Parent involvement dispute snarls education plan for migrant students

After years of delay, political infighting and bureaucratic red tape - officials say they are finally unveiling a statewide plan for educating the nation's largest population of children from migrant worker families.

The plan, which is required under federal law, still comes forward in the face of criticism from the migrant worker community that it does not include a strong parent involvement component.

Officials at the California Department of Education said last week, however, that they intend to deliver their draft proposal to the state board of education in March - with or without sign off from a key parent advisory group.

The (parent council) came forward, they gave us their input. At this point, it's up to us to make sure that the required components that the federal government requires us to have in place in order to provide services to our kids, are there," said Brian Centeno, director of the CDE's Migrant, Indian, and International Education Office.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires California to have a service delivery plan for migrant education that helps ensure that children who regularly change schools for seasonal farm workare receiving quality academic and health services.

The plan is a blueprint of academic performance targets, and measurable objectives that are intended to bring cohesion to the state's Migrant Education Program.

Each state with migrant children needs to have its appropriate entity - in California's case it's the California State Board of Education - approve four components of the plan: school readiness, English, math, and high school graduation. Bringing in additional components, such as parent involvement, is not a federal requirement.

Work on the plan began in 2006 and a draft version wasn't completed by CDE until early 2009.

But shortly after its release, the proposal drew sharp criticism from the State Parent Advisory Council, a group of 38 migrant worker parents and representatives, who advise the state on migrant education issues. At issue was the parent involvement' component.

CDE officials agreed to work with the council to include parent involvement.' But infighting between state officials and the parent council - as well as the state's own bureaucracy - delayed completion for nearly two years.

The impact of the delay on this already-under achieving student population is not clear, but advocates for farmworker families say the inability to adopt this basic educational guide isn't helping to close the achievement gap.

"We should have a state service delivery plan. We're the state where the most migrant education students are being served. There's no reason for us to have an outdated plan," said Santiago Avila-Gomez, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, an advocacy organization that also provides legal services for farm workers.

Avila-Gomez also said that parents need to have a significant role in the program. The dispute over parent involvement, however, is just one issue.

Earlier this year, clashes among the parents themselves broke out, exposing an element of dysfunction from within the parent advisory council.

The CDE has received approximately 400 letters from community members complaining about the council's conduct including allegations that the panel had violated state open meeting laws.

Last summer, CDE officials stopped funding the group's meetings and launched an investigation into the complaints, the results of which have not been released. But the air of uncertainty has complicated an already difficult situation.

Officials say they highly value parental input and would like to restructure the parent council to make them a state partner, and eventually include the parent component in the service plan.

"Who's a greater advocate for students than their own parents? That's the obvious need we have, to get those voices heard," said Centeno, adding that the council first needs to refocus its mission on serving kids.

The rub for some parents and their advocates, however, is that the CDE is moving ahead with the plan without addressing their specific concerns.

"The parents felt that their suggestions had been, more or less, written down but never heard and never really considered," said Avila-Gomez, who also works as a consultant to the parent council.

While a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the absence of a state service plan will not at this point jeopardize federal funding - there are clearly needs that are not being met.

A 2008 report issued by the CDE found that most migrant students are unable to meet high school graduation standards in math and English, and migrant students learn English at a slower rate than other English Learners.

In 2006, the LAO wrote that the Migrant Education Program suffers from "limited program accountability, poor coordination with other student services, and little statewide collaboration." According to Rachel Ehlers, education specialist with the LAO, the problems reported in 2006 remain unresolved.

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