Before your editor tears apart the problematic thinking behind the latest version of the Center for Education Reform’s so-called Parent Power Index, let’s give the organization credit for at least providing a measure of which states are expanding opportunities for high-quality education. At the very least, reformers and Parent Power activists should be disturbed that only Indiana earned CER’s top rank, and that only four other states — Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Utah — have (along with the District of Columbia) earned a B rating for addressing school choice, teacher quality reforms, and data transparency. Sure, CER doesn’t factor in matters such as transportation and other infrastructural issues that can make choice more illusory than real. But for shedding that light alone, CER deserves some praise.
At the same time, the praise for CER should only be faint. Why? Because the outfit, like so many Beltway-oriented reformers, is clinging to a limited notion of the role families should play in education decision-making at a time when parents are demanding to be lead decisionmakers in how schools and operators serve their children. For all of CER’s talk about Parent Power, it doesn’t understand that it means more than just choosing schools.
The biggest oversight of CER’s reform comes in its failure to rank states on how they have passed and implemented Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over failing schools as well as gives them the ability to negotiate with districts on how those schools will be overhauled. The outfit could have easily looked at the laws on the books; after all, only seven states have Parent Trigger laws in place. It could have also talked to Parent Power activists on the ground — from Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union to Parent Revolution’s Gabe Rose — about the efficacy of the provisions in each state. Rating states on this aspect of Parent Power alone would have been quite revealing about how far we have to go to provide families real decisionmaking power in education.
Another oversight comes in the failure to rank states on whether families have strong roles in shaping education decisions within the school systems that serve their children. Given that both traditional districts and charter schools are public schools and serve the vast majority of school-aged children, ranking them on such matters as whether parents have seats on oversight boards for individual schools is important to ask. Even ranking states on the number of education lawsuits filed by families to challenge the array of near-lifetime job protections and teacher dismissal policies that harm children would have been good to determine.
I can imagine CER President Kara Kerwin and the outfit’s founder, Jeanne Allen, asking why this should have been considered. Here’s the answer: Because Parent Power isn’t just about school choice.
This is clear in Anaheim, Calif., where families of children attending Palm Lane Elementary are using the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law to take over the seize control of the failure mill from the traditional district there. The families, with help from former California Sen. Gloria Romero, filed suit in April after the Anaheim City School District rejected their Parent Trigger petition. Last month, Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks concluded that the district’s process for vetting the Palm Lane petition was “unreasonable, unfair, and incomplete” and gave families the green-light to proceed with the takeover. [The Anaheim district has filed an appeal.] The efforts of the Palm Lane parents, along with those in Adelanto, Calif., and in Los Angeles (where parents have either successfully taken over schools or forced districts to negotiate over much-needed reforms) show the desire families have to take the lead in shaping curricula and instruction for their kids.
This is also clear in New Orleans, La., where families are as frustrated as they are pleased by the expansion of school choice and overhaul of public education that has happened in the decade since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly those families are happy that the reforms have improved student achievement. But the reality that many kids must travel as long as two hours away from home in order to attend school (often on inefficient public transit) has also put a strain on the Crescent City’s poorest families, who, like middle-class households, want high-quality schools within their own neighborhoods. The fact that the reforms — including the shutdown of tdistrict schools that were as much community institutions as they were failure mills — were implemented without the input of families is also upsetting. What they want and deserve is real decisionmaking that goes beyond simply choosing between mediocre and high-quality schools.
Meanwhile the push for families as real decisionmakers in education can be seen in New York City, where Mona Davids and the New York City Parents Union has pushed for families to have real power in education. This includes the Vergara suit it filed last year to abolish New York State’s teacher dismissal and reverse-seniority layoff rules, as well as taking advantage of Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio’s poor relations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate Republicans by pushing for mayoral control to be extended for only another year. The parents union, along with the parent empowerment efforts of StudentsFirst’s New York affiliate (which is helping families in the Big Apple’s traditional district fight for school libraries as well as lobby for teacher quality and other reforms), is actively helping families do more than just have a voice.
What is clear from all three situations is that families aren’t simply satisfied with passive roles in education decisionmaking. Especially for families from poor and minority households, the ones whose children have been afflicted the most by the nation’s education crisis and who have often been shunted aside in school decisions, they are no longer interested in just hoping that school operators, be they traditional districts or charters, will do the best by their kin. Certainly expanding choice is important. But for these families, it isn’t enough. they want to play more-prominent roles in shaping the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will be immersed for nearly all of their youth.
For Black, Latino, and American Indian families, in particular, being lead decisionmakers in education allows them to transform cultures in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality education and environments in which their cultures are respected. For their children, the ability to see peers and other adults who look like them striving and succeeding is a key to building their self-esteem, especially as they will be adults in economic and social circles in which being black is wrongly-considered inferior. This need for cultures that reaffirm the self-worth of poor and minority children (and ultimately, allow for them and their communities gain the knowledge needed to determine their own destinies) is why historically black colleges and universities, along with other minority-serving higher ed institutions, still exist. It is also why charters such as Cesar Chavez in Washington, D.C., have emerged within the past two decades.
This is more than just a narrow vision of the role of families as merely being able to move their kids out of failure mills and dropout factories. This is an ethos that embraces the concept of families choosing the very structure of education for the children they love, as well as the ability to advance and sustain reforms directly within their communities and the contexts in which they live. For many of these families, this starts with taking over the traditional district school within their own neighborhoods — and that means being able to utilize Parent Trigger laws that allow them to do so.
Even if school choice fully flourishes, families are going to want real choices in their own communities. As Center for Reinventing Public Education noted in its series of reports on school choice in Detroit, New Orleans and other cities, the lack of robust transportation options (along with the lack of data infrastructure needed for shopping for schools) can often make choice illusory. Single-parent households, in particular, have to also think about childcare, especially since they must pick up their kids from school and daycare. It just makes sense for families to take charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.
Then there is this other reality: That systemic reform, and ultimately, the mission of building brighter futures for all children, cannot be sustained without mothers and fathers in the lead. As the last three decades of school reform has shown, the most-successful efforts have been — and continue to be — done by parents and others who didn’t know much about education, but were spurred to take action by moral, social, and economic concerns for the futures of their children. From Virginia Walden Ford’s work in D.C., to those of Samuel in Connecticut, to the Parent Trigger actions of families throughout the country, it is these impromptu leaders who have done the work of jump-starting and sustaining reform that Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, often more-concerned about policy and management than with rallying critical support from people on the ground, almost never do.
This empowerment goes beyond overhauling American public education. When families know that they can transform public education for their children, then they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage their futures. They can take on criminal justice reform, battle for general government reform, even take on the other legacies of state-sanctioned racialism that still affect them and their kin.
If it makes sense for families to be lead decisionmakers in education, it also makes sense to measure states and even districts by how they empower those parents to transform education within their own communities, starting with schools in their backyards. To implicitly say otherwise, as CER has done in its latest index is unfitting of the school reform movement’s ultimate goal of providing every child the capacity to shape their own futures.
But at least CER tries to embrace the name (if not its true meaning). As I have noted ad nauseam over the past few years, this myopia on Parent Power is a problem among nearly all Beltway and institution-oriented reform players. And this is a moral and intellectual problem that the movement must finally address.