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The Parent Trap: Why We Can't Blame Parents for Low Graduation Rates

David Blanding,
David Blanding, Racial Justice Program
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March 25, 2008

Last week, the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of students in Florida’s Palm Beach County school district for its abysmally low graduation rates. Responses to the lawsuit have focused almost entirely on parents’ responsibility for the district’s low graduation rates. Some, including columnists from the Tallahassee Democrat and the Palm Beach Post, have even suggested that the ACLU should have sued the parents themselves. One of the parent-plaintiffs in the lawsuit responded to this charge yesterday.

Such sentiments pervert both the spirit and letter of Florida law. Public education is an agreement between government and children: children are required to attend school until a minimum age and the state is required to educate them. Of course parents have many responsibilities in raising their children, but school districts are the administrators of the state’s obligation to educate children. Unlike parents, school district employees receive money, training, and legal authority to carry out their task.

Of course, in Florida’s case, the stakes are high. In 2002, voters formally declared education a ‘fundamental value,’ amending the state constitution to require a ‘uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality education.’ No doubt that many of those voters were parents. It is the state’s school districts that are charged with carrying out the voters’ mandate.

Parental involvement is only one factor among a host of variables correlated with educational achievement. I know from personal experience. My father was incarcerated for nearly 20 years; my mother was in rehab for drug addiction when my brother and I were in elementary school. Our paternal grandmother raised us in public housing in the ghetto. Although my brother is only a year younger than me, our path through the educational system could not be more different.

He attended public school throughout his adolescence. I attended private school from eighth through twelfth grade. When he was 17, he was arrested for dealing drugs and spent nearly three years in state prison. When I was 17, I enrolled in college. In prison, he earned a GED. Shortly after his release, he enrolled in an auto mechanic training school. In college, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and, shortly after graduation, I began working for a public interest law firm. He now plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in Engineering. I now plan to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science.

As my brother and I had the same upbringing, we can attest that it would be shortsighted and misguided to blame parents for the variations in educational attainment that exist within a single family, let alone within a district of 175,000 children. Certainly before we implicate parents, we must ask whether the district is doing everything it can to ensure that all children succeed. The district has an obligation to provide each child the high quality education to which he or she is entitled, regardless of race, class, disability, or parental upbringing.

Horace Mann once proclaimed that ‘education …is the great equalizer of the conditions of men-the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ If this is to remain true, our public schools must be responsive to the varying amounts of social capital and debt our children inherit. School districts, like courts, must ensure that the scales remain balanced.

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