'Parents Gone Wild' and the Policy Challenge in Affluent Communities
BY ELLIOT B. WEININGER/School Administrator, June 2019

Elliot Weininger
You don’t need to scrutinize abstruse statistics or musty social science journals to realize that rich and poor tend to live in different neighborhoods, if not different communities altogether. It’s also no secret that the tendency to sort along lines of income and wealth when choosing where to live has serious ramifications for public schools.

Because most public schools serve children from the surrounding community, student populations largely reflect the economic profile of their sending communities.

One consequence of this is school districts overwhelmingly populated by affluent families. These districts are rarely studied. In conversations about educational policy, they appear mainly as a reference point or standard. With ample resources, highly qualified teachers and supportive parents, they produce the type of educational outcomes we want from all schools.

But research my colleagues and I recently published suggests this portrait is, at best, deeply one-sided. Although districts serving predominantly affluent families often do attain solid academic results, they also can be places disrupted by serious tensions and intense conflicts. Far from idyllic, they are sometimes wracked by harsh confrontations — particularly ones pitting administrators against parents.

We studied a suburban school district in the Northeast that we refer to as “Kingsley” (to preserve anonymity). The district, by any definition, is wealthy. In 2010, the median house price exceeded $450,000 and more than a third of households reported an income of at least $150,000. Correlatively, the schools in Kingsley are extremely well-resourced, with per-pupil spending more than twice the national average. Educational outcomes, measured by graduation, SAT scores and college attendance, are excellent.

Emotional Debate
We were studying Kingsley as part of a larger research project. However, shortly after our arrival, an unexpected drama occurred that quickly caught our attention. The district recently had replaced one of its two high schools with a new, modern facility. Consequently, the district administration had to redraw attendance boundaries to balance the student populations at these schools.

Sensing this might be contentious, administrators hired an educational consultant to hold a series of community forums to build a consensus around the values that should guide the boundary-redrawing process. Despite proactive measures, when they released their plan, intense parental opposition quickly emerged.

The initial plan prompted a relatively small group of parents to voice support for the administration, while a larger and more vocal group organized in protest. The latter’s remonstrations prompted revisions, which in turn triggered a new round of parental mobilization and opposition, in a circular process. In all, the administration released four successive versions before the school board finally passed one, during a process lasting nine months and generating vehement emotions. During a single week, the district received more than 1,000 e-mails related to proposed boundaries. At one point, the administration requested an undercover police officer be present at a board meeting.

Parental opposition was not driven by academic worries — the belief one high school would provide a better education than the other. Instead, opponents generally were motivated by concerns about student travel time, peer continuity and the like.

In part, the district had trouble dealing with the shifting parent coalitions because, in the aggregate, the parents were extremely fluent in the language of educational policy. Highly educated and employed in professional occupations — and well networked, to boot — the parents were able to mount effective criticisms. We observed parents at board meetings urgently invoking “peer-reviewed studies” and reading statements supplied to them by academic “experts” on topics such as the developmental importance of peer continuity or “cohort movement” through the educational system. Others earnestly cited environmental concerns when heatedly challenging proposed bus routes. We read e-mails in which parents evaluated and disputed statistics provided by district administrators.

Debates over attendance boundaries dominated the attention of administrators, with the superintendent reporting to us he was diverted from addressing other pressing issues. A father of a kindergartener, taken aback by the emotional tenor, described the district as being populated by “parents gone wild.” He bluntly told us: “Some parents are out of control.”

A Common Good
Our observations made it clear that administrative roles in affluent districts carry distinctive challenges.

Consultative governance is highly prized in the context of public education — perhaps more so than in any other institutional arena. However, observing the uproar in Kingsley has forced me to recognize that parent involvement in the policy process also can have downsides, especially if the parents have a sociological profile similar to those in Kingsley.

For all their concerns about the ideal framework for the middle-to-high school transition or about the importance of physical exercise to adolescent development, I find it impossible to shake the impression that the parent protests amounted, at least partly, to NIMBY coalitions seeking to deflect the burdens of a policy change.

In this context, the challenge for policymakers and administrators is clear. They cannot allow their role to be reduced to that of helping some parents outflank others. Indeed, a key goal of public education is to create citizens who have internalized a vision of a common good and a shared destiny, and this is as true in affluent school districts as anywhere else.

The early sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the experience of the classroom taught young children the crucial lesson that membership in the larger society depends on a willingness to observe and respect impersonal rules. Sometimes parents need to be reminded of the same fact.

ELLIOT WEININGER is a professor of sociology at SUNY College at Brockport in Brockport, N.Y.