Making Parents a National Priority: A Conversation with National PTA President Chuck Saylors
When the President's Blueprint for Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act appeared last month, Chuck Saylors was struck by what he didn't see: much attention to parent engagement. The President's budget proposal had already seemed to eliminate the Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), the only federal program devoted solely to parent engagement in schools. (The Learning First Alliance just released a statement urging a much stronger federal focus on parent engagement.)
Saylors recently told us about the National PTA's work to make parent and family enagement a national priority. Despite his disappointment with the Blueprint, Saylors is optimistic. The administration seems ready to listen, he told us, and the PTA is not about to let up on its fight for parents.
Public School Insights: What are the biggest legislative priorities this year at PTA?
Saylors: There are several things on the agenda, but I am going to say that the reauthorization of ESEA is probably the issue of the day for us. We want to make sure that ESEA is reauthorized in a timely manner and we want to do everything that we can to get parents involved in the process. There are a lot of components to the legislation that need to be addressed, and we want to make sure that a parent voice is at the table.
Public School Insights: Is your sense that the blueprint the Obama administration offered for this reauthorization included the parent voice?
Saylors: I have to admit that I'm very disappointed that it was not more direct in including parental engagement. There are some brief references, but as the leader of the PTA I can tell you that I am very disappointed in the fact that there's not more concrete reference to parental engagement in the blueprint.
That being said, I have to publicly admit that PTA does have a good working relationship with the administration and we are very thankful for that. But this is one area where I am personally very disappointed.
Public School Insights: The president has spoken a lot about family engagement in ways that I think seem quite powerful to many. Are you optimistic that those intentions might end up in the final document?
Saylors: I believe that parental engagement will eventually have a stronger position. And I can assure your readers that this particular issue is going to be addressed by PTA. We are going to work harder and longer. We are more determined than ever to make sure that a parent voice is at the table when it comes to the reauthorization of ESEA. And when it comes to funding for Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs), when it comes to eventual reauthorization of IDEA and in areas related to the Child Nutrition Act. Those are the four key areas that we as association right now are focusing on from a legislative standpoint. ESEA, PIRC funding, IDEA and the Child Nutrition Act.
Public School Insights: Let's talk about PIRC funding—funding for Parent Information and Resource Centers. The president's budget made it look like that funding will be going away. Is that right?
Saylors: That is the way it looks on paper. But in conversation, we hear that Parent Information and Resource Center funding may be put into a different area in reauthorization. So we are hopeful and truly look forward to talking to and working with the administration about seeing that PIRC funding is kept solvent in whatever area we can make happen.
Parent Information and Resource Centers do a very good job in a lot of areas in this country. They work with a lot of families that would not traditionally be at the table. And the only way that we are going to have student success in schools, regardless of socioeconomic background or the neighborhood a kid lives in or any kind of family education level or any ethnicity or background, is for parents to be involved. Over 30 years of research have proven that when it comes to education, family engagement regardless of parent education or the socioeconomic background of the family is a true indicator of the success of a child. And that is the one thing that PTA wants to do, make sure that parents are engaged.
Public School Insights: PTA has a widely accepted and praised set of standards for family engagement. Do you think there is a strong enough definition of parental engagement in federal law right now?
Saylors: When No Child Left Behind was originally written, PTA did have a voice in the definition of parental engagement. We were the group that pushed for parental engagement to be in what is now No Child Left Behind and we were one of the groups at the table in the development of the statute. Is it good? Yes. Could it be better? Without question.
Engaging parents is a cost effective way to improve student learning. If you can get parents in the school and working with children at home, that can save school districts as much as $1000 per pupil. And when you look at the economic challenges in school districts today…I'm a school board trustee. We have some serious financial challenges to face. Anywhere we can get parents engaged and seek their support in improving student achievement is actually going to help the school district financially in the long run. So parent engagement just seems to be a natural fit for trying to get some of the improvements in public education that are needed.
Public School Insights: Let’s move to another issue that you mentioned—IDEA. What are your priorities there?
Saylors: Right now, unfortunately, I am afraid that IDEA is not at the top of the list of discussions when it comes to Capitol Hill. We are probably going to have to resign ourselves to the fact that it is going to be one of the last issues to be addressed. But it will be addressed. We have been assured by the administration and by our friends on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle that IDEA, ESEA and all of these very important issues related children's health and education are going to be addressed.
To be quite honest with you, the biggest challenge that we have with IDEA is funding. There are some statutory issues as well, but right now... When the legislation was originally written back in the 1970s, the federal government agreed that they would provide as much as 40% of the funding for programs that were being developed related to special education. I do not know if it has ever gotten above 19%. In my school district alone we spend roughly $30 million a year out of our pocket meeting the needs of the program. Imagine how many teachers I could keep employed if the federal government would come up with the balance of what they have agreed to fund.
But one thing that your readers need to understand is that within the leadership of the PTA, we truly want to work with the administration. We want to make sure that the administration and members of Congress understand the importance of parental engagement and how it touches each and every one of these areas that we have discussed.
Public School Insights: One area in which PTA has aligned very closely with the administration's goals is in supporting the Common Core State Standards Initiative. In fact, when that was first announced, I think that PTA was first out of the gate to support it.
Saylors: We were. When the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers went on record promoting common core standards, PTA was the first association to come on board in support. The reason that it was so easy for us to do so is that we have been talking about this topic for 10 years. We have resolutions from national level PTA conventions from 10 years ago talking about the need for states to establish a level playing field. The same level of accountability, the same level of expectation whether you live in South Carolina, California or anywhere in between.
What is really good about this effort is that this is a state led initiative. It is not the federal government saying, “You will do this” or “You will do that.” It is the governors, the state school chiefs, the legislatures, the state boards of education. Those decision makers are the ones who will deal with these recommendations and supporting them or adjusting them, whatever they choose to do within their states. So it was just a natural fit for us.
Public School Insights: I have heard some arguments that the common core standards would actually reduce families’ choices. Do you think there is any credibility in that?
Saylors: I do not believe so. I have seen nothing leading in that direction. Are there still a lot of questions that need to be answered? Without question. There are still a lot of states that have questions that are related specifically to their corner of the world. And that is one of the things that PTA wants to do in working towards common core standards—make sure that the parents in every state have all of the information so they can make legitimate, educated decisions on whether they do or do not want to support these.
Personally, I look at it like this. I've got two children still in school, one in elementary school and one in middle school. And if I have to move sometime in the not-too-distant future from my home in South Carolina to another part of the country, I want to make sure that the school my children are moving into has the same level of expectations of my child as their old school. One of the best ways to do that is to have the states develop among themselves a set of standards so everybody is essentially working off the same page. Does it bring with it a series of questions and concerns? Absolutely. That is why we have gotten involved, because we want to help engage parents so that everyone understands what is going on, not just the talking heads in front of the TV camera.
Public School Insights: To move on to the issue of childhood obesity: You had First Lady Michelle Obama at your legislative conference a couple weeks ago and have been supportive of some of her goals to combat child obesity. Tell us more.
Saylors: We were extremely excited and appreciative that the First Lady was able to spend some time with us at our legislative conference in Washington. Our legislative conference is like most any other—we bring representatives from all of the states and all of the associations that we work with together to work towards a common goal: Get the issues that we are talking about noticed by lawmakers. And so to have the First Lady come talk about the “Let’s Move” initiative and childhood obesity was a true honor. That issue is something PTA has been working on for decades. You know, the PTA is not here for fund-raising, primarily. We are here for the health and welfare of children, and obesity issues are right there with all the others. So it was a natural fit to have her there and it is a natural fit for us to take that on as a cause.
Children learn better when they are engaged. And when they are healthy, well-rested and fed properly. And it is good for not only the family and the school but for the community to support these types of initiatives. A lot of times I use the economic development argument when it comes to quality schools. When a company wants to move into a particular community, the first two things they look at are schools and infrastructure. And if the schools are not quality or if the roads are not smooth, then they will go build their hundred million dollar plant somewhere else. So it is a natural connection. If the schools are successful, the community is successful. If the community is successful, it grows and it prospers. For example, taxes are kept at a reasonable level because property values remain the same or go higher. So it is all a natural connection, and we are doing everything we can to encourage all of the communities that we work in and all of the elected officials that we interact with to look at education as an economic development issue. And with it, also look at things like childhood obesity, because if a child is healthy, if a child is well rested, then the child is going to do better in the classroom. That is a proven fact.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions that I should have asked you but did not?
Saylors: I think that you have covered it pretty well.
Again, every bit of it comes back to the question of parental engagement, getting parents involved in a child's learning environment. That is the base for a successful education. So PTA wants to work with the administration and with our friends in the education community to make sure that our teachers, our families and our students get the very best each and every day. That they get the talent, the tools and the resources needed to make sure that children are successful in classrooms.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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