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How much can we expect parents to care about other people’s children?

Many school reforms depend on the willingness of middle-class parents to want for all children what they wish for their own.

But how much can we expect parents to care about the education of other people’s children? I've been thinking about that question in the last few months listening to the governor's education reform panel grapple with the thorny problems of equity and funding.

One of the concerns: How do you level the playing field for children whose parents lack the education and resources to send them to school primed not only to learn but excel?

Parenting today has become a competitive sport, with savvy mothers and fathers racing to arm their children with all the skills necessary to thrive in a global economy that prizes mental acuity and agility.

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me to look into a college fair at North Atlanta High. The reader wrote: “I wanted to wait a little bit to bring my blood pressure down, but I couldn’t believe what I heard today. There are some college fairs going on this weekend. North Atlanta High School hosted a college fair and I’m sure there were several  schools in attendance. I found out APS only allowed students in the Top 10 percent of their class to attend. I’m sorry, but that is just plain wrong.”

I contacted APS to ask about the fair, and spokeswoman Jill Strickland Luse explained: “The fair which occurred yesterday at North Atlanta High School was organized by North Atlanta parents for North Atlanta High School students.  They decided to open the fair up to other APS high schools, but due to space constraints, they capped the participation to 30 kids per school. Each high school determined how those 30 schools were selected.”

I shared the reply with the reader and heard from him a few days ago with an interesting postscript: “Perhaps you’ll find this amusing, Maureen, but when I told my wife about what happened there (she’s a former pre-K teacher), she didn’t agree with me. She basically said that what was the school to do if they didn’t have enough space? And she also said that if the school wasn’t going to organize a college fair, then the parents had a right to step up. And if the disenfranchised students want to see these schools, they can look them up themselves.”

I am sure North Atlanta High and other APS schools organize and hold college fairs open to all students. But can we fault parents for sponsoring additional events to benefit their students?

Education reformers argue all children deserve a fair chance. But many parents work hard to give their kids a better chance, an advantage. I have come to see that reformers cannot castigate middle-class parents into remaining loyal to mediocre neighborhood schools on the basis it will ultimately lead to better outcomes for all the kids. Most parents don't have a commitment to all kids.

As Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone" and the new book "Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis," told an NPR interviewer: "When I was growing up in Port Clinton and my parents talked about doing things for our kids -- when they said, you know, we've got to pay higher taxes so that our kids can have a swimming pool or a new French department or whatever -- by the word, our kids, they did not mean my sister and me. They meant all the kids in town. And what's happened over the last 20, 30, 40 years is that our sense of what counts as our kids has shriveled."

But someone has to champion the children whose parents are either unable or incapable of giving them an edge. Someone has to level the playing field. More than ever, that responsibility and moral obligation fall on policymakers, school administrators and elected officials. And that responsibility is not easy to bear; it at times requires taking unpopular stands.

Georgia is attempting to privatize and individualize many aspects of public education. Parents aware of the vital role of critical-thinking skills in the 21st century are demanding more opportunities for their kids, whether through charter schools, accelerated classes, online options, academic magnets or vouchers.

They are entitled to ask for more for their children. But someone has to rally for the students whose parents aren’t demanding more so those kids don’t end up with less and less.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.