Parental Advisory Councils and Common Core: Who’s Advising Whom?

Published May 10, 2014

In my previous article on the “new Common Core democracy” I reported on my experiences at various public hearings where Georgia citizens were allowed to speak for one to three minutes. This included the November 2013 Georgia state school board meeting where their parent engagement program manager, Michelle Tarbutton Sandrock, , elaborated at length about the presumed benefits of January’s Georgia Family Engagement conference.

But what a bureaucrat means by parental engagement is quite different from real parental engagement. The latter involves a critical look at the official education policies Washington hands down to the state, then to school districts, and paid for with tax dollars. Parents who review curriculum and standards critically, who are really engaged and want more say over their children’s education, are politely ignored—or escorted away by police, as with Tracey and Mary Finney in Marietta, Georgia, who opted their children out of state tests.

Education bureaucrats use “parental engagement” efforts, funded by federal Title I appropriations, to promote their own policies, including Common Core. Chamber of Commerce-affiliated non-profits then join in to promote Common Core, which benefits their own membership.

The February 10 minutes for the first Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council, Title I Parent Meeting, held after the January Georgia family engagement conference show Sandrock announcing “the need to locate a parent to participate in a panel for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education Policy Fellowship Program in March.” GPEE is the same Chamber of Commerce-affiliated nonprofit that sent Dana Rickman to give a one-sided, confusing presentation of Common Core at the engagement conference.

The parent ultimately chosen for the March 19 colloquium was Capucine Pansy, 2013 Georgia Parent Leadership Award winner and State School Superintendent Parent Advisory Council (PAC) member.

State Chooses Parent ‘Advisors’
The Board of Education controls which parents serve on PACs. According to Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, each school district nominates one candidate. A committee of Georgia Department of Education representatives then chooses committee members based on applicants’ response to questions.

The PAC meetings provide cover for a top-down process, while offering a charade of “accountability.” The meeting minutes indicate that State Superintendent John Barge “began the meeting by asking a PAC member to comment on their account of a state legislature meeting. Dr. Barge stressed the importance of parents and constituents being involved and holding legislators accountable.”

This statement is laughable, especially considering the vehemence with which Barge has denounced Common Core opposition at public forums and the fact that he serves on the GPEE board, alongside Henry Huckaby, chair of the Board of Regents, and Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. State Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta), who hostilely questioned Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), sponsor of Common Core withdrawal legislation, is listed on the website as “a long-time friend.” State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), a Common Core proponent, was a speaker at one of the GPEE parent colloquiums. The names affiliated with this organization make up many of those who testified against Ligon’s bill, including GPEE President Stephen Dolinger, former Fulton County (Atlanta) School Superintendent, and former Fairfax, Virginia, school superintendent, who earned a salary of $250,000 and $7,500 in bonuses in 2011. GPEE’s “media symposium” was held at Georgia Public Broadcasting, which is largely taxpayer supported.

The question-and-answer session at the February PAC meeting provided an opportunity for Barge negatively spin Ligon’s bill, as his response to the first question, “Is there a way to politicize education in Georgia?” reveals: “. . . . It is going to get worse if this passes the way that it’s written. It does not remove Georgia from the common core standards.” The legislation is Ligon’s bill (SB 167). According to Cardoza, “[Barge] meant that the politicizing of education would get worse if SB 167 passed as written.”

The Mantra: ‘Local Control’
In spite of obvious contradictions between national standards, sold as providing “consistency” for students who move between states, and the idea of “local control,” at the meeting Barge claimed repeatedly that Georgia is a local control state. He said, “The constitution in Georgia puts education in control of the local education agency. . . .”

Barge responded to another question: “Georgia has always been a local control state. Legislators have always had their ears to their constituents. A lot of it is driven by outside parties.”

Apparently, Barge was telling these parents that anti-Common Core legislation was coming from “outside parties.” Clearly, by the questions posed, these parents are not very knowledgeable. The next question was, “Are we in the minority of being locally controlled?”

Barge’s response: “I don’t know if we are in the minority. An elected superintendent is the people’s voice but they have no authority when it comes to the budget. It’s always a challenge.”

Well, yes, he is the voice of these carefully selected people.

Standard Sales Pitch
After these confusing questions, Barge asked if members had “gotten feedback about Common Core.” A few had. Barge stated, “I don’t think the Common Core is bad.” He made the oft-repeated and false claim that the states “voluntarily adopted the Common Core and they can change them whenever they want.” He said there was “misinformation” that applying for the Race to the Top stimulus funds required adoption of Common Core: “Our standards were already college and career ready. [Race to the Top and Common Core] are very closely aligned.'”  

As was the case at the conference, the meeting minutes indicate Barge provided confusing explanations: “He stated that people often confuse standards, curriculum, and instructional resources. The curriculum is how you teach those standards, the resources is how you implement the standards. The state department designs the curriculum.”

This “explanation” echoes the confusing one parents heard at the Family Engagement Conference by GPEE’s Rickman and at forums across the state.

The Real Beneficiaries of “Parental Engagement”
The last agenda item was Sandrock’s debriefing on the Family Engagement Conference. According to the minutes, parents thought the best things included the food, door prize incentives to visit all of the exhibitors, the venue, and Stephen Constantino’s keynote speech. My impression was that parent volunteers had a good time at the three-day, expense-paid event.

But those in the loop, who earn speaking fees in addition to handsome salaries, benefit more. Constantino, like the current president of GPEE, hails from Virginia; he is superintendant of Williamsburg-James City School District. His $5,000 speaking fee was paid by one of the conference’s sponsors, Successful Innovations, Inc., a company based in Lynchburg, Virginia, and founded by two former principals and a literacy coach. Successful Innovations names as “proud partners” the National Head Start Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. 

Sandrock told me that no tax dollars were spent on the conference. Maybe not directly, but sponsors stand to profit by selling products that Title I tax dollars buy. Successful Innovations’ products include something that looks like a day-timer for $90, a guide called “Preparing Your Child for College” for $79.99, and a DVD called “Helping Your Child with Homework” also for $79.99. The company provides full-day professional development training sessions for $4,000 to $5,000.

Successful Innovations then sponsored the Mid-Atlantic Family Engagement Conference, March 13-14, in Lynchburg, Virginia, and now sells the DVD for $75. The National Family and Community Engagement conference, held in April, featured many from the same roster of big government activist types that were involved in the Georgia conference.

It turns out that parent engagement offers a way to monetize one’s experience as a teacher, principal, or superintendent, and to sway “parent volunteers.” When other parents object to their school’s policies they face this entrenched network of government agencies, non-profits, and well-connected vendors and administrators.

These bureaucrats, however, need to hear from real “parental advisory councils”—parents and citizens organized to vote out school superintendents and other bureaucrats who keep our money flowing to their pet projects.

Image by USDOE.