This week, a 69-year-old great-grandmother, Lynda Faye Wilson, and I represented ourselves during oral arguments before a Connecticut state court judge to oppose an effort by the Gov. Dan Malloy to dismiss a lawsuit we filed earlier this year. And during that hearing, we confirmed why all families – especially those who are people of color who will always be judged by the color of their skin as well as the content of their character – must access high-quality data and knowledge in order to aggressively advocate for our children so they can get the high-quality education they need.
One of the most-amazing aspects of American public education is that families are compelled by state laws to send their children to school regardless of quality, yet they are denied their reciprocal rights as families and citizens to shape education decision-making. This is especially true when it comes to state boards of education, which are often influenced by affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, who use their campaign dollars and political pull to make sure that governors and state officials do not represent families properly.
So parents and caregivers such as Lynda and I (along with another mother, Sh’Keia Dickerson) must work zealously – including in courts of law – to make sure that all families are represented. This is what we began doing in September, when we filed suit against Malloy and the state to seek the removal of Erin D. Benham, president of the AFT’s Meriden Federation of Teachers and executive board member of the AFT’s Nutmeg State affiliate, from the state board of education due to ethics violations by Malloy as well as Benham’s conflict of interest as a leader in a teachers’ union. And Malloy, who appointed Benham to the board earlier this year after the state legislature ended its session, has fought to dismiss our suit ever since.
The latest step began on Monday at 9:30 a.m. with a straightforward hearing. That morning, an official from the state attorney general’s office, on behalf of the governor, began explaining to the judge why Benham, a teachers’ union leader who doesn’t represent families, should be allowed to sit on the state board like any other “Average Joe”. From where the governor sits, neither Ms. Wilson nor I offered a sensible argument against Ms. Benham’s appointment, and in fact, were wrong in alleging that our civil and constitutional rights were violated by the appointment of what the lawyer tried to call a humble educator. In our minds, our we wondered how could anyone call a teachers’ union leader with millions of dollars (as well as other political influence) at her disposal an Average Joe. But we didn’t worry. Because we had spent months talking to legal experts as well as gathering evidence. So we were well-prepared to counter-argue.
After Gov. Malloy’s legal representative finished his oral argument, I stood up and presented or case. We laid out the statutory language that outlines the appointment process to Connecticut’s board of education while the legislature was in and out of session – to the shock of the assistant attorney general. It is a look I have seen on the faces of teachers, school leaders, legislators, and even my fellow school reformers before. This was the look of shock that a mother, an Average Jane like I, a black woman, could speak for herself, do so eloquently, and with the knowledge that in their minds should belong to them alone.
Then I laid out the details of our lawsuit. I presented evidence that Benham’s appointment by Malloy was a clear conflict of interest because she was an AFT local president, a leader in a union that contributed $10,000 to his re-election campaign through a donation to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee and $250,000 to his campaign through the Connecticut Forward Super-PAC.
Furthermore, we as parents allege an AFT leader cannot be an impartial member on the state board of education because of the union’s well-publicized opposition to the Connecticut’s Parent Empowerment law, the nation’s second Parent Trigger law. Over the past four year, AFT and NEA opposition has led the state to refuse to enforce the law. This has left more than 100,000 children trapped in low-performing schools. AFT Connecticut’s efforts to quash the Parent Trigger law was exposed three years ago when Dropout Nation revealed its presentation on how it took action to first “Kill”, then “Diffuse” the law at a national AFT conference. The revelation was so embarrassing to AFT’s national leadership that its president, Randi Weingarten, came to Connecticut to apologize to me and to politicians who backed its passage.
After our presentation, the assistant attorney general was given a chance to provide rebuttal. But instead he proceeded to tell the judge that he was not aware that Benham was an interim appointment. Why wasn’t he aware? He said it was because “the parents” didn’t tell him. Throughout his rebuttal, he confirmed that he no longer viewed us as mere bystanders and that he could no longer downplay our presence as a mere nuisance.
When parents have access to high-quality information and resources, we can challenge efforts by politicians and others to protect the few at the expense of the rest of us. When families of color and those from low-income households have access to high-quality data, they can disprove the notions of so many that communities of color and low income are unable to work aggressively on behalf of our children. Well-informed parents are powerful – and no one should underestimate them. School reformers should especially be ready to join common cause with Parent Power activists to help all of our children get the best they deserve.
But it isn’t just about data alone. The fact that we parents, who were well-educated enough to navigate the world around us proves how important it is for all of our children to be provided high-quality education. When our children are highly-educated, they can go far as adults in ensuring that future generations of children can grow up safe and well-educated.
When families have high-quality data, they can be champions for all children. We should work to empower every parent and caregiver.
Back in 1977, when I was nine years old, my mom stood in the lobby of the Stanford University Medical Center and told her doctor to “go to hell”. Of course, that’s the nicest way I could put it; the language she used was decidedly saltier. While my mother’s words were uncouth — and as a child, left me shocked — the point she was making to her oncologist was bloody well spot-on.
At the time, physicians would evaluate a patient and come up with the best course of treatment. Any questions other than “how long will I live?” or “what will radiation do to me?” would generally be met with a paternalistic “Mrs. Lammé, you need not concern yourself with trying to understand other options. I have chosen the optimum treatment plan for you.”
That did not sit well with my mother. She didn’t want the paternalism of those physicians. So my mother found an oncologist at a different hospital who was willing to treat her as a partner in her health, rather than a bystander. All my mother wanted was a doctor that would treat her as an equal, help to educate her on the available treatment options, and realize that she was well suited to make decisions about the best choices for her own life. It was from this experience that I learned that knowledge is power.
More than 30 years later, as a public school parent who happens to work in education reform, I am reminded of this old adage. The idea that more and better information is the key to making informed decisions remains a reality. As the Data Quality Campaign points out today in its new brief, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, is no other place that this is crucial than in American public education.
Making education data available for public consumption is a relatively new concept. This is why the No Child Left Behind Act’s focus on making school performance transparent was a major step in the right direction. As Data Quality Campaign correctly notes, policymakers realized that shining a light on student achievement, especially for poor and minority children, would help in holding states and districts accountable. But while No Child was an important step forward in making data “publicly available”, it and other efforts didn’t necessarily lead to data that is “easy to understand.
As a society, we have made the promise to provide a quality education to every kid. But, are all kids receiving the same promise? The whole point of No Child’s data reporting requirements was to ensure that all parties – from teachers to administrators to elected officials to policy-makers to parents – had full and complete information that would allow them to make the best decisions for kids when it came to education.
When I served on the School Site Council of my son’s elementary school, we delved deeply into the data that was not generally available prior to No Child. As a Title I school with more than 20 languages spoken and over 70 percent of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, it was critical for us to be able to ascertain how different segments of the campus population were performing. We utilized this data to readjust applicable purchases of materials, teaching staff, and other matters. But we did not just look at a report and make our decisions. I actually had to get trained on what the data meant and how it could be interpreted.
As a software engineer for nearly two decades before I joined the School Site Council. I worked on taking complex data sets in different industries and distilling them into information that was easy to understand and use to take action. But even I needed training to comprehend much of the data that I was required to understand when deliberating how the school should focus its efforts.
Transparent and easily understandable data enables state education authorities, schools districts and individual school sites to identify schools and student populations that are struggling and may need additional interventions or resources, by utilizing data comparability. But, this data has to be understandable and useful. Unfortunately many states aren’t doing well on both counts.
As pointed out in the Data Quality Campaign brief, some states are fully recognizing that data needs to be easy to understand, and presented differently for various audiences. One of the states they highlight is Illinois. The state’s board of education recognized that even though its report card was in compliance with the law, its presentation was an impediment to easy comprehension. So in 2011, the Land of Lincoln’s P-20 council got to work. It convened 60 focus groups – including parents, teachers, and school leaders – to make sure that the new report cards would be useful to everyone.
The state recognized that even though they produced a report card that was far better than previously existed, it was important that they continue to evaluate the report card in future years and adjust it to continually meet the goal of relevance to those who have a stake in public education.
I do not claim to be an expert when it comes to education policy. But I am an expert on what motivates my son. I know what my expectations are regarding what he learns and the environment in which that learning is provided.
If my wife and I are to be better partners to our son’s teachers, if we are to make better decisions regarding his education, we need to know what is going on with his school, especially compared to other schools. We don’t want to just be told what will happen to our son. We want to be provided the options and the information so that we can make the best decisions possible on his behalf. States should follow the lead of Illinois and Ohio and others who have made a good faith effort to recognize that a successful education experience comes from data transparency that promotes true partnership, not paternalism.
If you want to know why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should move to push for expanding school choice, both in New York City and throughout the rest of the Empire State, all you have to do is look at the latest results from last year’s battery of standardized tests. There’s no way anyone in New York State can morally or intellectually justify trapping our children, especially those from poor and minority households, in the worst public education offers.
Plenty has already been said about the Families for Excellent Schools’ report determining that not a single black or Latino child in 90 Big Apple’s schools passed any of the state’s tests. There’s also Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s brief today on the low levels of reading proficiency for black and Latino kids in the city’s traditional district None of this should be a surprise. The school reform efforts of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors were successful in reducing the percentage of kids mired in functional illiteracy. But as with Houston and San Diego, both of which have been successful in addressing basic literacy, New York City is struggling in this latest stage of reform, one in which how well kids are prepared for success in higher education and careers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy is far more critical.
Meanwhile districts in the rest of the Empire State, many of which have avoided even the most-basic efforts at systemic reform, are doing even worse in improving achievement for the children in their care.
In Buffalo, just 14 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels (called Levels 3 and 4) on this year’s state tests. Even worse, 54 percent of the district’s eighth-graders were functionally illiterate, reading only at Level 1 (or Below Basic) on the exam. Particularly for black and Latino kids who make up the vast majority of Buffalo’s student population, sitting in one of the district’s classrooms means falling behind; just seven percent of black kids in third-through-eighth grade, along with eight percent of their Latino peers, read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Put bluntly: Just 667 black and Latino kids out of 9,734 read at or above grade level. For young men of all backgrounds, Buffalo’s schools are also a gateway to economic and social abyss; a mere nine percent of young men of all backgrounds — that’s 628 out of 7,129 young men — read proficiently on the tests, versus an almost as abysmal 14 percent of their young women peers.
Another faltering district is Rochester, the subject of Holzman’s This is Dropout Nation analysis last month. A mere six percent of eighth-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 70 percent were functionally illiterate. Put bluntly, almost none of Flower City’s eighth-graders will likely achieve success in higher education and in career once they leave high school in four years. Just four percent of black and Latino third-through-eighth-graders — a mere 427 out of 11,095 black and Latino kids — read at Proficient and Advanced levels. And just four percent of the district’s young men — a mere 293 out of 6,640– read at or above grade level versus a just as atrocious seven percent of young women peers.
But it isn’t just big city districts doing poorly. Consider the notoriously-inept Roosevelt Union Free district in Nassau County near the Big Apple. Just 12 percent of the district’s eight-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 48 percent — that is one in two –read at Level 1 or Below Basic proficiency. Only 11 percent of Roosevelt’s black third-through-eighth graders — or just 112 out of 1,136 kids — read at or above grade level. Meanwhile a mere seven percent of young men in the district (that’s 49 out of 665 of them) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, versus 13 percent of young women in third-through-eighth grade.
When only a handful of children are reading well enough to succeed in school and in life, it is more than a tragedy. It is an economic and social calamity that weakens not only the Empire State, but the nation as a whole. Certainly this calls for systemic reforms, especially in how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, as well as in furthering the implementation of Common Core’s reading and math standards. For the latter, as well as for honest reporting on how poorly districts are providing education to our kids, Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King deserve high praise. And the Vergara suits filed by the New York City Parents Union and Partnership for Educational Justice (both of whom are now fighting each other over who will lead the charge on revamping tenure and teacher dismissal laws) are also critical to this transformation.
At the same time, children cannot wait for Albany to knock districts and ed schools into getting their acts together. Especially since politically, they are often unwilling to do so. Our kids deserve better than the worst. And this is where expanding school choice comes in.
One key step the Empire State could take is allowing for intra-district choice, allowing kids to transfer from failing districts to better-performing traditional school operators. King already took a key step toward this last year when he allowed kids attending two failing Buffalo high school, Lafayette and East, to transfer to programs provided by operated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Making that a reality for all kids in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse would both help kids gain high-quality education as well as end Zip Code Education policies that trap our most-vulnerable kids in schools unfit for their lives.
Expanding the array of high-quality charter schools would also help. New York State has already increased its cap on charter school expansion from 200 to 460 as part of its successful bid for funding through the federal Race to the Top competition. Ditching the cap altogether would certainly help kids in parts of New York City such as Queens where the lack of options leaves kids trapped in shoddy traditional district schools. It will even help kids in aging suburban communities such as Roosevelt that are performing as badly as many urban districts, but are hidden in pain sight. Adding another university as a high-quality charter authorizer would also help; there’s no reason why the City University of New York system or Bard College (the latter of which is operating traditional public schools focused on helping kids attain college-prep learning) couldn’t do the job.
Meanwhile the state should also launch a voucher initiative (along with a voucher-like tax credit effort) that will allow poor and minority kids to escape failing districts and attend higher-quality Catholic and parochial schools. This will be harder for Cuomo to do, largely because the state’s legislative leadership (especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) are often more-concerned with doing the bidding of the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State and Big Apple units as well as obeying suburban districts. This is where reformers on the ground must come in. As Dropout Nation noted last year (and as New York’s Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability detailed in a report it released on expanding choice), advocates can launch a suit along the lines of the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity that could force the state to launch voucher programs targeting failure clusters that trap kids into despair.
All these efforts are merely steps toward what truly needs to be done in New York: Putting the state in full charge of financing public education as it is constitutionally and morally required to do. The Empire State provides just 40 percent of the $59 billion spent in 2012 on education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, below the 45 percent national average. As a result, districts can often justify resisting efforts to expand choice (both within their boundaries and even operations, as well as within the state as a whole) by perpetuating the Myth of Local Control. If the state took over full funding and then voucherized those dollars so they follow the child, families can then choose high-quality schools that fit what their kids need.
The Empire State cannot continue to live up to its motto of excelsior so long as generations of children are being condemned to the abyss. Expanding choice, along with implementing other critical reforms, is key to helping our kids escape academic prisons and avoid the ones run by the state’s criminal justice system in adulthood.
If you want to understand why families must have the power they need and deserve to help their kids to succeed in life — and why school reformers must embrace all tactics needed to make this a reality — all you need to do is look at the events of the past week.
In Southern California, Parent Power activists are battling with the Los Angeles Unified School District after it decided last week to ignore the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law. Why did the nation’s second-largest school district and its superintendent, John Deasy, decide to oppose Parent Power after having been willing to embrace it over the past few years? L.A. Unified officially argues that the No Child waiver granted by the federal government to it and other districts under the California Office for Reform Education didn’t allow for the Parent Trigger law to be used.
But as Parent Revolution and others pointed out, the U.S. Department of Education specifically told the district that it must obey the law. More than likely, Deasy is doing the will of the district’s board and the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels affiliate in order to avoid another of the many battles he will likely face in the next few months over the union’s demand for pay raises. As a result, Parent Revolution and others are taking action — and this will likely include a lawsuit against L.A. Unified and Deasy to enforce the law as it should.
In North Carolina, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled in a case brought by the National Education Association’s affiliate there that the Tar Heel State could not continue its newly-launched school voucher program. According to Hobgood, the voucher program was unconstitutional because it violates Article 1, sections 15 and 19 of the state’s own constitution, along with Article 9 and by granting $10 million taxpayer dollars to poor and minority families who pay taxes so they help their kids escape failure mills to better-performing private schools.
Yet a closer look at Hobgood’s decision shows he is wrongly interpreting the law. The two sections of Article 1 in the Tar Heel State constitution essentially declare that citizens have a right to education, that state government is supposed to safeguard it, and all citizens are protected by the state’s Equal Protection Clause. Essentially, those sections essentially grant the state the ability to structure public education as it sees fit so long as it provides all children with high-quality education. More importantly, while Article 9 requires the state to provide uniform education, it also doesn’t prevent the state from providing vouchers; in fact, the opening verbiage declares that the state must “encourage” education because “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind”.
The state is also granted the power under the constitution to grant responsibility for providing education to any local government or other entity it sees fit. [The fact that Judge Hobgood ignores the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman, which supersedes any state ruling, is also glaring.] More than likely, the state will succeed in overturning Hobgood’s decision on appeal. But if not for Parent Power activists, who pressed to defend the lawsuit even after North Carolina’s attorney general declined to do so (at behest of state legislators who his agency serves), chances are school choice would have already been killed.
Meanwhile in Connecticut, Parent Power activist Gwen Samuel and the Connecticut Parents Union announced that she would file a motion asking a state court judge to grant an injunction restricting Gov. Dan Malloy from appointing Erin Benham, an apparatchik of the American Federation of Teachers’ Connecticut affiliate, to the state board of education. In her complaint, Samuel argues that Malloy’s move denies Nutmeg State families equal representation on the board overseeing the state agency that oversees public education. In the process, notes Samuel, Malloy is essentially is giving both the AFT affiliate and Benham (who is also a public employee) “undue influence” over the quality of education provided to all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds.
Through her injunction, Samuel also points out how the AFT, along with the NEA’s Connecticut unit, has worked hard to deny families lead decision-making roles in American public education. This includes AFT Connecticut‘s effort three years ago to first stop passage of, then water down, the state’s Parent Trigger law, which included closed-door meetings with legislators that excluded what is now Connecticut Parents Union and other reform groups, as well as punishing then-State Rep. Jason Bartlett at the ballot box for daring to carry the legislation forward. [The details were revealed by Dropout Nation to the AFT’s embarrassment.] Declares Samuel in a press release on the motion: “This is about constitutional rights being protected and equal representation for all education stakeholders.”
What all three events make clear is how American public education — and the coterie of teachers’ union officials, school board players, and traditional district bureaucrats — have long done all they can to keep families from being the lead decision-makers in education policymaking as they should be. And you can’t successfully advance Parent Power and school choice for children and their families without using every political avenue available.
Last June’s California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California has galvanized Parent Power activists and many reformers to take to the courts in order to advance systemic reform. In New York, both the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice have already filed their own Vergara suits, both of which will likely be consolidated into one at the request of the Empire State’s attorney general. Students Matter, the California-based outfit which helped finance Vergara, is now looking to undertake similar suits in the rest of the nation.
One would think that this would be celebrated by reformers. After all, it opens up another avenue by which the movement can advance systemic reform. Yet among some reformers, most-notably conservatives within the movement, the very idea of litigation is not welcomed at all. From the perspective of conservative reformers such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli (and to a lesser extent, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute), the fear is that civil litigation means that judges will be legislating from the bench, encroaching on decision-making that should only be done in the legislative arena. Proper reform, in their view, should only be done in statehouses.
Meanwhile for other reformers, the problem lies with the idea that families should be lead decision-makers in education. From where they sit, parents are ill-equipped to involve themselves in school operations, and, even worse, will end up fighting with other parents who may not agree on the same direction. From where they sit, what parents should only do is to escape failing schools and choose schools fit for their kids. This antipathy toward families in school decision-making explains why so many Beltway policy wonks and institution-oriented reformers such as charter school operators have been dismissive of Parent Trigger laws on the books in seven states and why they prefer a set vision of school choice as merely that of parents being consumers; that families may not always agree with the agenda they want to set is also part of the problem.
Both perspectives are misguided. Conservative reformers skeptical and opposed to using the courts for litigation fail to remember this simple fact: Courts are one of the three co-equal branches of government at federal and state levels. More importantly, it is the branch charged with interpreting the constitutionality of laws passed and executed by the legislative and executive branches. This means that the judiciary is charged with serving as the guard against legislators and other politicians more-concerned with favoring their comfortable interests than protecting the rights of the people who are afflicted. This includes children and the families who love and care for them.
By using the courts to take on policies and practices that have violated the constitutional rights of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — to high-quality education, reformers and Parent Power activists are embracing the examples set by civil rights activists of the last century, who successfully challenged Jim Crow segregation laws that harmed an earlier generation of black and brown children. At the same time, by working through the courts, which are charged by federal and state constitutions with interpreting laws (and thus, rejecting legislation that violates the principles contained within them), the school reform movement is holding executive branch officials and legislatures accountable.
This isn’t to say that using the courts alone is enough to advance reform. As Dropout Nation has noted in two pieces written this month, the judiciary branch doesn’t have the tools the actually enforce the rulings handed down; even when judges attempt to do so on their own, they (and, ultimately, plaintiffs) are vulnerable to being accused by recalcitrant politicians and their allies of engaging in judicial activism. As seen in the case of North Carolina’s voucher ruling, the fact that traditionalists can also avail themselves of the courts also means that reform efforts can be vulnerable to judicial rulings. This is why reformers must continually engage in all aspects of politics. All that said, reformers aren’t doing their best on behalf of all children if they do not avail themselves of the courts.
Meanwhile reformers reluctant to advocate for families to be lead decision-makers in education policymaking fail to keep in mind some inconvenient facts. The first? That you cannot sustain systemic reform if families aren’t at the head of the table of education decision-making. In fact, the most-successful school reform efforts have been driven by parents and other impromptu leaders who knew little about education until their concern for children (especially their own) led them to embrace reform. This includes Virginia Walden Ford, whose efforts in D.C. to expand school choice launched reform efforts there, and Samuel, who helped pass Connecticut’s Parent Trigger law as well as pass legislation that ended criminalizing families for violating Zip Code Education laws that keep them from providing their kids with the learning they deserve.
By dismissing Parent Trigger laws and Parent Power efforts in general, reformers weaken much-needed support for the very overhauls they tout from the very people they need the most. This is because when families can shape the education provide to their children, they become champions of reform on the political level as well as fully engaged in helping their kids academically on a personal one. This can be seen in places such as Adelanto, Calif., where efforts to use Parent Trigger laws have led to takeovers of failure mills and the removal of laggards on school boards. Even when families don’t use Parent Trigger laws to take full control of schools, the laws give them a much-needed negotiating tool to stand for their kids against those within districts and other school operations who don’t have their best interest at heart.
This isn’t to say parents are always going to make the best decisions all of the time. Nor does this mean that every parent wants to be fully engaged in school operations and curricular decisions. This is why intra-district choice, course selection, charters, vouchers, and voucher-like tax credits are as critical as Parent Trigger laws. But it is clear that families can make smart decisions for their kids and work well with others when provided the tools and the data needed to do so. So they deserve the right to be players and not just consumers in education.
For reformers and for families, embracing Parent Power is especially important. This is because NEA and AFT affiliates, along with other traditionalists who benefit from keeping American public education in its current state of academic decrepitude, have no interest in giving families real power in education decision-making. As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, traditionalists have long enlisted families to further their goals and little else. This can be seen in the research of Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges on how districts mistreat urban and low-income families, in Karyn Lacey’s Blue-Chip Black on how suburban black families are denied information on college-preparatory courses their children need, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle between black families and the AFT’s Big Apple local in the late 1960s, and in how teachers’ union bosses try to dominate education policymaking through campaign donations in school district races and control of seats on state school boards.
It is politically and intellectually senseless for reformers to not stand by families and help them gain their rightful roles in education policymaking. More importantly, we must stand by families as lead decision-makers in education because it both the moral and responsible thing to do. After all, as the men and women charged by God with caring for and nurturing their children. From both a religious and ethical humanist perspective, denying parent power in education is purely immoral and unethical. There’s no way anyone can deny families the power in education endowed by their Creator and granted to them by law.
So reformers must stand by families and helping them take their rightful roles in education decision-making. This means taking to the courts as well as to the streets, statehouses, and Beltway corridors. Our children need their parents to have power to make education decision on their behalf. And that means holding no quarter in making that reality.
When it comes to efforts to expand charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice, reformers tend to focus on three matters. The first? Expanding the array of options children need and deserve in the first place, including the development of course choice opportunities within districts and through online education. Secondly, they evangelize about the importance and value of expanding school opportunities for all kids; particularly among school choice activists, there is a tendency to argue that choice is the silver bullet for addressing the nation’s education crisis (while curricula, standards, teacher quality, and accountability are given short shrift). And thirdly, they defend choice against the entreaties of traditionalists such as the Florida Education Association, the affiliate of both the National Education Association affiliates and the American Federation of Teachers that just filed suit this week against the Sunshine State’s expansion of vouchers for kids trapped in special ed ghettos.
Yet there is far more to making school choice work for all families — and it goes beyond expanding, promoting, and defending options. You have to build a strong infrastructure — from information on schools to providing high-quality data on their performance, to holding schools accountable, to providing transportation — to make choice work well. But few school choice activists and even fewer reformers give these infrastructural matters any shrift. Particularly for school choice activists of a conservative or libertarian bent (including University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation), thinking through these issues means challenging their own ideology — especially their misguided belief that choice alone will lead to improvements in school quality and serve as the best form of accountability — as well as their own financial concerns as members of a sector of American public education.
Which is why a report released last week by the Center for Reinventing Public Education on addressing the challenges of building robust infrastructures for advancing choice is so important. It is as important for reformers to deal with the complications of choice as it is to promote high-quality options for all children.
In the report (which focuses primarily on public-school choice options — but whose lessons also apply to vouchers and other choice regimes), a team led by Robin Lake surveyed how 4,000 families utilized choice in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where charter schools and other forms of school options have become the norm. The good news is that families in those cities, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are availing themselves of the school opportunities available to them; 49 percent of families whose parents are high school dropouts and graduates leveraged choice as did 59 percent of households with at least some form of higher education. The bad news? Thanks to the inattention given to the infrastructure of developing choice, using school options isn’t easy for families to do.
The problems these families mentioned are ones that complicate choice in nearly every part of the country. The first: That families, especially those whose parents were dropouts or possessed only a high school diploma, had little information on their options. This included lacking knowledge about whether their kids were eligible to even access any school choice options. Even in states and cities with robust school choice options, parents often get little information about what opportunities are even available to them. Traditional districts, in particular, do as little as possible to inform families about their options; the penchant of districts to inform families of kids in failing schools of their options in June — just as families were going on summer break — is one reason why the No Child Left Behind’s school choice provision has never worked as envisioned.
Families whose parents were poorly-educated by traditional public education (and thus, more-likely to be poor) especially struggled with getting the information they needed to know what options were available or even if their kids could access them. Forty percent of families whose parents were dropouts didn’t know if their kids were eligible for school choice, versus 24 percent of families whose parents were had baccalaureate degrees.
Even when families get information on their options, they don’t have the simple-yet-comprehensive data on school performance (and even the success or failure of teachers working in the schools) so they can make smart decisions. For families exercising public school choice — including charters and district-run magnet schools (which limit options through race- and socioeconomic quotas) — the reality that public school data remains a black box geared more toward compliance than toward providing useful information limits their ability to truly pick schools fit for their kids. A black family with two young sons, for example, may not be able to fully know if the schools they are scouring can actually improve student achievement for young black men.
This problem extends to families in the few states where they can use school vouchers and voucher-like tax credits to access private schools. They end up only having metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for determining school performance. Yet three decades of research have proven that there is no correlation between class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement, it has been shown long ago that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing, and levels of college acceptance doesn’t tell you much about whether kids have been provided the college-preparatory learning they need to actually graduate from college. Particularly for poor families, who are the primary users of voucher programs, there is a clear and present need for better performance data.
Then there’s the matter of transportation to and from school. This is a big problem. The high cost of sending kids outside of communities, both in terms of transportation and time, remains a challenge even for the most well-off of families. For the poorest families — especially single mothers who, as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights points out, must also deal with childcare issues — transportation can be the biggest obstacle of all. Less-educated families surveyed by Lake and her team were 72 percent more-likely than better-educated counterparts to citee transportation as their key obstacle to accessing choice.
Transportation has long been given short shrift by reformers in their advocacy for choice. While some cities such as Indianapolis require charter schools to provide school buses for the kids attending them, this hasn’t been the norm. Nor are private schools participating in voucher programs required to assist with transportation for the kids they serve. Even traditional districts do badly when it comes to transportation; a child attending a magnet school far across town may not be able to get a school bus to take them there; if a child in Naptown lives in a zone served by Indianapolis Public Schools, but attends a school operated by Washington Township in the city’s North Side, her parents have to figure out how to get her there.
All these barriers are problematic for all families. But it is especially difficult for the poorest families to overcome. Which brings up an inconvenient fact for choice advocates and the school reform movement as a whole. As much as we proclaim that school choice is especially important for our poorest children, we have not done enough to build the infrastructure needed so that it works for them and their families. While some private-sector outfits such as GreatSchools, nonprofits such as Data Quality Campaign, and Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union have worked hard to address the information issues, the rest of the movement has given these matters no shrift.
Lake and her team deserve plenty of credit for shining light on these important challenges for fulfilling the promise of school choice. They have also pointed out some other flaws in the thinking of choice advocates. For example, school choice groups such as the Center for Education Reform tout multiple authorizers as a key to expanding the number of charters serving communities and a way to get around traditional districts who want to kibosh choice. But as Lake and her team points out in the case of Detroit (where the nine charter oversight groups — including Detroit Public Schools — have done little to provide kids with high-quality options), what likely ends up happening is that shoddy school operators end up engaging in shopping for lax authorizers who will let them off the hook for failure and won’t think through community needs . The solution may not be to get rid of multiple authorizers, but limit who can actually be allowed to oversee charters as well as restrict districts from doing such work in the first place.
At the same time, there is one other aspect of choice that Lake and her colleagues fail to address: Giving families real power in shaping education for their children beyond just choosing schools. This includes enacting and leveraging Parent Trigger laws that allow for parents and caregivers to take over and overhaul traditional district schools within their own communities, as well as requiring charter school operators to form parent-led advisory boards who can actively shape how their kids are served on a day-to-day basis.
As reformers, we must keep in mind that even if choice fully flourishes — and even if data and transportation issues are fully addressed — families are still going to want high-quality school options in their own neighborhoods. Families want to send their kids to schools that are closest to their homes because it is ideal. Particularly for single mothers, who may often have kids in early childhood education centers at the same time their older kids are in K-12, the need for high quality schools right in the neighborhood is critical.
Just as importantly, the existing traditional district schools in their neighborhoods are longstanding institutions in their communities in which they have heavily invested (especially through their tax dollars). It makes perfect sense for those families to want to 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.
Meanwhile reformers have to keep in mind that there are many families who want to play more-prominent roles in shaping curricula, instruction, and school climates. That’s the reason why the nation’s homeschooling movement serves nearly as many children as the nation’s charter schools (if not more), and why online learning has become popular for others. Particularly in the case of black, Latino, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian communities, they may want to transform climates in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality learning and environments in which their kids can strive for success alongside peers who look like them, their cultures are reinforced and respected, and . Parent Trigger laws can help advance systemic reform by addressing an aspect of education that many reformers, especially those from white households, don’t have to consider.
Gving families greater roles in the charter schools their kids attend is important because of their natural concern for the futures of their kids and communities. Especially for families in poor and minority communities who have seen generations of outsiders bearing gifts that do little to help them, the ability to help their kids choose their way to educational heaven (as legendary Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays would say) is expected and demanded. They don’t want to be passive players in education decision-making. More importantly, for school choice activists and other reformers, we can’t afford for them to be. Systemic reform and social change cannot be fully realized without the work of networks within communities that can make things happen.
It is all well and good to advance efforts to expand school choice. But all that work will be meaningless if reformers don’t also spend time on building up the infrastructure families need to help their kids reap the benefits.
Last month, Dropout Nation discussed how the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California would spur similar legal challenges to near-lifetime employment rules and other traditional teacher quality laws defended by traditionalists such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Parent Power groups such as the New York City Parents Union, which had immediately announced after the ruling that it would file a Vergara suit, would especially pursue such litigation largely because, unlike other reform camps, they have long backed the idea of using the courts to advance systemic reform for our children.
So it wasn’t shocking that the New York City Parents Union moved last week to file its own Vergara tort in Richmond County Supreme Court, essentially dominating the education news cycle this Fourth of July weekend. After all, it is following up on the announcement made a week earlier by Campbell Brown’s group, Partnership for Educational Justice, to file its own tort. As you would expect, the suit demands that New York State’s tenure, teacher dismissal, and reverse-seniority layoff rules be struck down because they violate the Empire State constitution’s provision that all kids are provided sound basic education. In the process, the Big Apple Parent Power group is applying the state Court of Appeals’ ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York to force the Empire State to give districts the ability to provide all children with the high-quality teachers they need and deserve.
But the big story isn’t about the fact that this lawsuit was filed. As I mentioned, this was to be expected. No, the real story is how Parent Power activists who are the new voices in the school reform movement are taking their own steps to advance systemic reform, and aggressively use all tools at their disposal to transform education for all children. And it is time for the rest of the school reform movement, much of which has become a little too institutional, even a little too cautious, in their efforts, to be as bold in their actions as the parent activists fighting for the kids they love.
One of the more-interesting story lines unfolding in the fight over the reform of American public education is the emergence of families becoming what former National Urban League President Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders, agitating for the overhaul of traditional districts, pushing for the expansion of high-quality school choices, and even taking on traditional teacher compensation. Starting in the mid-1990s with Virginia Walden-Ford and her successful effort to spur the expansion of choice in Washington, D.C. (along with the overhaul of the traditional district), parents and caregivers working outside of think tanks and other institutions have been among the foremost reformers in the movement. It would be this earlier generation of Parent Power advocates who would make the concrete cases for why school choice was both beneficial to children and the moral obligation states owed to children condemned to failure clusters. And as homeschooling families who successfully provided their kids with high quality teaching and learning environments, these activists also showed what districts should be doing for all kids regardless of their learning issues if they were seriously about fulfilling their obligations.
What would really jump-start Parent Power activism was a move in 2009 that no one among the rest of the school reform movement would have thought possible. That’s when then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now-former State Sen. Gloria Romero, driven by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative, passed the nation’s first Parent Trigger law. Thanks to the law, families in the Golden State (as well as in the six other states that have since enacted some form of Parent Trigger provision) gained a new tool for forcing reform by overhauling the very schools within their own communities. Two years later, Parent Power activists began embracing the example set in the last century by civil rights activists and school funding advocates by filing their own lawsuits to challenge Zip Code Education policies such as school residency laws that restricted families from providing kids with high quality school options, and taking on near-lifetime employment laws that subject kids to laggard teaching.
The importance of Parent Trigger laws in giving families the ability to advance reform can be seen in places such as Adelanto, Calif., where families of kids attending schools such as the former Desert Trails Elementary successfully took control of the school and also forced out two board members of the district that formerly controlled it. Families of kids attending several schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District have also leveraged the Parent Trigger law to force the school operator into negotiations that have led to new reforms to the benefit of students attending them. Meanwhile the families of nine Southern California children, assisted by school reform outfit EdVoice, proved the importance of using lawsuits to advance reform — and challenge traditionalists — with last month’s ruling in Vergara. That decision sent a message to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that the status quo they defend won’t stand — and at the same time, showed other reform camps the importance of using the courts to help transform public education.
Certainly not all Parent Power groups think the same way. There are disagreements among them about such matters as Common Core. Their views about how to leverage Parent Trigger laws also differ. Parent Revolution, the California outfit that helped bring that state’s Parent Power law into reality, views it as a form of collective bargaining for families; this reflects the organization’s roots in the work of Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr to help families in Los Angeles take over failing schools. Other Parent Power groups think of Parent Trigger laws in a different way, looking at the laws as direct democracy and localizing education decision-making; in short, a real family control over education that isn’t illusory like the local control that traditionalists and some movement conservatives defend.
There is also plenty of divide over how closely they should work with their fellow reformers and oppose traditionalists. The New York City Parents Union and its president Mona Davids, has confounded more-hardcore reformers by occasionally working with the AFT’s Big Apple local even as it has has fiercely battled the union over matters such as tenure and the new contract the latter struck with Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Connecticut Parents Union, on the other hand, is as fierce a foe of the AFT and the NEA as they come; but its president (and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor) Gwen Samuel is skeptical of the propensity of some reformers to be as disdainful as traditionalists about the role families (especially those from poor and minority households) should play in education decision-making.
What Parent Power groups do share in common is their bold willingness to embrace new approaches to advancing systemic reform even as other camps within the movement — especially Beltway think-tankers and institution-oriented types — express initial skepticism at every turn. This isn’t surprising. Unlike other players in the school reform movement, Parent Power activists are grassroots-oriented players, often coming from backgrounds outside of education and policymaking circles, and have actually have dealt day-to-day with traditional districts which have treated them as little more than nuisances and pests. This gives Parent Power activists a much more personal perspective on the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis, a lower tolerance for silver-bullet thinking on how to deal with these issues, and ultimately, a greater willingness to use any tactic possible to give all children high-quality education.
The fact that Parent Power activists are working on the ground with families with whom they share similar experiences, or have spent years learning how to master working with communities rightfully skeptical of outsiders, also gives them a perspective that other reformers lack. They have long ago learned that success on in communities involves listening attentively to — and addressing — concerns, providing lots of resources (including time) in order for people to help themselves, solving problems quickly (often without a plan), and giving families real power to shape the direction of reform in ways that fit the contexts in which they live. This is the hard work with which Beltway reformers and others more-comfortable with crafting legislation often struggle.
Then there’s the reality that for Parent Power activists, reform is no bloodless exercise. It isn’t some glib Mike Petrilli chat-piece or a Rick Hess policy tome or Jay P. Greene write-a-thon. After all, it is their children, the only kids they will ever have, who are the ones subjected to the worst American public education offers. It is their young black sons who are the ones most-likely to end up being placed into special ed ghettos even when they only need extra reading instruction. It is their Latino daughters who are kept out of college-preparatory math and science courses by teachers and guidance counselors who think they are incapable of mastering those subjects. They, along with their relatives, neighbors, and friends who are denied the high-quality data they need to make smarter decisions for their kids, the ones that researchers such as Peter McDermott, Julia Johnson Rothenberg, and Karyn Lacey have documented as being treated as afterthoughts and worse by traditional districts, the people who need school choice the most and the least likely to have it.
This makes sense. When you are the afflicted and not the comfortable, giving your children every opportunity to move into the middle class is your greatest concern. You don’t really care about treatises on whether families are best being customers of schools, or ideological debates over the value of Common Core, or pablum from school choice activists with jobs to protect about why state tests shouldn’t be used to hold accountable private schools taking vouchers for serving kids, or if an Obama Administration plan to address suspensions is somehow a punishment to traditional district schools that have been failing kids for decade after decade. You care about giving all children the best chances at better lives- and using every solution available to make it possible.
This is what drives Parent Power activists and makes them key players in driving reform for all children. In fact, all reformers should embrace Parent Power thinking in their work. This means being as focused on building grassroots support for advancing reform as lobbying statehouses and launching new reform groups. It involves being willing to leverage any new solution for transforming education and providing all kids with high-quality education. This includes becoming the afflicted in mindset and being willing to afflict the comfortable in all aspects of our work. And it must mean taking reform personally because the children for which we are helping are living, breathing people who look like our ourselves when we were young as well as our kids at home.
The school reform movement can use more of the boldness shown by Parent Power activists such as those in New York City and elsewhere. Because our children cannot wait another day for high-quality education.