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Parents: The Forgotten Element

The world will probably little note nor long remember a meeting a legislative committee held in Lansing yesterday. But it should.

The subject was education reform, something that’s been a hot topic for the last few years - especially perhaps in Michigan.

What everybody agrees is that for many students, our schools no longer seem to work. In some places, notably Detroit, many fail to graduate from high school. Others graduate, but lack the skills to make a living or to get more education.

We don’t really like to think about the implications of that. But the bottom line is that we are turning out hundreds of thousands of  young people who have essentially no chance at legitimate jobs that will pay enough to allow what we think of as a decent lifestyle. Think about what that means for society.

In the modern economy, these folks’ future would be pretty hopeless even when times are good. Our politicians have been focusing on what’s wrong with the schools.

But what gets discussed too seldom is something that has little to do with what happens in the schools themselves. Even the best educators are terribly handicapped if they don’t have solid support from the students’ caregivers at home.

That’s something many education reform schemes have largely ignored, possibly because the reformers don’t have any idea how to involve parents who are absent or don’t care. I remember talking to David Adamany when he was in charge of the Detroit schools the first time they were taken over by the state.

He sketched out his plan to improve academic performance, and then added,  “of course, it depends on the parents. "I looked at him and said, 'parents?'"  He knew what I meant.

But he didn’t really want to go there. Yesterday, the education reform committee did go there. State Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat from Auburn Hills, has been a leader on this issue.

Last year, he introduced some fairly radical legislation that would have had educational neglect considered child neglect - and authorized Child Protective Services to get involved when elementary school kids have serious attendance problems. When Melton has brought up these ideas before, he sparked considerable outrage.

State officials have complained that they don’t have the staff or the money to get involved in this way.

But the fact is that educational neglect can be just as damaging to a child’s future as malnutrition -- and a sign of one thing is often an indicator that both exist. As Committee Chair Bill Rogers sagely observed, “We‘re going to pay for them one way or another.”

Yet the question is, what do you do about it? One panelist was all for bashing welfare parents, threatening to stop their checks if they don’t show adequate interest in their children’s education.

But the issue is far more complex. Some parents in Detroit plainly don’t have the skills needed to read to their kids. Others, Melton noted, may be intimidated by the thought of meeting with a teacher. Yesterday’s panel didn’t come up with any solutions, but I think they took a big step forward just by starting to talk about it.

For unless our children‘s caregivers are deeply committed to academic success, we don’t in the long run, stand much of a chance.