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What’s the cost when a helicopter parent volunteers at school — and who pays it?

Study says it’s hard for teachers to resist giving preferential treatment to pushy parents in the classroom.

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Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Parents who devote themselves to helping out at the local grade school can fill some gaps in public school budgets. But if schools and those who fund them don’t take care, parent volunteers may also disadvantage kids whose parents aren’t in a position to similarly show up.

A three-year study by Indiana University associate professor Jessica McCrory Calarco finds schools that depend on parents to donate time and money may subconsciously favor those parents’ children as an unofficial “payment” for the effort. Sometimes preferential treatment is deliberate, born of worry schools will lose the help or teachers will wind up in conflict with parents who have administrators’ ears.

Educators, parenting experts and sociologists have long said one danger of helicopter parenting is that it deprives children of a chance to fail and stretch and learn. But “When Helicopters Go to School: Who Gets Rescued and Who Gets Left Behind?” finds the children who bear the brunt when parents helicopter at school are actually the children whose parents aren’t there. The briefing paper was published this week by the Council on Contemporary Families.

Are parents doing a bad thing by helping out? Absolutely not, said Virginia Rutter, Framingham State University professor of sociology. But it doesn’t keep any expectation that a parent’s efforts earns the child some leeway from being problematic.

The problem could be avoided if schools had adequate and equitable funding that gives all parents the chance to show up, instead of favoring those who can fill budgetary gaps or donate time to meet school needs, Calarco told the Deseret News.

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In this Feb. 16, 2016, photo, Adams Elementary third grade students Saanvi Nomula, 8, center, and Sandhini Anugu, 8, work with parent volunteer Ashley Cooper during the school’s programming club class in Corvallis, Ore. Many school rely on parents for donations of time and money, but a new study says schools should avoid giving preferential treatment to volunteers’ children.

Andy Crip, The Corvallis Gazette-Times via Associated Press

Role of fear

Calarco set out to look specifically at how schools enforce the rules when they depend on the goodwill and resources of families. She wondered if teachers feel they must give preferential treatment to parents that provide support.

To find out, she spent about 500 hours in the classrooms of an urban public grade school over the course of three years. The answer to her question, she said, was clearly yes.

“If they are dependent on these families, they bend over backward even when they don’t want to to grant them leeway and exemptions from rules in part because they fear loss of support and in part because they fear conflict.”

Calarco detailed specific interactions, like this one with a fifth-grade teacher: A boy whose mom was active in the parent-teacher organization left a homework assignment home, and his teacher told him kindly not to worry about it. “That’s what responsibility gets you. There’s a trust, OK?” When another student whose parents didn’t help at school read the wrong section of the book for homework, the teacher kept that student in from recess, scolding, “Well, the first thing is to make sure you have the assignment right. That’s responsibility.”

Schools in need

The setup is familiar in many school districts nationwide. Schools don’t have enough money and parents may help fill in the gaps, whether with time or money. Often, prosperous families have the flexibility and the resources to do that while other families don’t.

That most schools are funded by local tax dollars “almost forces schools to be incredibly dependent on privileged families,” said Calarco, who said teachers and administrators may then seek out and cater to families that can contribute in different ways.

If care’s not taken, “educators, trying to supplement unequal and inadequate resources for high-quality education, come to rely on a set of privileged helicopter parents who contribute substantial amounts of time and money to the school,” the report says.

Their contributions that allow schools to provide extracurricular activities, testing help, etc., may come with the expectation that their children will be treated just a bit better than other children. Whether teachers think that’s fair or they just feel pressured, they may comply to keep the help coming.

There are other reasons, as well, to make sure funds are distributed equitably to schools in a community. For example, spreading the wealth across school districts improves intergenerational mobility that particularly helps students in low-income families who might otherwise be in more financially strapped schools, according to a study by Barbara Biasi, assistant professor of economics at Yale School of Management. Intergenerational mobility refers to changes, especially upward, in a family’s social position. Helping lower income families thrive doesn’t harm those in wealthier families,

Strengthening all families

Experts say the problem isn’t parents wanting to help their kids or the schools. But when economic inequality and competition rear up, it’s not good.

Calarco said that in throwing rules out or enforcing them strategically, teachers end up inadvertently reinforcing the kinds of inequality that made them dependent on privileged families in the first place.

“I understand why parents engage in those efforts, especially in an increasingly competitive job market and with increasing competition for spots at elite colleges,” she said, adding many parents define their own success on factors like whether their kids do get into those colleges.

She said local, state and federal governments need to create more stable, fair funding for public schools. If schools are not dependent on families that can afford to help them, more parents can be involved without inequality. But making sure that schools simply have the resources they need is a hard problem to solve, she added.

Children do benefit when their parents are involved at school.

“Ongoing research shows that family engagement in schools improves student achievement, reduces absenteeism and restores parents’ confidence in their children’s education. Students with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores, have better social skills, and show improved behavior,” according to an NEA Today article by Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who was president of the National Education Association, and Otha Thornton, who led the National Parent Teacher Association.

Calarco said her hope isn’t that parents will stop helping at school. It’s making sure all parents can afford to be there and contribute, to see their children are all treated fairly and teachers and administrators aren’t compromising rules because they’re desperate for help.

Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the council, noted “Canada has less income inequality and much less inequality in the status and earnings associated with different universities.” She said parents there “don’t feel so compelled to orchestrate their kids’ school participation and burnish their resumes to get into an elite school.”

And while other children may be disadvantaged by a helicopter parent’s participation at school, it’s not good for the parent, either, Coontz said. “Not only does this dynamic reinforce inequality in the schools, in the long run it can harm the family life of those who practice it. Many women feel overburdened by the demands of volunteering, and many marriages would profit from parents taking more time to spend with each other and with friends, since socializing with other adults is a major predictor of marital satisfaction, especially for women.”

Ultimately, Calarco’s study suggests a need to look at everyday things people do that may expand inequality, Rutter said. “When schools and teachers are catering to super-entitled parents, they’re nudging out students who don’t have that and who have different styles of approaching how they want to interact with opportunities in school.”

Besides more equal and robust funding for schools, Rutter sees a need for job flexibility and paid leave so people in different socioeconomic groups “are not going to be afraid to spend more time engaged with their children’s education.”

Meanwhile, parent helpers need to exercise some judgment, she added.

“No one’s saying parents should not participate at their children’s school. But they might want to think about when they should step back,” said Rutter. “The advice to parents is, do all that’s in your heart and in your time budget to do. But just like when you’re in a meeting or class or workshop, sometimes it’s your turn to step back.”

Rutter called it a “systemic problem, not a bad-person problem.”