The Role of Parents in a Formal Education System

     The history of formal education in North America can be enlightening and instructive in that it clearly outlines the development of stakeholder roles and responsibilities and the way these have changed over a period of time. As the place of education in society became more important, the political processes that controlled it became more sophisticated, and the roles of the people who were directly involved in education gradually changed. Some of these changes in role are not well understood, and even today, misunderstanding can have a profound influence on the effectiveness of individual schools.

     In the beginning, small groups of American settlers managed the affairs of their own community, including the education of their children. The chosen representatives of parents in the community would arrange for the building of a school house and the hiring of a teacher to conduct the basic education of children. Funds would come from the community itself to pay for the entire cost of building, maintaining, and paying for the teacher’s services.

     The parents and other community members, through their representatives, had the power of hiring and firing, fixing an appropriate salary, and determining the curriculum content in consultation with the hired educator. This simple organizational structure served small communities well, and it changed and developed only to serve more complicated needs as the population grew.

     As small communities became larger and a greater number of children required schooling, more schools and more teachers were needed. Parent representatives were needed from many locations, and from this the idea of a school board developed. In larger towns, the representatives, now known as trustees, developed educational policies on behalf of parents, and arranged through appropriate taxation for the financial needs of the board.

     These financial needs included the cost of building schools, providing equipment and other educational necessities, and paying the cost of hiring professional teachers. As governments recognized the enormous importance of an educated population, and basic education became compulsory, states and provinces developed rules and regulations for all aspects of education, including laws governing the way school boards could operate.

     In today’s world of education, it may seem that parents have gradually lost control of the education of their children. Decisions are made by governments and school boards and parents seem to have little control over what happens at the individual school level, because the school itself can operate only under board policy. This is a reality, of course, but all schools have some kind of parent committee or parent teacher association through which parents can be involved in appropriate ways.

     The role of parents within a formal school system today is limited to non-educational needs at the individual school level. They can be directly involved with concerns such as safety and security, and they can be effective volunteers in school life. This suits most parents well as they are only too happy to leave educational issues to professionals, as long as they are adequately informed about their own children’s progress and achievement. Not all parents are content with this, however, and in recent times, other alternatives such as charter schools and funded private school education have been considered to give parents more control.

     As long as politicians and the population in general consider a publicly-funded system of education to be the norm, there is little chance that the role of parents will change in any significant way. Fortunately, the current system has served children well, and it will, no doubt, continue to do so. For most parents, no changes are required.