LOS ANGELES — Shoehorned into a small living room in a South Los Angeles apartment, a dozen parents discuss why their kids’ school ranks as one of the worst in the nation’s second-largest school district.
The answers come quickly: Teachers are jaded; gifted pupils aren’t challenged; disabled students are isolated; the building is dirty and office staff treat parents disrespectfully.
“We know what the problem is — we’re about fixing it,” said Cassandra Perry, the Woodcrest Elementary School parent hosting the meeting. “We’re not against the administrators or the teachers union. We’re honestly about the kids.”
School parent groups are no longer just about holding the next bake-sale fundraiser. They’re about education reform.
The Woodcrest parents, all wearing buttons saying “parent power,” are one of the newly formed “parents unions” that are springing up from San Diego to Buffalo, N.Y., with the goal of improving schools.
Behind the movement is Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution, which in 2010 pushed through a landmark “parent trigger” law giving parents authority to force change at failing schools through a petition. The parent trigger concept inspired Texas and Mississippi to adopt similar laws and legislation is under consideration in 20 other states. Two states have voted down parent trigger bills.
“Parents have a different incentive structure than anyone else,” said Ben Austin, Parent Revolution’s executive director. “They’re the only ones who really care about kids.”
It’s a compelling argument for many parents.
San Diego mother Teresa Drew founded United Parents for Education after her daughter’s reading and math scores fell below grade level for two years.
Unions say it’s oversimplistic to blame teachers. Parents should enlist educators in the solution, not dismiss them, they say.
“It’s well meaning, but misguided,” said Frank Wells, who heads the Southern California chapter of the California Teachers Association.
Parents already have a tool to leverage policy change — school board elections, Wells said.
Unions have mobilized against parent-trigger laws. In July, the American Federation of Teachers posted a slide presentation on its website detailing how it successfully won a dilution of the Connecticut parent-trigger proposal so parents can recommend change but have no authority to enact it.
For Austin, union opposition to parent trigger underscores what’s wrong — unions reject reform efforts such as charter schools, tenure changes and new performance evaluation measures in order to protect jobs, but at the same time many schools are failing, especially in the inner-cities.
“The system is calcified,” he said. “’It’s designed to go against change.”
In somewhat of an ironic twist, Parent Revolution is organizing parents using old-school, labor organizing tactics, employing a former union organizer with United Farm Workers and Service Employees International Union to lead the effort.
Organizers show parents how to conduct effective house meetings, distribute flyers in front of schools, canvass door-to-door, write letters, and create surveys and petitions.
They also inform parents about their rights and students’ rights, and about how educational system works, how to judge a school’s state test scores, for example.
Woodcrest’s Perry said the training has opened parents’ eyes. “We’re not informed so we don’t know what to ask for,” Perry said. “We don’t know where we fit in.” The Parents Union is now surveying parents of Woodcrest students, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and will present the results to the principal for action.
District officials welcome efforts to get parents more engaged in their kids’ education, especially in low-income areas. Parental involvement is the key factor outside school in boosting student achievement, said Maria Casillas, chief of school, family & parent/community services for Los Angeles Unified.
Parents unions can be an effective tool. “They’re loud, they’re pushy, and they have every right to be,” she said. “We want to promote parents as advocates for their children’s learning. For our low-income kids, that’s the part that’s missing.”
Now, instead of organizing parent-trigger campaigns, Parent Revolution is focusing on developing parent leaders to foment their own change. “This movement is way more than signing a petition,” Austin said. “No one has ever done this before.”