Time for Parent Power Activists and School Reformers to Learn from Teachers’ Union Tactics
Back in August, Dropout Nation revealed the American Federation of Teachers’ presentation on how its Connecticut affiliate unsuccessfully attempted to “Kill” (and eventually watered down) the nation’s second Parent Trigger law. The presentation, the blatant admission that the AFT did so much to keep Parent Power and school reformers out of behind-the-scenes conversations with state legislators, and the retaliatory tactics the union took against legislators who pushed the law proved so embarrassing to the union that AFT President Randi Weingarten issued a series on non-apology apologies. She also met with Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel, state legislators, and former state representative Jason Bartlett (who lost re-election as a result of the AFT’s desire to enact “Karma” on those who dared to support weakening its influence).
Back then, your editor wrote and (discussed in a Dropout Nation Podcast) that this was a teachable moment for the school reform movement and Parent Power activists, who must learn from those hardball tactics and repay education traditionalists in kind. And this past month offers more lessons from which reformers should learn.
Example number one is in Connecticut, where the Connecticut Parents Union’s new alliance with Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst has aroused the ire of education traditionalists and their fellow travelers. After one of them, a former Connecticut state representative and Democrat operative decided to sling a little mud at the group, the Nutmeg State’s ethics agency (under the guise of learning of “media reports) issued a warning that both groups had to register as lobbyists under his interpretation of Nutmeg State law. (Of course, the infamous RheeFirst, which was started with the aid of the AFT’s national offices, joined in on the fun.) The fact that Connecticut’s own lobbying law doesn’t cover the parents union or other volunteer citizen advocates of its kind — along with the lack of a formal complaint — makes the ethics agency’s complaint rather suspicious.
But the Connecticut affair is nothing compared to what happened in Adelanto, Calif., where parents at Desert Trails Elementary School were thwarted in their attempt to use the state’s Parent Trigger law to force the overhaul of one of the state’s most-persistent failure mills. On Tuesday, the Adelanto district tossed out their Parent Trigger petition, declaring that 93 parents who had originally signed the petition decided to withdraw their support. While the fact that the petition fell by just 12 signatures makes it appear to be a mere close loss, L.A. Weekly writer Simone Wilson reports that the NEA affiliate there, with the help of a city planning commissioner and a sister NEA local in nearby Hesperia, engaged in a scare tactic campaign, with flyers proclaiming that “DESERT TRAILS CHILDREN WILL LOSE THEIR TEACHERS”. (That some of those teachers, along with its principal, are responsible for the school being mired in academic failure for six consecutive years never seems to come to mind.) Within two weeks, the union and its allies managed to garner 90 more signatures than they had before their drive.
The Desert Trails parents, with the help of Parent Revolution, will likely challenge the Adelanto decision and probably make another push for taking control of the school. As they should. The schools at the center of the lives of the children they love should offer high-quality teaching and curricula. And in the case of Desert Trails, where 32 percent of the students scored Below and Far Below Basic on the reading portion of the Golden State’s standardized tests last year (and another 25 percent barely hit Basic levels of proficiency), those children are clearly being poorly served.
But once again, parents in Adelanto and elsewhere are learning some hard lessons about the need to play tough and hard in helping their children get the culture of genius and high-quality education they deserve. After all, the NEA and AFT spent $167 million in their respective 2010-2011 fiscal years just to maintain their influence. From lobbying in the statehouse, to contributing generously to fellow-travelers such as Parents Across America founder Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters (which counts Diane Ravitch as an “officer” and picked up $25,000 from the NEA last year), to even co-opting progressive groups in order to challenge reform-minded Democrat politicians, the two unions have all but proven willing to play all the angles in order to preserve their influence and defend failed practices that condemn 1.2 million children every year to poverty and prison before they even reach high school.
This year, NEA and AFT affiliates are stepping up their tactics. In New York City and Connecticut, AFT and NEA affiliates are engaging in ad blitzes in order to remind legislators that they will need their cash for re-election bids. (Whether NEA and AFT dollars, along with their armies of rank-and-file members working the polls, can serve as effective sources of support is a different story.) As more states adopt Parent Trigger laws, one can expect NEA and AFT locals to devote more dollars to the kind of door-to-door campaigns (and accompanying scare tactics) already seen in Adelanto.
But it isn’t just the NEA and AFT. Traditional district bureaucracies have proven far too willing to perpetuate failure and resist reform. As I noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, it is the bigoted low expectations for poor and minority children held by so-called school leaders that is as much a culprit for the nation’s education crisis as the woeful system of teacher training. And as seen in Compton, Calif., (the site of another Parent Trigger effort), the oft-servile relationships between districts and teachers’ union locals can prove to be real valuable to bureaucrats when it comes time to resist calls for systemic reform.
From where the two unions sit, families are to be barely seen and almost never heard, and this has been the norm even before 1968, when the legendary AFT President Albert Shanker successfully crushed the effort by families and reform-minded administrators in New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. And as evidenced by both the AFT’s anti-Parent Trigger presentation (and a statement earlier this month by the executive director of the NEA’s New Jersey affiliate defending the union’s opposition to choice), Parent Power activists, along with other school reformers need to learn from tactics used by the two unions on the ground and in statehouses, and apply them in their own advocacy.
In short, it’s going to be the political equivalent of brass knuckle street-fighting. As the Connecticut Parents Union is showing this week, it means directly raising questions about the underlying motives behind actions. That’s just the start. Both Parent Power activists and other school reformers must take on advocacy as masterfully as a K Street lobbyist and a Change.org activist. This especially means using e-mail, Twitter, and even video. As Dr. Steve Perry, the CNN commentator and Hartford, Conn., principal, pointed out last year in his book, Push Has Come to Shove, no school board or politician is equipped to handle a series of well-timed messages from a small group of parents.
It will take a lot of politics for families, especially those from poor and minority households, to push for overhaul of schools, expand school choice, and revamp how teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated, and compensated. That’s how it is with a government financed- and -operated system. But it shouldn’t be this way. Contrary to the argument made yesterday by the usually-sensible Adam Emerson of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which was sadly seconded by the usually-savvier-about-politics Andy Rotherham), it should actually be much easier for parents to overhaul failing schools or escape failure mills and dropout factories that are perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice.
But thanks to Zip Code Education practices, four out of every five children in this country don’t have any option other than attending a failing zone school. Meanwhile there are parents such as Annette Callahan — who has success helped three of her children succeed in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education — that are threatened each day with arrests for doing all that they can to get their children into anything resembling a high quality school.
It’s all well and good for Beltway reformers (who, along with their education traditionalist counterparts have the resources available to avoid the worst that American public education has to offer) to talk all about “imbalance of power”. But when you are a poor family in, say, Birmingham, Ala., or even a suburban black household in Fairfax County, Va., all this talk of power shifting too far in their favor is rather academic. As the guardians of the lives, souls, and health of their children — and, just as importantly, as the taxpayers who finance American public education — they shouldn’t have to scrap with either teachers’ unions or district bureaucrats in order to do what’s best for their children.
Families should be the lead decision-makers in education. Parent Trigger laws don’t mean power imbalances, but the rightful restoring of parents to their place in schools.