Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Small Groups Sway a Large Decision ; School Vote That Affected Many Engaged Few

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Small Groups Sway a Large Decision ; School Vote That Affected Many Engaged Few

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson once called the American people "the safe depository of the ultimate powers of society." Our third president might have been disappointed if he had looked ahead and glimpsed the state of parental participation in US public school policy in the early years of the 21st century.

Last week, parents of students at five schools in New York City resoundingly defeated a proposal to turn the schools over to private management. But the low number of voters who ultimately decided the question suggests that even in this so-called "information age," the dialogue between parents and the education community is often ill- informed - and special-interest groups can easily manipulate a discussion.

Despite a highly public and often controversial campaign conducted by New York-based Edison Schools Inc., which hoped to take charge of the low-performing schools, only about half the parents eligible cast votes. Fifty-one percent had to vote "yes" - via e-mail, mail, phone, or in person - for the measure to pass. An absence was considered a "no" vote.

Some point out that the turnout was actually quite strong for low-income neighborhoods, where only about 3 percent voted in the 1999 school board elections. But others say the failure of so many parents to make their voices heard - even to resolve a question that was discussed heatedly in newspapers on a daily basis - is indicative of a disturbing disconnect between schools and their communities.

Charges flew that the proposal was defeated before it was ever fairly debated. Some reporters remarked on the number of parents who insisted they were against the Edison plan but admitted knowing little about the company and what it offered.

The privatization scheme was known to be a pet project of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a man widely distrusted in the minority communities Edison hoped to enter. But another type of politics appears to have entered in as well. …

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