It goes without saying that education and economics go hand in hand. For most parents, regardless of race or class, part of the American Dream is for our children to attend safe, family friendly, high-quality schools with great principals, teachers and support staff. As parents, we imagine that special day when our children graduate high school, attend a traditional college or trade school, and then obtain livable wage employment, hopefully with family friendly benefits.
The harsh reality, however, is that many parents, especially from Black and poor communities, must send their children to public schools that do not meet their academic and life needs. In addition, parents are learning that the many teachers who work tirelessly to put the needs of children first, don’t have much power within their own unions to effectively support students. Why? Because I learned, through the suit of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that many teachers are beholden to a narrow electorate of union politicians that shape education policy to favor the political agendas of union leadership, rather than the students in greatest need. All of this, at the expense of the taxpayer, regardless of results.
So, what do parents need to know about Friedrichs Plenty. This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by Mrs. Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California teachers who are not members of the teacher’s union, but are required to pay agency fees to the union, say that they do not benefit from the collective bargaining agreement and that collective bargaining is political because it includes workplace rules and requirements that prevent laws from being passed that would improve under-performing and under-served schools.
Friedrichs and many of her fellow teachers share the dreams we parents have for our children. This includes safe, high-quality schools that equitably educate all children, regardless of their zip-code and they encourage their colleagues to deliver the best possible teaching to all children, regardless of their family backgrounds. The reality is that families of color like mine are not alone in our fight for fair and just education.
For me, the suit brought by Friedrichs and her nine other colleagues brings awareness of the consequences of forced compulsory dues laws. While compulsory laws may have had good intentions decades ago, laws that force parents and teachers to do what is against their interests and those of children are wrong. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force parents to send their kids to unsafe and low performing schools. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force teachers to pay for other people’s political campaigns and agendas. Neither parents nor teachers should be forced to do what is morally wrong.
How can it be legal to force someone, in this case a teacher, to pay for an organization’s political agenda? How can forced compulsory dues laws be consistent with the First Amendment guarantees of free speech? Do the Constitutional rights of the individual matter? For both teachers and families, our ability to choose, either to support or not support political action, or to choose schools for our kids, is a Constitutional matter upon which no one should encroach.
But Friedrichs isn’t just about choice. It is also about justice, especially for our children. As parents, we are tirelessly fighting for equitable changes that would improve schools in disenfranchised and marginalized communities are prevented by union collective bargaining agreements. Each day, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and their affiliates use dollars forced out of the pockets of teachers to advance policies, laws, and collective bargaining agreements that stand against justice for our children and even against the interests of teachers they proclaim to represent.
If NEA and AFT were no longer able to force every teacher—even teachers who disagree with those policies—to fund their advocacy, we would have a better chance at adopting reforms that are fair to effective teachers and meet the needs of students. We could get rid of the policies and practices advanced by National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates that prevent justice for students most in need of meaningful review of teacher performance, demand assignment and retention of teachers based on seniority rather than effectiveness and need, and insist that teachers be compensated without regard to what, where, or how well they teach. We could instead fight for policies that bring justice to our children.
As a Black parent, living in the age of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and the many unarmed Black people that needlessly lost their lives in 2015, what I want and need more than anything is for the Constitution to matter for all citizens. Children and families need our government to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the equal protection of the laws and due process for all.
So you can imagine that I empathize with Friedrichs and her colleagues. She is compelled to send her dues to an education bureaucracy with which she did not agree, the same way parents like me are compelled by law to send our own children to schools that we do not trust. Her compulsory dues, like my children’s compulsory attendance, are part of a system designed to protect the economic interests of a white professional class at the expense of the freedom and equality for black, Hispanic, and Native American students.
Parents want the freedom to demand high quality educational opportunities for our children, and teachers like Friedrichs agree with us. But she is forced by these laws to fund anti-parent choice, anti-accountability lobbying that is fundamentally unjust. And this is wrong.
The research is clear: a quality education is the foundation needed to help ensure families and communities obtain careers that will lead to fulfilling, equitable lives. Parents like me are grateful for teachers like Friedrichs. Their fight is not only constitutionally just, it is also necessary for our public education bureaucracy to work the way it should, on behalf of children.
Sunday is usually a day of worship for black people and other communities. We pray for peace, guidance and strength to get through a long work week. We may even watch football and basketball with our family and friends.
But for black parents such as myself, along with New York City Parents Union President Mona Davids and @ThinkingintheGray, this weekend served as another reminder of Martin Luther King Jr.’s aphorism that we must remember the silence of our friends and not the words of our enemies.
For me, it began with a Twitter exchange between @ThinkingintheGray and Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle about the move by Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz last month to release the school discipline records of a 10-year-old boy in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Why did Moskowitz do this? Because she and her charter school operation were engaged in crisis management. As this publication reported, the mother of the child, Faidi Geidi, appeared in journalist John Merrow’s PBS NewsHour report on Success Academy’s high suspension rates.
What Biddle and @ThinkingintheGray were pointing out was the fact that many school reformers stood by uncritically, both as Success released the child’s discipline record in violation of federal law and morality, and as Moskowitz’s schools suspended high levels of its students. Some, in fact, outright defended Success Academy’s practices.
I couldn’t just sit by and read. I jumped neck deep into Twitter conversations with my so-called school reform “allies”, demanding how they could justify Success Academy’s violation of a child’s privacy and right to not be brutalized in the name of public relations. I found myself reminding fellow reformers that the first duty of the movement is to children, not to adults regardless of their stances on transforming public education. I had to ask one fellow reformer how he could support Success Academy after they released this child’s record to the public. I even found myself defending both the right of families to choose any school they want and the right of advocates for children regardless of partisan lines to criticize the overuse of suspensions by Success and other operators, traditional, charter, or private.
Unlike Dropout Nation‘s editor, I’m not going to embarrass these reformers by naming their names. What I will say is that Mona, @ThinkingintheGray and I have found that we were on our own. What we heard from our fellow “reformers” and “advocates” for equity were justifications for throwing a child under the bus, all because they fear that traditionalists (including the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) will succeed in their efforts to halt the expansion of school choice. They were unwilling to think that you can both celebrate the expansion of school choice that benefits all families and also call it out for practices done by charter schools and traditional districts that are harmful to the futures of children. There were others who clearly believe that black children aren’t worthy of nurturing, think they are little more than “disruptive” presences in schools, and deserve to be kept out of them. Despite calling themselves school reformers, they have long ago demonstrated that they will defend practices that harm black children.
We didn’t expect to ever sway them. But certainly other reformers will jump in on our side. Or so we thought. But outside of your esteemed editor and a couple of other folks (including Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers), all we heard was crickets. And that hurt me more than the exchanges themselves.
I’ve always known that traditionalists, especially NEA and AFT leaders, have low regard for parents and children, especially those black and brown. Dropout Nation revealed this to all of us four years ago when it shared a presentation by AFT’s Connecticut local on how it tried to stop the successful effort by a predecessor of the Connecticut Parents Union to pass a Parent Trigger law.
What I have learned this past weekend is that there are school reformers who have as low a regard for black children and others from poor and minority households as the traditionalists we fight every day. What I also learned is that as a black parent, my voice and thoughts are given less regard than teachers by a good number of those who stand for reform. In some minds, the righteous indignation of a black mother is regarded as irrational anger when what I say is inconvenient for advancing their goals. As Teach For America staffer and Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett once wrote on Twitter, we will always be “the angry black woman” when we “stand up for what’s right”.
What I also realized is that Mona was right when she said that teachers’ unions and reformers are battling over school funding and “the chattel is our black children and poor communities.” This doesn’t mean that every position taken by NEA and AFT affiliates, along with other traditionalists, is wrong. It also doesn’t mean that all reformers are wrong in their positions. What it does mean is that we must always keep in mind that there are many on both sides who have low regard for our poor and minority children. And on that front, they will always eventually show their true colors.
Some of these reformers, both black and white and including those who I call allies, will negotiate a child’s well-being through their silence. They will behave in ways little different than the traditionalists we must also oppose. Such silence is an implicit choice to side with oppression, to support mass incarceration, disproportionate use of harsh traditional school discipline, even to be a champion of the school-to-prison pipeline. No transformer for children can be silent in the face of these injustices and also say that all children matter.
At the end of the weekend, I realized that I must reaffirm my role as a mother, a parent, and a fan of humanity. I must reaffirm my conviction that adults can never negotiate the education, safety and well-being of our children. All children matter. As black mothers and fathers, we must stand between both the traditionalists and the reformers who don’t mean our children well. Because our allies can sometimes be as bad, if not worse, than our opponents.
Every day, parents across the country must send their children to public schools because of compulsory education laws — even if being in those schools harm their children physically and educationally. Every pay period, teachers pay their hard-earned dollars into the bank accounts of teachers’ unions — even if they aren’t members. Both are wrong. And perhaps, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, teachers should think about why they should support Parent Power and school choice for families the way they want to have choice for themselves in deciding to support a union.
Parents sometimes forget that sending our children to school isn’t something we can’t choose to do. We already want the best for our children and understand that education is the key to successful lives in adulthood. But we are also forced to send our children to school because of laws requiring compulsory education, or a period of educational attendance required of all students often determined by their age.
In the United States, schooling is compulsory for all children. The age range for which school attendance is required varies from state to state. Some states allow students to leave school between the ages of 14–17 before finishing high school only with parental permission. In some other states, students are required to stay in school until age 18.
The problem with compulsory education laws as currently written, is that they does not take into account a child’s right to a safe and high quality education. As a result, a parent can be charged with educational neglect if they fail to send their child to a public school even if the school is unsafe and systemically academically low performing. Because of Zip Code Education laws, many of us parents throughout the country lack opportunities to either choose better schools or turn around unsafe, low-performing schools in our neighborhoods.
So imagine my surprise when I learned about Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association which challenges the constitutionality of compulsory union dues. As it turns out, 10 teachers realized that their freedom of choice in the form of being able to choose whether or not to join and pay dues to a union is also being harmed. Like parents, they too are tired of being compelled by law to pay money into a National Education Association affiliate that doesn’t serve their interests.
Upon reading the lawsuit, as a parent of color, I chose to be in concert with these teachers because no one should be forced to pay for a service that infringes on their principles, and violates their freedoms of speech and association. They deserve choice, the same options parents like I, from Connecticut to Washington State, should have in deciding what schools our children should attend.
Then Friedrichs made me think this: Now teachers can see, first-hand, how parents feel when they are forced to send their children to schools that are unsafe and chronically low-performing. That teachers can see how our children are denied access to high-quality education and safe learning environments. That teachers can understand why so many parents fight hard for learning environments that foster learning, prepare them for college and technical schools, and help them become civic leaders.
Parents such as I will be following Friedrichs very closely, and supporting these 10 teachers in hopes of them winning a victory. Because once they win, families will also file lawsuits against compulsory education laws and for expanding Parent Power. I suspect families in Washington State, where charter schools have been rejected by the state supreme court there, will have their own suit ready before then. We hope those teachers, along with others, will join alongside us to fight for high-quality schools that are safe and fit for the wellbeing of our children.
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.
Sun Tzu once wrote that attacking an enemy’s strategy is of “supreme importance” in any war. This is a lesson school reformers should be doing in their efforts to sustain their efforts – and it must include fully embracing parents as lead decision-makers in education.
This is something I have strongly reflected upon over the past two weeks, especially after watching charter school operators such as Achievement First fail miserably in their efforts to provide parents with opportunities to choose the best educational opportunities for children. I also thought about this last week after listening to RiShawn Biddle on the Dropout Nation Podcast on how reformers must expand their social networks, as well as reading the Storify put together by Chris Stewart of Education Post that challenged the belief gap among traditionalists.
What I have concluded is that reformers must do better. Because right now they are not doing nearly all that well right now.
I know this from last month, when I attended a New Haven school district meeting that focused on discussing Achievement First’s school proposal. The plan, called Elm Street Imagine, would have provided much-needed academic opportunity for children and parents in Connecticut’s third-largest district, and at the same time, offered an opportunity for districts and charters to partner together effectively in providing great schools to our most-marginalized populations.
But as you know from listening to last week’s Podcast, it didn’t happen that way.
What I encountered instead was a school board meeting where the majority of attendees were New Haven’s mostly-white teachers, most of whom don’t even live in the city, who fought the Achievement First plan. What I saw was the New Haven local of the American Federation of Teachers, whose rank-and-file membership is 77-percent white, fighting against helping the district’s black and Latino children get the education they need for college of a trade.
What I saw were people whose minds were plagued by the belief gap, the soft bigotry of low expectations, arguing against the needs of the people who live in this urban community. What happened was that the war between teachers’ unions and school reformers was rearing its ugly head – and would be the focus of the school board meeting instead of doing what was best for children and parents, most of whom are low-income and people of color.
What I didn’t see was Achievement First working with families in such a way that they could stand up for its plan, so that the parents can take ownership and make the case to New Haven’s school board and superintendent. Achievement First’s Dacia Toll deserves praise for standing up to the AFT and to those teachers. But she needed parents and the community to take the lead for her and her plan.
This was disappointing because charter schools and other innovations are part of the solution for addressing our country’s education crisis. If all was well within traditional school districts, parents wouldn’t be clamoring for charters. But selling innovation and choice isn’t enough. This is a lesson that school choice advocates and school reformers, in general, have not yet learned.
Since I began my work, I have seen school reformers use “moments in time” strategies featuring kids and parents in matching t-shirts marching on statehouses during legislative sessions. But the yellow t-shirt brigades are no substitute for sustained advocacy, especially in galvanizing marginalized communities for the hard and daily work that we need for children.
Most of the families I know sleep in the t-shirts after the rallies have ended, and enjoy the food and music they got at the events. But they go back to business as usual because they already know that the t-shirts don’t stand a chance against the teachers’ unions and other traditionalists who have the loudest voices.
The parents know that teacher’ unions and administrators have statutory access to children and parents through classrooms, open houses, and the rest of the activities that make up public education. The parents know that reformers will more often than not lose because they continue to underestimate the access that NEA and AFT locals have to families day to day.
The parents also know that administrators, teachers’ unions and many in their rank-and-file don’t care about building lasting relationships with parents and children. They know they don’t need to, either, because the unions and their members have majority access to our children and families. And they can win either through persuasion or intimidation against their children.
This matters because the belief gap among many teachers affects the self-esteem and academic performance of our children of color. Parents are ready to fight for their children against these low expectations and they are willing to fight for school choice as well as Parent Trigger laws. But we cannot fight this battle without the help of school reformers – and reformers can’t sustain their efforts without us.
Yet movement’s strategies are not effectively reaching marginalized communities — nor is the mindset of some reformers toward families and people of color all that helpful either. Without execution of powerful advocacy, our kids will continue to be trapped in classrooms where they are taught by teachers that don’t believe that our children can achieve greatness.
It is time for reformers to effectively partner with parents and communities, to go beyond the yellow t-shirts, and affect sustainable change. This means empowering families within their own communities alongside responsive public policy.