Embrace the Power of Families: Louisiana and the Moral Importance of Parents Shaping Education
The move today by Louisiana’s legislature to approve the expansion of the state’s voucher program can only be seen as a success for children in that state. The centerpiece of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school reform efforts, the proposal — which would transform the program from one that just serves 3,000 students in New Orleans — will likely help as many as 300,000 more children get out of the Bayou State’s failure mills and dropout factories.
But the passage of the plan, along with one that would allow for the opening of more charter schools, is another reminder of the important shift that is happening, not only within Louisiana’s public education system, but throughout American public education as a whole. Families once relegated to the sidelines are taking more-powerful roles in shaping education decisions decision-making. It’s past time for this to happen. It is absolutely immoral and unacceptable to deny families, especially those from the poor and minority households, the ability to reshape education for their kids and keep them out of the worst education in this nation has to offer.
As Dropout Nation has reported over the past few years, more families are realizing that they can no longer assume that their children will fare well in just any school. Thanks to the work of the school reform movement — including the work of standards and accountability advocates and civil rights-based reformers in advancing the array of measures that would eventually come together in the No Child Left Behind Act — parents know more about the abysmal quality of teaching and curricula endemic in both the worst urban districts and mediocre counterparts in suburbia. And this data, along with the first wave of school choice efforts that started in the early 1990s with Milwaukee’s school voucher program and the first charter schools opened in Minnesota, have allowed families, especially those from low-income backgrounds, to realize that they don’t have to take anything that is given by traditional districts.
As a result, more families are banding together (often with small help from already-established school reformers) to launch their own grassroots efforts. One of the earliest offshoots began some years ago when Latino families teamed up with Green Dot Public Schools to demand the Los Angeles Unified School District hand over control of the riot-plagued Thomas Jefferson High School, and eventually, forced the district to hand over the even more-troubled Alain Locke High School. Those efforts, along with push by then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrat-controlled legislature to gain a share of federal Race to the Top funding, led to the passage of the nation’s first Parent Trigger law. By last year, groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union (on whose advisory board your editor serves) had sprouted up throughout the country, and, along with long-established groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options, were agitating for the enactment of Parent Trigger laws, pushing for the expansion of charters and vouchers, and weighing in on such issues as overhauling teacher evaluation systems.
This year, Parent Power efforts, along with initiatives to advance school choice, have faced some challenges. Families of kids attending Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., are now likely to file a civil suit against the school district after it rejected its Parent Trigger petition. Efforts to pass Parent Trigger laws in Florida were defeated on the floor of the Sunshine State’s senate while Colorado legislators put the kibosh on a similar proposal. Meanwhile National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, along with their fellow-travelers among traditionalists such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, have worked furiously to proclaim that Parent Power groups are somehow mindless dupes and “AstroTurf” fronts for supposedly evil school reform philanthropists; the fact that Parent Power groups are still greeted with skepticism among Beltway reformers (along with the fact that the unions use their vast funds to prop up groups such as Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters and its affiliate, Parents Across America), doesn’t seem to factor into their thoughts. And even as they badmouth families, they also engage in intimidating families daring to speak out on the ground, and are working together with traditional districts to push back against Parent Power and choice initiatives in states such as Mississippi and Alabama.
But for every setback, Parent Power activists are making clear that they are here to stay. The Connecticut Parents Union has managed to make waves throughout the Nutmeg State with efforts such as teaming up with Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst on a rally on behalf of Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform efforts; while Buffalo ReformED has shed light on the continued efforts of the AFT local to oppose the modest teacher evaluation overhaul being mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Then there’s Louisiana. Even as NEA and AFT affiliates rallied rank-and-file members to the state capital in order to remind legislators that they will attempt to make them pay for opposing the union’s will, Parent Power groups such as Black Alliance for Educational Options rallied members to call state senators and made clear that families would no longer sit on the sidelines. The efforts of the Parent Power groups paid off as the state senate not only passed the voucher and charter school expansion bills, but even passed an overhaul of the state’s teacher performance management system that effectively ends near-lifetime employment privileges that have left far too many low-quality teachers in classrooms.
The upcoming victory in Louisiana won’t sit well with NEA and AFT officials in either Baton Rouge or at the respective national headquarters in the Beltway. Nor will it sit well with either education traditionalists, old-school “family engagement” groups, or even among old-school civil rights groups who aid and abet them. After all, they have managed to essentially render all but a few families nuisances and afterthoughts within American public education. From where they sit, allowing families to actually choose the schools their kids attend offends their adherence to the traditional district model in existence since the days of Horace Mann. For traditionalists, Parent Trigger laws are even more an affront because it violates their belief that only supposed “experts” such as themselves can actually what kids can learn and who should teach them. From where they sit, families should barely be seen and almost never heard, except when they are called upon to help their kids with homework, staff field trips, run bake sales to fund school budgets, and be the scapegoats for the failures of teaching, curricula, and leadership.
This is nothing new. The traditional structure of district-run schools and centralized bureaucracies that has been at the heart of American public education since the 1840s has always been driven by an inherent distrust of families (especially Irish Catholic immigrant households of the 1840s, and black, Latino, and other minority and immigrant families of the last century). As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III illustrated in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, teachers unions, school boards, superintendents and administrators considered parents and the groups that represented them to be little more than tools for their co-opting. The fact that many of the early groups that arose to represent parents were run by middle-class women whose desire to improve the lot of poor kids were mixed in with their own disdain for their parents also played a part in this co-opting.
This was particularly made clear in the 1968 when mostly-black families overseeing the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board dared to fire 13 teachers (along with administrators). This aroused the ire of the AFT’s New York City local, which, under the leadership of future national AFT president Albert Shanker, had earlier rendered the district servile; by the time the decade was over, the union, with the help of New York City and Empire State politicians, effectively squashed this pre-Parent Power movement effort. And in many ways, this disdain of families — as much driven by class and race as it is by pure and amoral power considerations — remains as inherent in the viewpoints of teachers’ union bosses, school superintendents, ed school professors, and even a large number of teachers. It is why parent-teacher conferences are inconveniently scheduled, why parents don’t learn about their kid’s progress until it is far too late to help them succeed, why parents of kids in special ed find themselves filing lawsuits just to make the district come up with individualized learning plans, and why there are battles between families and gatekeepers over whether kids can take A.P. courses needed to prepare for success in college.
What these education traditionalists fail to realize — or admit — is that many families are no longer willing to accept this bargain. Poor and middle-class urban families long ago recognized that education is critical to revitalizing communities and helping their kids be prepared for successful futures in an increasingly knowledge-based economic future — and have long-concluded that traditional public education practices such as zoned schooling and ability tracking no longer work (if they ever did in the first place). Thanks to data on student, school, and teacher achievement unleashed as a result of developments such as Value-Added Assessment and the passage of No Child, a larger number of middle-class suburbanites realize this too. The very technological changes wrought in the rest of society that have helped people become their own news media outlets, curate their own music choices, even create their own encyclopedias (and have crippled the traditional gatekeepers in those realms) is also reshaping the way families want to engage in shaping education.
More importantly, families are recognizing that the “experts” really don’t know what they are doing, that it is the very practices championed by traditionalists — from near-lifetime employment for teachers regardless of their ability to help kids succeed;, to the overuse of the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems) — are the underlying reason why schools fail to improve student achievement. The fact that American public education spends $591 billion abysmally, resulting in long-term pension and retired teacher healthcare burdens that families must bear as taxpayers, also weighs on their thoughts. As a result, more families are demanding their rightful positions at the adult table of education as lead decision-makers, and are unwilling to go back to the little table and obediently go along with whatever their counterparts working in education demand.
They want to be able to not only choose schools for their schools and not be restricted by Zip Code Education practices. Even more, they want to actually shape what and how their children learn. This means the expansion of vouchers, tax credit plans, and charters, as well as the passage of Parent Trigger laws, the embrace of homeschooling, and the creation of DIY schools that serve their children and those of their neighbors and even fellow parishioners. As seen in Adelanto, where the Desert Trails parents have eschewed handing over the school to a charter school operator, more parents are willing to do the hard work of running schools so they can help their kids achieve better lives. And they are going to demand more information, including on how teachers perform in the classroom, so that they can decide for themselves what is best for their kids.
This certainly doesn’t make education traditionalist comfortable. Nor does it comfort Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, who are concerned that families will somehow muck things up. But the reality is that families can serve as powerful players in transforming failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity into cultures of genius that serve all children well. Why? Because choice implies both power and responsibility. As James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out, the only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. At the same time, this choice and power requires families to think through their decisions carefully, which means weighing all available information.
Even if families don’t get things right, these reformers must accept Parent Power because to not do so is the height of moral and intellectual hypocrisy. After all, reformers (along with traditionalists) go on an on about the importance of “teacher’s voice” in shaping the transformation of American public education — even though the reality of how teachers work (in silos, out of sight of one another, often without the strong subject-matter competency needed to help kids succeed) makes them far less expert on education than they may think. That is all well and good. The reality is that for all the talk from the NEA and AFT about how they represent teachers, the reality is that their defense of seniority- and degree-based pay scales, reverse-seniority layoff policies, and near-lifetime employment privileges through tenure do little for the younger, more reform-minded teachers who realize the damage these policies do to their profession and, ultimately, to the children in their care. And we need all voices in order to transform this failed system.
So if the voices of teachers are important, why aren’t the voices (and power) of parents even more so? After all, they are the taxpayers supporting American public education. More importantly, the children served by American public education are the young men and women these mothers, fathers, grandparents, and guardians love and will ever have. It is absolutely immoral and unacceptable to tell these families that they shouldn’t do everything they can to help their kids succeed — and absolutely repugnant to keep these families from exercising power on their children’s behalf.
What these reformers should do is expand Parent Power and help these families by pushing the development of comprehensive, longitudinal, easy-to-understand data systems that can help families get the data they need to smartly exercise power. They should team up with grassroots and community players on the ground and work with families. And they should work with education entrepreneurs to create high-quality online systems that families can use to do what they want (from providing their kids with tutoring to starting their own schools).
Whether traditionalists or some reformers like it or not, Parent Power is here to stay. And our kids will likely be the better for it.