Sometimes it's because employers don't allow time off for them, and parents would be risking their jobs to participate—whether the meetings are general updates on their child's progress, or more in-depth sessions for children with disabilities who are on individualized educational programs, or IEPs.
Maryland legislators are taking on this issue with bills in the House and Senate that would require business owners to allow employees up to four hours of unpaid leave twice each semester to attend parent-teacher meetings about their children. Employers could require their employees to bring written proof of having attended the meetings. And employees would be required to provide at least three days' notice of their need to attend a parent-teacher meeting.
Tomorrow, the House Economic Matters Committee will hear testimony about HB 561. Video testimony will be entered from parents who cannot be there, but who have faced this Hobson's choice in their own lives. A hearing on the companion bill, SB 329, was held on Feb. 23.
Maryland State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat and former high school teacher through Teach for America, spearheaded the legislation.
"One of the more frustrating aspects of my job was that very few parents attended my parent-teacher conferences. For a lot of them, it wasn't that they didn't want to attend. Outside circumstances made it difficult for them—on that particular day, at that particular time—to participate," he told Education Week.
Lobbying on behalf of the bill are MarylandCAN: The Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now and the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council. Leaders from each of those groups recently co-authored an opinion article in the Baltimore Sun entitled, "Md. must make it easier for parents to get involved."
Rachel London, director of Children & Family Policy at the Maryland Disabilities Council, explained her organization's view this way: "The bottom line for the bill is that parent participation in all meetings is imperative for a child's education, and it's especially critical for children with disabilities because there are more meetings. IEP meetings are required annually and any time there's a change in the IEP. The same for 504 Plan meetings, or IFSP [Individualized Family Service Plan] meetings for children under the age of 5, or infant and toddlers meetings."
"In order for parents and family members to be meaningful participants in their child's education, they have to be there," she said.
Instead, Ferguson points out that it is possible for a host of school personnel to gather for an IEP meeting, and have the parent be absent because he or she has had to waive participation.
"The school does not want to exclude the parent. It's sheer logistics when you're making a parent decide between whether they get a paycheck or engage in a child's education," he said.
Thus far, some members of the business community have registered concerns about the impact of this proposed legislation, according to Ferguson. (Education Week asked for comments from Maryland business associations, and had not heard back by deadline. We will keep you updated on their position.)
"We're making the case that education is indeed an economic matter," said Curtis Valentine, founding executive director of MarylandCAN. "We have to educate legislators about the achievement gap here in Maryland, and how parents are critically important to closing that achievement gap."
Ferguson said he hopes to address the business community's concerns by modifying the bill to add protections for certain small businesses, such as those with 20 or fewer employees, and emergency personnel.
"Our goal is to make sure the exceptions don't swallow the law," he explained.
The Maryland legislative session is scheduled to end April 9.