Parent ‘Vote’ Is Key to Better Schools

Published January 1, 2000

Today, we think it strange that women once didn’t have the vote. In the future, says entrepreneur John Walton, co-founder of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, it will seem equally strange that many Americans today don’t have an educational vote.

Speaking recently at a Milwaukee conference, Walton explained that when parents are empowered with a voucher to cast a “vote” for the school of their choice, they take a much greater interest in their child’s school. This kind of parental involvement, he said, is considered by experts to be the key to improving the nation’s public schools.

Walton was the keynote speaker at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s 35th annual Forum for Progress on October 16, which focused on “Our Schools.”

“The National PTA believes that involving parents in the education of their children is one of the most effective avenues of school reform,” Wisconsin PTA President Winnie Doxsie told the same conference audience.

Linda Wheeler, director of Families and Schools Together, agreed. “The child’s best advocate is the parent,” she said, noting that a child has an 80 percent chance of succeeding if the parent is involved with the child’s school.

Walton’s lunch-time remarks provided a bridge between a morning conference session that had produced a lively debate on school vouchers and an afternoon session where speakers were in complete agreement on the importance of parental involvement in schools.

When Walton described how low-income parents had responded after they received tuition vouchers from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, it became clear that if parental involvement was the goal, then school vouchers appeared to be one of quickest and most effective ways of achieving that goal. The National PTA opposes vouchers.

One indication of the level of interest in and demand for better education were the 1.25 million applications that were received for the 40,000 scholarships offered earlier this year by the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Walton, who created the Fund with Wall Street entrepreneur and philanthropist Theodore Forstmann, described the changes that he had seen in the lives of families who had been awarded school choice scholarships. It still amazes him, he said, that low-income parents are willing to take money from their own pockets to pull their children out of public schools.

Before the parents received the school choice scholarships, they rarely met with teachers or got involved with their schools. Many parents for whom English was a second language felt inadequate as advocates for their children; other parents who were very young and with little education felt intimidated by school officials.

But when they were provided with an educational “vote,” these same parents started asking questions. Having a choice changed what they had to do for their child; they responded by getting more involved with their child’s school and taking more responsibility for their child’s schooling. It wasn’t just a matter of sending the child out the door any more, said Walton.

“Giving parents the educational vote does not in itself educate children,” he said, but it does provide the catalyst for achieving a better education for all children.

From Walton’s perspective, that was one of the things the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has done for education reform in the United States. Although A Nation At Risk created a lot of commotion when it was published in 1983, little was accomplished in its wake. But when the Wisconsin State Legislature authorized the Milwaukee voucher program in 1990, it catalyzed a wave of school reforms across the country. Until then, reforms like vouchers and charter schools “had no traction,” said Walton.

“Every major state initiative and legislative proposal began with the passage of that Milwaukee reform,” said Walton, which gave parents “an education vote.”