David Hernandez delivering a workshop to develop sustainable community relationships.

Corporates pull parent trigger

Michael De Wall

The future of public education in the United States has become a struggle for the hearts and minds of parents and their communities.

While community-based organisations like Alliance for Quality Education (see below) continue to evolve and build on a proud tradition of “education organising” that puts the learning needs of children at the forefront of its activities, new players have entered the field with more ambiguous interests and intentions.

At a glance, Parent Revolution appears to be consistent with other efforts in community and education organising: “Our team works directly with parents at underperforming schools in Los Angeles and throughout California to help parents organize to transform their children’s under-performing schools using California’s historic Parent Trigger law.” (Parent Revolution website)

The trigger law gives parents the power to petition for dramatic changes at their school, including the option of converting the school into an independent or private charter school that continues to be funded by public money. The trigger law was written by Ben Austin, the founder and current Executive Director of Parent Revolution. He also happens to be the co-founder of Green Dot Charter Schools and his parent organisation has the backing of a range of corporate interests including the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton Family

The Parent Revolution website asserts what usually would be considered a politically progressive means of parent and community engagement: “We use sophisticated and cutting edge community organising techniques to help parents organise, create Parents Union chapters, build power, analyse their school’s performance, and fight for kids-first reforms that will dramatically improve academic outcomes for their children.”

The promises are seductive and the intentions sound consistent with other education organising efforts, but Parent Revolution appears to have a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to some of California’s most vulnerable communities.

Lori Yuan, a parent who fought the Parent Trigger at Desert Trails School in Adelanto, summed-up the experience: “They call it Parent Trigger. It feels more like a drive-by.”

In New York, an aggressive charter movement continues to organise parents and communities. On just one day more than 10,000 teachers, parents and children from New York City’s charter schools crossed Brooklyn Bridge to protest against the policies of the front-running mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. He said he would charge rent to charter school operators who currently use space in public schools for free, and have a moratorium on forcing traditional public schools to be co-located with charters.

What unions are doing

Californian Teachers Association Regional UniServ officer David Hernandez said the way forward for teacher unions was to move beyond fleeting exercises in “community outreach” during times of need and start developing more sustainable, ongoing relationships through deeper forms of community engagement.

“Getting the community involved is where this process needs to be,” he said.

As part of its strategic approach to building alliances with parents and the community, the United Federation of Teachers has developed online resources and established a parent and community liaison in each of the boroughs.

The upcoming Brooklyn Families and Educators Conference will have a workshop about parent and student organising. Community schools apply to be part of the union’s Community Learning Schools Initiative. When successful, the union supports the school to establish a collaborative process to engage with its parents and communities and secure local services that are made available within the school.

Michael de Wall is a City Organiser and the current recipient of the Eric Pearson Study Grant. He is looking at capacity building and parent engagement.

Trust building

Alliance for Quality Education advocacy director Zakiyah Ansari identifies trust building as the key ingredient to empowering parents, youth and community members to work collaboratively to transform their public schools.

Zakiyah is the mother of eight children who have all been educated in the New York public school system. She has emerged as a powerful voice for parents and children in the raging debate over educational reform.

“What is happening in education now is immoral," she said.

“If my children suffer we should be standing up and saying that’s not okay.”

Concerned about the growing achievement gap between different groups of children, Zakiyah started as a volunteer activist with the Coalition for Educational Justice and developed into an effective community organiser.

In 2012, Zakiyah provided testimony to a state initiated education commission. She lamented that only 50 per cent of white and Asian students and 13 per cent of black and Latino students were graduating high school ready for college in New York City. At the same time, more than 80 per cent of special education and English language learners were not achieving the desired educational outcomes.

“Mayor Bloomberg has chosen to take the direction of choice, competition, teacher bashing, over-emphasis on standardised tests, experimental reforms based in business, pushing charters as the answer to successful schooling and top-down decision making along with closure as the basis of his school reform strategy,” she told the commission.

In her contribution to the education commission, Zakiyah made a compelling case for a straightforward proposition that appears to be lost on most politicians and education reformers: “The best choice is an excellent school in one’s own community. We must ensure that all parents have this option. This should be the primary goal for the public school system.”