The newest member of the Tennessee House of Representatives has taken a look at the Legislature’s landscape of changes for education this year and has drawn a basic conclusion.
“We’re in a period of education reform in Tennessee, and everybody is being held accountable — except the parents,” said Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, who was elected to replace Ulysses Jones following the longtime House District 98 Democrat’s death in November.
Parkinson, a Shelby County firefighter and retired U.S. Marine, introduced legislation this year that proposes a fairly novel approach to encouraging parental involvement in the education of their children. Parkinson’s bill, HB1887, would have teachers give parents grades on their involvement with their students’ education. The grade-range would include “excellent,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory.”
The parent’s grade would appear on the same report card that grades the student. Parkinson’s focus is on Pre-K through 3rd grades, which he says are the “foundation years” in the life of a student.
Parkinson’s bill won’t pass in the 2011 session of the General Assembly. The House Education Committee has already ordered it to a summer study committee. But while Parkinson might have proposed a practice some would call off-the-wall, he has received a noticeably receptive bipartisan audience to his proposal.
Republicans have said Parkinson is addressing a perplexing issue that has been talked about by all sides in education debates for years without solution. Interviewed by TNReport.com prior to the start of the legislative session, Shelbyville Republican Jim Tracy, who sits on the Senate Education Committee and chairs the chamber’s transportation committee, said he thinks education-reform discussions “miss the boat sometimes” because often strategies don’t include how to better engage parents.
“We do have to put more accountability on parents,” Tracy said. “Teachers have students for about seven hours a day. Parents are responsible for them 17.”
“When I was in school, if I got in trouble in school, I got in trouble at home,” Tracy added. “I’m not sure that is happening today.”
And rather than summarily dismiss the freshman Democrat’s idea, several House Republicans have concluded Parkinson is proposing a concept that warrants further consideration, even if they’re not ready to enact it yet.
Republicans have even offered suggestions for him, such as using a pilot program to test the concept’s potential, and they seem eager to talk about it more.
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell has said the proposal to hold parents accountable may be an example of legislation that is “a little bit extreme.” But Parkinson said he got a different impression from her.
“Honestly, everybody that I’ve talked to thought it was a good idea, including Speaker Harwell,” Parkinson said. “I talked to her individually, and from my conversation with her I thought she thought it was a good idea.”
The legislation has an official stamp of approval from one of the most powerful lawmakers in Tennessee, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. He’s a co-sponsor of the bill.
Other majority-party legislators are intrigued as well.
“I think you’re on to something,” Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, told Parkinson in a recent subcommittee hearing. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, suggested using a pilot program before trying to launch it statewide.
Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said in the meeting that lawmakers should be prepared to thoroughly discuss the issue because there may be unforeseen problems with it.
“I think it does warrant studying, because we know the key to moving education to that next level is parental involvement,” Montgomery said.
When one Democratic lawmaker expressed concern that grading parents could create a wedge between the teacher and the parent, Parkinson replied, “Any parent that is not supporting their child educationally is already in an adversarial role with the teacher.”
Parkinson took a revised version to the full Education Committee that included a pilot program, but several problems were discussed, and the issue appears primed for a lot of debate.
The legislation may be new to Tennessee, but there is some precedent for the unorthodox move, and at least one other state, Florida, has considered similar legislation this year, although it has been put on the shelf there, too.
One version of Parkinson’s bill said the ultimate penalty for failure would be to have it classified as a Class C misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine. But that would be the last resort to a long series of opportunities for parents, including meetings over the grade or appeals available to a parent who wants to contest the decision. Parents could also seek a waiver.
Star Academy, a charter school in Memphis, where Parkinson has a daughter, is using a grading system for parents now, a practice in place since the school opened in 2004.
“The purpose was to increase parental involvement with the school,” said Dr. Kia L. Tate, the principal at the school. “I had previously been in a district school and was very disappointed in the involvement of parents and wanted to come up with an innovative way to get parents actively involved in their children’s education.
“Statistics show when the parents are actively involved that kids tend to do better.”
Parents are graded at Star Academy on their active involvement, with physical presence in the school assessed. The grades the school uses are “excellent,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement” and “unsatisfactory.” Tate said the first year it was done parents would call about the practice when they would receive an “N” or “U.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t see you at all this semester,'” Tate said. “From that point forward, they said, ‘OK, they’re pretty serious about this.'”
The feedback in general has been positive, she said. But Tate dismissed the notion that parents with children in charter schools are always more involved in their children’s education than elsewhere.
“That is a myth,” she said. “I have as many problems as any other school.”
Tate said she did not know enough about the proposed legislation for grading teachers to form an opinion about it.
“I just know it has worked well for my school,” she said.
The thrust of Parkinson’s bill would have teachers grade parents on their response to requests for meetings or other communication, the student’s completion of homework, the student’s physical preparation for school and the frequency of the student’s absence or tardiness. Parents would be able to appeal a grade through a process adopted by the local education authority. The measure calls for mandatory family counseling sessions if a grade of “unsatisfactory” is given.
An emerging term in legislation is “educational neglect.” A bill sponsored by Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, and Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, would establish that a parent who has control of a truant student commits educational neglect. It passed in the House and Senate. An amendment to Parkinson’s bill said a parent could be found in educational neglect.
A Republican lawmaker in Florida, Rep. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, focused a parental assessment bill this year on student attendance and communication between the teacher and parent. The bill was sent to a workshop and failed to advance, but it is already expected to be on the legislative agenda next year. Stargel’s bill, like Parkinson’s, focuses on grades Pre-K-3.
The idea of grading parents is not new. It has been used in Chicago and Baltimore, with some practices going back more than 10 years.
Parkinson said a study has shown that children in certain backgrounds can be projected as early as the 3rd grade as likely to be incarcerated and that prison space can be built on that finding.
“Think about that. Third grade. We know the likelihood of you going to prison based on how you come out of the third grade,” he said. “This is where if you get it, you got it. If you don’t get it, you’re going to struggle all the way through school.”
He said the state is holding teachers, administrations and students accountable.
“Nobody’s holding parents accountable,” he said. “To me, that should have been first.
“This is a bill that gets to the root of the problem.”
Parkinson said there can be all kinds of reasons parents are not involved in their child’s education.
“There might be a reason we didn’t know about,” he said. “Maybe there’s a resource that would help get the child to school on time. There could be a drug problem at home. We don’t know.”
He ponders the positive aspects that could come from grading parents.
“I see this bill as a pride builder for communities,” he said. “There could be a parental honor roll. There could be a bumper sticker: ‘I’m an honor roll parent at this elementary school.’ It says a lot.”