Last spring, I took my daughter, then 10, to our branch library to find material for a school research project. To save time, I asked the librarian if she could recommend some books. She scanned the assignment and quickly handed it back to me.

"We have none of the resources your daughter needs," she said. "Would you like me to write a note to her teacher?"

"Isn't there something in the adult section?" I asked.

"I don't think so," the librarian said.

My daughter and I spent the rest of the weekend working on the project. We scoured Houston's downtown library, cruised the Internet, and, most usefully, consulted a college zoology textbook. By Sunday night, we were frazzled and punch drunk. Then the true meaning of the assignment dawned on me: It was a test. Not of my daughter, of course--no fourth grader could have tackled it solo--but of me. With my middle-class income and skills, I passed, but it struck me that many parents, particularly those in large urban school districts like mine, might fail.

If English were your second language, the complex instructions would throw you for a loop; if you worked weekends, hadn't finished high school, had small children to tend, couldn't afford the parking fees downtown--or didn't own a car in the first place--you might do best to accept the librarian's note.

In fairness, I believe the teacher who assigned the project did so with the laudable intention of encouraging children to dig deeply into a subject. And yet, consciously or not, she was also counting on the direct intervention of parents. During last decade or so, "parental involvement" has emerged as one of the most popular nostrums for the warts on public education.

For officeholders, the appeal is understandable--haranguing parents is certainly cheaper, politically speaking, than raising taxes. School administrators and radio talk-show hosts have joined the chorus, with the result that "involvement" has attained the status of moral imperative.

The conclusion that the sins of the parents are being visited on the children is inescapable.

If you accept this equation, then the working parent who never signs up to be room coordinator really is the "bad mother" she feels herself to be. And the one child in my daughter's class who indisputably did the research assignment all by herself, producing a brave but inadequate poster, had negligent parents.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting that parents disengage from their children's school experiences. Of course, they should monitor homework and read to their children. It's certainly true--ask any teacher--that some parents are negligent; they don't bother to meet even these minimum requirements, much less instill a love of learning in their offspring. Other parents fall equally short of the demands made on them, not from moral failings or indifference but from lack of time, resources, or education. In either scenario, the effects on children can be calamitous.

In many cities, for instance, the best public schools are those with special or "magnet" programs, designed for "gifted" kids or those with artistic talents. Getting a child admitted to one of these programs requires excellent organizational skills, a measure of savvy, and--not least--job flexibility. Tours, testing sessions, and auditions tend to be scheduled during school hours, when many parents work. Those in white-collar jobs can usually wangle the necessary time off, while the ones who punch time clocks often can't.

Once a child starts school, involvement is not merely a matter of getting her there on time, or even schlepping her to the library. It's participating in the myriad fund-raising activities that, in many cases, determine whether the school will have playground equipment, a science lab, or even soap in the rest rooms. Fund-raising aside, every good public school I know of benefits from the efforts of numerous parent volunteers. These moms (and dads) mimeograph, laminate, tutor, catalog, and otherwise serve as unpaid staff members. I'm grateful to the parents who do this at my daughter's school--they truly make a difference--but I wonder at a system that, in the absence of these devotees, simply accepts that kids will lose out.

And they do. Particularly as they move out of elementary school, children whose parents can't be involved end up in classes and schools where low achievement is the norm; such institutions are both scholastically weak and physically unappealing, right down to their barren grounds (attractive landscaping is often the result of parental involvement). The conclusion that the sins of the parents are being visited on the children is inescapable.

The situation reminds me of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," the autobiographical novel by Betty Smith. Faced with a class of mostly poor immigrant children, the teacher of Francie Nolan, the heroine, lavishes all her attention on the students whose parents can afford to buy her gifts.

It could be, having done my stint at the school's book fair, that I'm suffering from parental-involvement fatigue syndrome. The symptoms first flared up when the PTA president at my daughter's school told a local newspaper columnist that her parents had passed up a potentially lucrative fund-raising scheme. All the moms and dads had to do was spend of couple of weekends working at a local amusement park for minimum wage--and their salaries would have flowed into the PTA's coffers.

Hell no, I thought. I won't go. And nobody else should either. The dream of public education in this country is that it is an equalizer. Regardless of parents' education or status, or of their ability to spend their weekends running the roller coaster, all children should receive the same academic opportunities. The dream has always been something of a mirage, fading even as we pursue it, but surely we should keep reaching for it.

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