Despite the differences in priorities, the school’s parents are expected to make decisions as a community. That kind of unity rarely happens in gentrifying neighborhoods, however. When white, affluent parents come into a school that has a high percentage of less-affluent students of color, the more advantaged group tends to take over parent organizations and unintentionally marginalize the parent community that was already there. Ultimately, Rolling Terrace proceeded with its plan to use Chromebooks, but not all such issues are resolved in ways that give low-income parents a voice.
That’s unfortunate because parental engagement can greatly improve adolescents’ academic and emotional functioning, according to a 2014 study published in Child Development. A substantial body of research also indicates that parent involvement at home and school is an important factor in improving young children’s literacy and math skills. PTA membership was also associated with student achievement in a 2006 School Community Journal study authored by researchers at the University of West Florida.
Allyson Criner Brown, the associate director at the nonprofit Teaching for Change, said she has seen small groups of advantaged parents, many of them members of parent organizations, wield great influence on school policy. They often push for programs that would benefit their own children and not necessarily the kids of less means. When these parents don’t get what they want, they often make calls to someone higher up than the principal, such as the superintendent, to flex their muscle—something lower-income parents rarely do.
The influence of the PTA depends a lot on the given school’s culture and in part on how big a role parents play in fundraising. It can be challenging for a busy principal to seek input from parent groups, especially when those organizations aren’t financially supporting a cash-strapped school.
“If the principal knows that the PTA is not a source for fundraising, depending on the principal they might not go to the PTA and ask parents if [a particular project] is a priority,” said Alexandra Freidus, doctoral candidate in urban education at New York University. In wealthy or socioeconomically diverse communities, on the other hand, “principals frequently count on parents to fill in budget gaps. Those parents are much more likely to think they have the right to tell principals what they think, to believe their opinions matters to the school, and they’re much more likely to be a dominant voice.” And while it’s true that kids of all backgrounds benefit from attending integrated schools, affluent and white parents tend to think they’re the ones bringing value to their school, according to research released earlier this year.
The imbalance of power has become especially clear in recent years as parents with means in gentrifying neighborhoods look for schools that will enrich their kids’ lives—schools with diverse student populations, for example, and supplemental-learning opportunities. Schools serving high numbers of poor children often offer Spanish-immersion or gifted-and-talented programs that attract affluent families, which often bring with them the ability to fundraise. (Although Spanish-immersion programs were initially meant to serve children who spoke Spanish at home and were still learning English, they have become increasingly popular across the country with non-Latino parents whose children speak primarily or only English at home, according to a 2015 dissertation for the City University of New York’s urban-education program.) But the ability can also mean wealthy families wield disproportionate influence on campus and in the PTA.