As the nation observed the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty in early January, the 2014 Georgia Family Engagement Conference here drew over 1,200 participants, up from 800 at the inaugural state conference in 2012. About a dozen states have held such confabs, pursuant to the “Parental Involvement” section of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, an arm of the War on Poverty that sends federal funds to low-income-area schools in hopes of “equalizing” so-called educational outcomes.
About a third of the participants in the conference were parent volunteers; those I met were impressive in their dedication and length of service. Most in attendance, however, were professionals—state or local education officials, administrators of grant-funded nonprofits, education researchers, and so on.
An important thrust of the conference was to share strategies for fulfilling the federal mandates that go along with Title I money. Parental engagement receives 1 percent of the total Title I pot, which has risen from $3.2 billion in 1980 to $14.4 billion in the budget just passed. Naturally, that money comes with strings, many of them defined in legal jargon that is difficult for your average parent volunteer to understand.
Ken Banter, Title I director for the rural Peach County Schools, confirmed, “The monitoring piece with federal funds is humongous.” A whole session—“What is a Title I School and What Does that Mean for My Child?”—was devoted to basic explanations from two Georgia Department of Education Title I specialists. Judy Alger asserted, “We know through research that poverty equals low performance” (though when I inquired about the research, she suggested Google). Therefore, Title I designation is “a good thing” for a school, sending it more teachers, more literacy and math coaches, more tutors, and more technology. But, Alger warned, “They give us money because they want to tell us how to do things.” For instance, noted Kathy Pruett, under Targeted Assistance Programs, snacks are okay, meals not.
One string requires that parents be recruited to review the Comprehensive Local Education Agency Improvement Plan (CLIP). Ken Banter shared how he tried to make things easy for parents by dividing the 65-page CLIP into 2-page sections, preparing a 5-page handout on acronyms, and giving away donated book bags of school supplies to volunteers. As a result, he said, participation in his 4,000-student district increased from 10 parents in 2012 to more than 150 in 2013.
CaDeisha Cooper, Title I director for the Candler County Schools, said of her summer leadership program, “What you do is what the law requires you to do.” She makes a particular effort to translate the legal gobbledygook into simple language for parents.
The problem of parents’ difficulty understanding government programs arose again at the only panel on the controversial new federally orchestrated education standards, “Giving Students a Chance: Understanding the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards.” The panelists all represented organizations that support Common Core: Lisa-Marie Haygood and Donna Kosicki are president-elect and past president of the Georgia PTA, respectively, and Dana Rickman is director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. Kosicki led a word-association exercise on feel-good terms like “relevance.” Haygood offered that “it is important to stop switching gears” and not abandon Common Core.
Rickman showed a number of slides demonstrating Georgia’s lagging college readiness. When I asked how Common Core will help, Rickman replied, “It is believed that the new standards will lead to improvement” and directed me to the Fordham Foundation’s website. Fordham, like the PTA, has received funds from the Gates Foundation, the biggest private funder of Common Core.