'Unions' empower parents to push for reform

By Christina Hoag

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, photo, Woodcrest Elementary School parents pray at the end of a meeting organized by Parent Revolution in Los Angeles. In California, school parent groups are no longer just about holding the next bake-sale fundraiser, they have also began to push for education reform.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

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 mothers and fathers, 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 same goal — to push schools to improve academic achievement.

Behind the parent empowerment movement is a feisty Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Parent Revolution, which in 2010 pushed through a landmark law giving parents authority to force turnarounds at failing schools through a petition.

Known as the "parent trigger," the California law was the first of its kind in the nation. It 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. The district is not doing enough to ensure teachers are effective and weed out bad educators, she said.

"I talked to other parents and found they had the same experience," Drew said. "I have nothing against the PTA, but the problem for me is there's a T in PTA. This is parent-led."

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 shouldn't be acting with authority in a vacuum."

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.

After ensuing media coverage of "Plan A: Kill Mode," the union took down the document and disavowed 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. So far, more than 20 unions have been formed.

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