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.