that they are even made available to the public, demonstrate unambiguously that our schools are failing most of the nation's children. And this public sphere is troubling because although schools must be a site for engaging critical democratic participation, the state in the 1990s has constrained dramatically the talk, resources, and work of those employed in and attending schools.

In this historical context, parents are being put to use. They are among the most appropriate, but cannot be the exclusive, agents who speak for a radical interruption and transformation of the public sphere of public education. If they are alone, they will be read as marginalized and hysterical, especially if poor and of color. Unless the dynamics of power are addressed, unless the range and consequences of cultural capital are supported, and unless a deep vision of schools as community-based democracies of difference is engaged, parental involvement "projects" will be transformed into crisis-intervention projects, into moments of having a voice but not getting a hearing, or into public contexts that slip into bankruptcy.

As Michael Katz states:

The failure of public institutions spreads beyond the "underclass" or very poor. Because it touches all Americans, institutional failure represents one more link between the "underclass" and the rest of America. Only, it impacts poor people with greater force because they lack alternatives. They cannot purchase private schooling, security systems and health care or, as the well-off have done in central Philadelphia, create their own special service districts to assure clean and safe streets. This cumulative failure of institutions degrades public life and raises the question of whether any common collective life remains possible in American cities. If privatization proves the only viable response, what will prevent the distribution of institutional resources from becoming more unequal? What happens to the definition of citizenship and the possibility of community?(n39)

Rich and real parental involvement requires a three-way commitment--to organizing parents, to restructuring schools and communities toward enriched educational and economic outcomes, and to inventing rich visions of. educational democracies of difference. Unless parents are organized as a political body, parental involvement projects will devolve into a swamp of crisis intervention, leaving neither a legacy of empowerment nor a hint of systemic change. Without a commitment to democratically restructuring schools and communities, parental involvement projects will end up helping families (or not) rather than transforming public life. Without an image of parents and educators working across lines of power, class, race, gender, status, and politics, toward democracies of difference, each group is likely to feel they have gotten no hearing, and will default to their respective corners shrouded in private interests and opposition. Soon, the Right will privatize us all.

Schools, as transforming, reflective communities, need to feel more like meaningful communities--whatever romantic spin one has on churches, neighborhoods, social movements, or labor unions--contexts in which shared vision, textured solidarity, and ongoing struggles constitute the work of community life. Within parental involvement projects, we must resist the default to deficit-focused service, complacent silence, or singularly oppositional politics. The costs are far too high.

Those of us who are educators, researchers, activists, and/or parents need to pursue the work we do with/as parents around schools. All of us, hungry for a reinvigorated public sphere, must understand that the need is far more immense and the project far more ambitious than we imagined. These days, speaking aloud about wasteful public bureaucracies and irresponsible public institutions bears substantial costs. The bodies and minds of low-income children are simply expendable in the many designs for a privatized public sphere.(n40) Nevertheless, without feeding the perverse pleasures of the privatizing Right, we must reconceptualize a democratic, critical, lively public sphere within public education. And we need to do this with, but not exclusively on the backs of, parents.

I appreciate support from the W. T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts and acknowledge the generous work of Jennifer Williams, and invaluable feedback from Gail Clouden, Jocelyn Garlington, Fred Hess, Annette Lareau, Manuel Ortiz, an Anne Wheelock.


(n1) Nancy Fraser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," Social Text 8 (1990): 56-80.

(n2) Michelle Fine, "The 'Public' in Public Schools: The Social Constriction/Construction of a Moral Community," Journal of Social Issues 46 (1990): 107-19.

(n3) Fraser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere," pp. 62-63.

(n4) "Parents" will be used to designate parents and guardians.

(n5) See Robert W. Connell et al., Making the Difference: Schools, Families and Social Division (Sydney: George Allen and Erwin, 1982);James P. Comer, "New Haven's School Community Connection," Educational Leadership, March 1981, pp. 42-48; Joyce L. Epstein, "School and Family Connections: Theory, Research, and Implications for Integrating Societies of Education and Family," in Families in Community Settings: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. D. C. Unger and M. B. Sussman (New York: Hayworth Press, 1991); idem, "Schools in the Center: School, Family, Peer and Community Connections for More Effective Middle Grades Schools and Students" (Mimeographed draft prepared for the Carnegie Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents, Johns Hopkins University, 1982); and Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Worlds Apart: Relationships between Families and Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1978).

(n6) Connell et al., Making the Difference.

(n7) Jocelyn Garlington, Helping Dreams Survive: The Story of a Project Involving African-American Families and the Education of Their Children (Baltimore: National Committee of Citizens for Education, November 15, 1991), p. xxi.

(n8) Michelle Fine and Donnie Cook, Evaluation Reports: "With and For Parents" (Final Report, National Committee of Citizens for Education, Baltimore, 1991).

(n9) Lightfoot, Worlds Apart, p. 163.

(n10) Brinton Lykes, "Gender and Individualistic versus Collectivist Bases for Notions about the Self," Journal of Personality 53 (1985): 375.

(n11) Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, "Going Up for the oppressed," in Empowerment and Women, ed. Ann Bookmen and Sandra Morgan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), p. 75.

(n12) Jocelyn Garlington, Personal communication, 1991.

(n13) See Michelle Fine, Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

(n14) Jocelyn Garlington, Personal communication, 1991.

(n15) Ibid.

(n16) Anne Wheelock, Personal communication, 1991.

(n17) Garlington, Personal communication, 1991.

(n18) Michelle Fine and Donnie Cook, Evaluation Reports: "With and For Parents" (Washington, D.C.: The William T. Grant Foundation, 1992).

(n19) See Comer, "New Haven's School Community Connection"; Wheelock, Personal communication, 1991; and Epstein, "School and Family Connections."

(n20) Garlington, Personal communication.

(n21) The collaborative is supported by a grant from Pew Charitable Trusts to restructure the twenty-two comprehensive high schools in Philadelphia.

(n22) School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Guidelines SBM/SDM, June 1991.

(n23) Fraser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere," p. 61.

(n24) Robert Bellah et al., The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), p. 143.

(n25) Valerie Walkerdine, The Mastery of Reason (New York: Routledge, 1991). In this text, Walkerdine analyzes how reason and etiquette mask the negotiations of power asymmetries.

(n26) Chantal Mouffe, "Hegemony and New Political Subjects: Toward a New Concept of Democracy," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1911), p. 100.

(n27) Don Moore, "The Case for Parent and Community Involvement," in Empowering Teachers and Parents, ed. G. Hess (South Hadley: Greenwood Publishing, 1992), p. 24.

(n28) Richard Elmore, "Introduction," in School Restructuring, Chicago Style, ed. G. Hess (Newbury Park, Calif.: Corwin Press, 1991), p. viii.

(n29) Interview, Chicago Finance Authority, 1991.

(n30) William Ayres, "If Bumble Bees Can Fly: Taking off with the Chicago School Reform" (Unpublished manuscript, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1991).

(n31) See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Don Davies, Testing a Strategy for Reform: The League of Schools Reaching Out (Boston: Institute for Responsive Education, 1991); and Annette Lareau, "Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Importance of Cultural Capital," Sociology of Education 60 (1987): 73-85.

(n32) Lareau, "Social Class Differences," p. 77.

(n33) G. Fred Hess, Personal communication, 1991, 1992.

(n34) Quoted in Hess, Personal communication, 1992.

(n35) Quoted in Darryl J. Ford, "The School Principal and Chicago's School Reform: Principals' Early Perceptions of Reform Institutions," in Chicago Panel on Public Policy and Finance (Chicago: Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, 1991).

(n36) Seymour B. Sarason, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course before it's Too Late? (San Francisco: Jossey-Boss, 199), p. 29.

(n37) Michel Foucault, The History of Servality, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).

(n38) Hess, Personal communication, 1992.

(n39) Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) p. 30.

(n40) See John E. Chubb and Terry M. More, Politics, Markets and America's Schools (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 4, 1993, p. 682-729
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 147, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 9:49:03 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Michelle Fine
    City University of New York Graduate Center
    Michele Fine is a professor of psychology at City University of New York Graduate Center, and senior consultant to the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative. She is coeditor, with Lois Weis, of Beyond Silenced Voices: Race, Class and Gender in U.S. Schools.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue