MANCHESTER, N.H. — In theory at least, the Obama administration’s National Conversation on Fatherhood and Parental Responsibility is one of those rare instances when liberals and conservatives can enthusiastically join together. It’s a federal government initiative designed to strengthen American schools and help their most disadvantaged students by focusing on the role of fathers.
A series of community forums, scheduled to last at least through the fall, deals with issues like the need for parents to take personal responsibility for the success of their children.
“It’s all the things that conservatives have talked about for years,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.
“It’s the Obama administration at its best,” agrees Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also in Washington.
Still, don’t look for too much bipartisan bliss just yet. For many conservatives, anything that even hints at an expanding role for the federal government is cause for discomfort. “Potentially, it could be a case of the government helping where help is not needed,” says Chuck Donovan, senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The ‘father’ role
Since Father’s Day, members of the Obama administration have been on tour meeting with neighborhood leaders – everyone from school superintendents to prison ministers to administrators of not-for-profit groups. The goal of these meetings is to determine who and what are already doing a good job of filling “father” needs in the lives of children. It’s all part of the Obama administration’s drive to explore the piece of academic achievement that experts agree matters most, yet is often least discussed by policymakers: the role of parents (specifically fathers) in the life of a child.
Fatherhood is a subject about which President Obama (who grew up while his own father was on another continent) has strong personal feelings. And it’s an area long flagged by the right as a major concern. “With the rate of children born out of wedlock in this country approaching 40 percent, it’s a huge problem,” Mr. Donovan says.
A link between fathers and student achievement
So far, the government’s role has been exploratory, and no concrete proposals are attached to the fledging initiative. At a recent fatherhood conversation in Manchester, N.H., however, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about ways for schools and parents to better come together to support children. “Fathers are the most important teachers,” he said. “When a father steps up, outcomes improve dramatically.”
But maybe, he suggested, schools could do a better job of “meeting the home halfway.” He spoke of what he saw as an expanded role for public schools to meet family needs. He envisions schools “as a neighborhood anchor,” open 12 to 13 hours a day and seven days a week, to offer “relationship programs, parental training,” and programs that tutor and mentor children.
That may be where the left and right part company.
It comes down to this, Mr. Hess says: how involved the federal government would be in such programs.
“If it’s a question of using school buildings to house such programs, then that makes good sense to me. But if schools and school districts are providing all that, that’s problematic,” he says.
Such programs are “not a core competence of our schools,” says Donovan.
Men at school: bring ’em on
For now, the Obama administration is mostly listening.
At the Manchester meeting, participants poured out their hearts on the topic of fatherhood and the need to better connect men and children. In some schools, “it’s almost out of place for a man to come into a school building,” said Thomas Brennan, superintendent of the Manchester schools. “We need to change the culture.” And Paul Gudonis, president of FIRST, a Manchester nonprofit focusing on technology, described the strong ties that projects like robotics teams and LEGO leagues can forge between adult male mentors and students.
For many groups like this, however, the bottom line is that they are hoping for federal dollars and federal attention so they can operate more broadly.
That’s exactly what conservatives don’t want to hear.
“The danger here is that once public officials have found an area of concern, a momentum tends to take hold,” Hess says. “It’s hard for them to say, ‘This is a problem. It needs to be solved locally,’ ” without federal funding or intervention.
Federal involvement vs. federal fixes
In many ways, the Obama administration is simply moving deeper into territory also probed by others, says Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. He points to the “hundreds of millions” of dollars that the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations spent on providing recreational and social services to schoolchildren.
But to tighten the focus on the role of fathers (and the questions of parental responsibility) can only help, Jennings adds. “Who can find fault with that?” he asks.
No one, agrees Hess, but only if the federal government keeps a close check on its degree of involvement. No doubt, he says, “It could be constructive for the federal government to raise these questions [about fatherhood] and honor people who are solving them.”
But what the government will need to do, he adds, is to find a way to say, “ ‘Hey, let’s be clear: We’re not envisioning federal fixes.’ If they can do that, I think they might reassure a lot of conservatives who would like to support this.”