When I look at school districts around the country, I see public education becoming more about politics and less about students and families. Increasingly, parents have found themselves barricaded outside of the ring, while the various players in the system duke it out over a political power struggle.
And it’s gotten old.
Take one example here in Chicago. We have a group of parents who call themselves We Are NTA. Their children attend National Teachers Academy, which Chicago Public Schools plans to phase out and reopen as a high school in 2019. NTA is a K-8, Level 1+ performing school in the South Loop community whose student population is 80 percent low-income. Why would the parents want to lose that?
In a statement provided to the Chicago Tribune, Elisabeth Greer, NTA’s local school council chairwoman, said, “The process has not been transparent or fair to the NTA community. We demand to be engaged in a fair and open discussion about our school.”
But despite desperate efforts from staff, community members and parents, NTA is still at risk of being closed and ultimately converted into a high school.
In Memphis, a group of parents showed up at the Shelby County Schools Board (SCSB) meeting dressed as slaves because they feel like they’re being treated like property. Why? Because along with years of suffering through underperforming schools and fighting an uphill battle for better options, the district has now contested a state policy allowing charter schools access to student data for the purposes of outreach and recruitment.
Natoria Carpenter, a parent in Memphis, told the board members, “I want to know my options. I feel that I need to know what’s the best education that my child can get.”
Even though parents argued that this denial was another tactic being used to limit their school options, SCSB still voted unanimously to withhold data from charter schools.
In the Bay Area, a group called Oakland Reach has formed “to make the powerless parent powerful.” They do this by engaging and training parents on how to advocate for their child’s education and hold the school district accountable for success. In their short existence, they’ve already reached over 300 parents in the Oakland area.
Lisa Babbitt, parent and member of Oakland Reach, recalled trying to get support for her son who was failing in Oakland public schools.
Even though I was constantly up at the school during this time, I didn’t know who or where I could go to for help. Looking back, I don’t think there was anywhere to go.
She joined Oakland Reach because she wants change and she wants other parents like her to have their voices heard.
Keri Rodrigues is a single mother to three boys in Boston. Recently, she testified at the Massachusetts State House in support of Bill H.2025—which would create standards and competencies for the hiring and use of interpreters in educational settings in order to provide limited English proficient (LEP) parents and students with competent interpretation services. She and other parents waited for hours to speak, only to feel like their voices had not been heard.
In a blog post, Keri shared her frustrations:
By the time we testified—on an issue that thousands of parents said was incredibly important for them regarding being able to communicate effectively with their schools—no one “fancy” was there…These are our children you are making decisions about. Can’t you at least be bothered to ask us what we think about what you’d like to do with them?
All across the country we can’t seem to stop arguing about the state of education. We go back and forth about funding, resource allocation, school models and teacher accountability. We put ourselves in camps—unions against districts, reformers against anti-reformers, and Democrats against Republicans.
It’s like Digital Underground said, “All around the world, same song”—except in this case, it’s all around the country, same drama. And in this drama, students in underserved communities are failing—not because they’re unable to learn, but because the system is failing them.
Plus, let’s not forget the depressingly slow crawl towards closing the achievement gap in which the above-mentioned players just can’t figure out how to collectively pick up the pace.
With that, parents are frustrated, and they have every right to be. The examples I previously mentioned are only a small percentage of parent groups mobilizing and taking action on behalf of their children. And, they’re really pissed off because their voices—albeit requested by some districts—are being ignored.
So maybe it’s time that educators and policymakers start to listen. Parents not only have the power to flip the existing power structure on its head, but parents can also fill in where the system has failed.
Parents deserve to have a say in how their children are educated and where they want to send them to school.
They are no longer going to hold their breath waiting for the powers that be to get it right nor are they going to hold their tongues. And while they may not be well versed on policy or data experts, parents are able to recognize when a political agenda has taken precedence over their child’s education.
So as long as bad decisions, divestment and inequities continue to disproportionately impact communities of color, parents are going to continue flexing and growing their power. Take heed.