There is plenty going on these days with Parent Power activists within the school reform movement. And the work of families on behalf of the children they love offers more reasons why the rest of the school reform movement must fully join common cause with them.
Last week, the Connecticut Parent’s Union held a press conference at Hartford’s federal court house calling attention to the federal lawsuit it helped file against the Nutmeg State on behalf of Marie Menard, a grandmother who was charged with the laughable crime of stealing education. While that suit was dismissed, Menard’s case, along with that of Bridgeport mother Tanya McDowell (who is serving five years in prison for stealing education), led to last month’s passage of House Bill 6677, which now ensures that other poor and minority families seeking high-quality education will no longer have to face felony charges for doing what is right for their children. The Connecticut Parents Union has advocated for such a bill for the past two years.
Through its work, and that of its president, Gwen Samuel — including bringing attention to the plight of families such as that of Hamlet and Olesia Garcia of Philadelpha (who are being charged by the Montgomery County District Attorney with violating Pennsylvania’s Zip Code Education law), — Connecticut Parents Union continually advocates for expanding choice and providing parents with the tools they need to build brighter futures for our sons and daughters that they love. But that work extends beyond those issues. Last year, it brought attention to concerns from families in Waterbury about a gun range opened up near a school. It’s annual ‘This the Season to Be Reading event, which provides books to families and children in the Nutmeg State, played an even more important role after the massacre last December of more than 20 children and teachers in Newtown. Teddy bears were given to kids who attended the school along with letters of sympathy.
In Adelanto, Calif., parents of children who attend Desert Trails Elementary School are prepping up this week for the new school year. But this time, they won’t have to worry about sparring with the traditional district which has long run the school into the ground. This year, families control the governance of the school, with a charter school operator reporting to them on its overhaul. Desert Trails joins 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles as the first schools families have taken full control of the schools serving their children through the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law.
Families in other parts of the state haven’t gone nearly as far. But as seen with parents of children attending Weigand Elementary School in the South Central section of L.A. (which ousted the school’s principal and demanded L.A. Unified put a better school leader in place), they have used the Parent Trigger law to equalize their positions at the education decision-making table and force changes that are not to the desire of either district bureaucrats or affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.
Meanwhile Parent Power activists in other parts of the country are working to become lead decision-makers in education. This includes Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which successfully advocated for the launch of a new school voucher program; and Black Alliance for Educational Options, which helped gain passage of school choice legislation in Alabama, as well as supported the move by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to fund the Bayou State’s voucher program out of the state budget after the state supreme court’s wrongheaded ruling that it was unconstitutional to use the school funding formula to fund the program.
Then there is the work of other Parent Power activists such as Buffalo ReformEd, which continually pushes to reform the failing traditional district as well as inform families and others about such matters as how the district’s machinations with the AFT local there led New York State officials to withhold federal school improvement grant money for the overhaul of two of its worst high schools. Other Parent Power groups are just beginning to emerge, encouraged by the work of groups in other parts of the country.
Lets be clear: Not all of their efforts are ones with which Dropout Nation finds favor. The Texas Parents Union’s advocacy for House Bill 5, which essentially rolled back the array of reforms implemented over the past three decades, is wrongheaded because it will lead to the shortchanging of all children (including those from poor and minority backgrounds).
But part of the problem lies in part with the school reform movement’s own failure to build stronger ties with parents, especially those in the middle class. Nor have Parent Power activists and their allies succeeded everywhere. From Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s effort to convince state senators to vote down a proposed Parent Trigger law for the second straight year, to stillborn takeover efforts such as that by families who children attend Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn. (which is the subject of another suit by the Connecticut Parents Union), the reality remains that traditionalists, politicians, and even some reformers who should know better will do anything to oppose any effort by parents to do best by their children.
At the same time, the fact that so many families recognize that they should be active in structuring how schools serve their children is something that should be celebrated.
For one, Parent Power activists are working each day to end the disdain among traditionalists, including teachers’ union affiliates, and school officials, towards families whom they think are incapable of making smart decisions. This 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), has always been at the heart of the traditional structure of American public education. 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. When earlier generations of families rebelled against such condescension, traditionalists would do all they can to beat them down. The most-infamous example happened in 1968, when the AFT’s New York City local, with the help of Big Apple and New York State officials, squashed the efforts of the mostly-black families overseeing the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board to fire 13 teachers (along with administrators).
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 the No Child Left Behind Act.
More importantly, families are recognizing that the “experts” really don’t know what they are doing. 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.These realities, along with the understanding that American public education spends $599 billion (as of 2011) abysmally, resulting in long-term pension and retired teacher healthcare burdens also weighs on their thoughts (and pocketbooks).
This isn’t to say that families fully understand all that is wrong with American public education; middle class families in suburbia, for example, still don’t full recognize the extent of the mediocrity plaguing suburban schools while poor and middle class urban households are far more aware of the extent of systemic education failure. What it does mean is that 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 what and how their children learn. This is why Parent Trigger laws are such important tools in advancing reform and engaging families. When families can take over and overhaul failing schools in their own neighborhoods (or merely force district bureaucracies to accept thwm as lead partners) they can take the steps needed to transform climates of failure into cultures of genius for our kids, expand the definition of choice beyond merely escaping failure, and rebuild the communities at which schools are the center.
This is already being seen in Adelanto, where two district board members were ousted last year after the district’s tactics in opposing the Desert Trails takeover (and that of NEA local officials) led citizens to challenge their incumbency. While not every Parent Trigger effort will lead to successful advocacy, Parent Power efforts can spur political action that benefits all children. More importantly, such advocacy helps even those families not engaged at such a level to become smarter in their school choices. This is because families no longer just defer to the advice of teachers and school leaders. And this is also a threat to traditionalists, who still.adhere to the myth of their own expertise even when it has proven long ago that it isn’t worth much.
For reformers, Parent Power offers opportunities for transforming American public education. But only if the movement is wiling to embrace it.
Far too many Beltway and institution-oriented reformers, more-interested in advancing their preferred solutions, disdain Parent Trigger laws as either encouraging divisiveness between families who may disagree over a school takeover, think parents aren’t knowledgeable enough to undertake school turnarounds (or make smart choices), and argue that the school choice approaches they favor are more useful.
As your editor has previously said, the first position ignores the reality that families deal amicably after other types of intra-community conflicts, while the second view fails to consider that families can figure out how to set up governance if they have high-quality information and are given advice by reformers in a respectful manner. And as I have noted in previous pieces, even when choice does fully flourish, families and communities will still want high-quality schools in their own neighorhoods; they should be able to overhaul the existing schools which, for better or worse, have long been part of the fabric of community life.
But the need for reformers to embrace Parent Power extends beyond supporting Parent Trigger laws. The school reform movement has long succeeded in spite of its small numbers, working with politicians in congressional corridors, statehouses, and city halls to pass laws that have helped more kids write their own stories. But small coalitions are not enough to sustain those efforts.
As seen this year in Texas with the passage of H.R. 5 and the Obama Administration’s move to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions (as well as with the pushback on implementation of Common Core reading and math standards), gains can be wiped out unless robust grassroots support, especially from families, is there to give political leaders cover. More importantly, when families aren’t being informed in simple yet sophisticated ways, they will sit on the sidelines or worse, support opponents of reform.
Reformers must also embrace Parent Power because it is the morally and intellectually honest thing to do. After all, these are the mothers and fathers of the boys and girls they love. More importantly, they are charged by the Creator and by society with nurturing, disciplining, and preparing their children to be good, knowledgeable, and productive adults. 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.
School reformers have an opportunity to fully embrace Parent Power. And it starts with three steps.
The first? We must be ready to actively listen to families and engage them where they live. Green Dot and Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr often makes the point that reformers going into urban communities must be willing to listen to community leaders and parents, who have been disappointed by earlier groups of outsiders. This active listening is also true for families regardless of their backgrounds. Once parents know that someone is listenng, they are willing to be allies.
The second step lies in providng families with high quality information — especially on how districts and adults working within them are helpingnkids get the knowledge they need — that is simple yet sophisticated and comprehensive. Useful data that can be used by families in making decisions leads to parents knowing better amd doing more.
Finally, reformers must do more than just praise Parent Power activists. After all, may of these groups are small and still need resources to sustain their efforts. They will also need assistance in building the internal capacity, including eveloping financial operations and controls. This is opportunity for both the nation’s biggest philanthropies working in reform as well as for individuals who want to provide the kind of funding and support usually done by venture capitalists in the private sector.
School reform cannot sustain be sustained for our children without the help of the mothers and fathers who love them. It is time to fully bring families into the fold.