The Capital (Annapolis, MD)

 

January 4, 2011

 

Can we strengthen the parents' voice in education?

 

By Jim Snider

On Oct. 28, Tom Frank, chair of Anne Arundel County's Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee, resigned.

"I was under the impression that the role of the CAC was to meet with a representative of each school, other interested parents and citizens, and to bring their educational concerns to the school board and the superintendent," he explained. "I have been told that I essentially have this backwards and the CAC is supposed to only bring items to the parents that the school board determines are important."

In a certified letter, board of education President Patricia Nalley had written to Frank that the CAC must restrict its agenda to board-approved issues and would not be allowed to convene any type of candidates' forum. Frank also was told he'd have to cancel the CAC candidates forum, which was to include the four board members on the ballot for November's election.

It became apparent the CAC regulations had become a fantasy document. The democratic vision contained in these regulations had been greatly diluted over the decades and many surviving democratic provisions had long since stopped being consistently enforced.

On Nov. 18, as acting chair, I convened a CAC meeting to discuss the board's regulations concerning CACs. Six board members and the board's attorney attended. Afterward, they announced plans to rewrite the CAC regulations.

This announcement is admirable. However, it is critical to make sure the board does not use the rewrite to codify its present master-servant relationship with the CAC system. Fortunately, I believe this is not its intent. Instead, the rewrite should return to the legislature's original vision for the CAC as a genuine checks and balances democratic institution.

In 1970, Maryland's legislature mandated that Anne Arundel County create a Countywide CAC to be representative of local schools and convey citizens' concerns to the board of education.

No other county had a similar mandate until 1973. Anne Arundel was presumably singled out partly because it lacked an elected board. The CAC would serve as an institutional check on the appointed board - an alternate way for parents to have a meaningful voice in the school system.

The legislature watered down the original CAC mandate when in 1976 it extended the CAC system to other Maryland counties. But the mandate for an independent Countywide CAC remained: The board could neither eliminate it nor fire its officers.

By 1973, Anne Arundel County had a vigorous, representative and independent CAC system. But over the decades, parental involvement declined and the system evolved into the present top-down relationship. Given this history, we should allow the Countywide CAC to develop its own set of bylaws rather than have one forced on it by the board. The board's separate policy need be no longer than one page.

Other school stakeholder groups such as CRASC, PTA, SBNC and TAAAC already have their own sets of bylaws. Unless CAC has the right to communicate with members and potential members like these other groups, they will evolve into a public relations outlet for the board.

Following the 1973 precedent, it makes sense for the policywriting committee the board appoints to be predominantly comprised of respected and independent parent leaders. Indeed, the original committee set up to draft the CAC regulations included CAC leaders plus only a single board member.

At every school board candidate's debate since the inauguration of the new nominating system in 2007, the winning candidates have lamented the parents' weak civic participation and promised to strengthen it if the governor appointed them. Yet parental civic participation has continued declining. The rewrite of the CAC regulations is an ideal opportunity for board members to fulfill their promise.

But parents also have a duty. Merely preserving democracy is a constant struggle, and parents have lost their rights because we haven't been willing to defend them. Until we are willing to fight publicly for these rights, we should expect to keep losing them.

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The writer is the acting chair of the Countywide CAC. For more information about the CAC, see www.aacac.info.