Cupertino is a fairly affluent city in Silicon Valley, so when the school district sent layoff notices to 107 teachers last year, a group of parents mobilized a massive fundraising effort to save those jobs. They raised more than $2 million in two months. But Hoi Yung Poon, who helped organize the campaign, realized that this type of fundraising wasn’t a long-term solution. “It wasn’t a sustainable plan,” said Poon. “Our focus is targeting and mobilizing parents in Silicon Valley and partnering with parents in other parts of the state.”
A handful of PTA parents in San Francisco public schools organized a town hall meeting on education on Feb. 25, 2010. It featured legislators, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, and KQED Public Radio’s Michael Krasny as moderator. Despite that firepower, the moms expected only about 100 people to turn out. They got more than a thousand and launched a new brand of parent activism with a reach well beyond the usual bake sales and other school volunteerism.
“We want to create a powerful parent lobby,” said Sherman Elementary School PTA member Holly Carver on a Comcast Newsmakers program. “The line items are protected by powerful lobbies and we want to be that lobby for parents. We want them, when we come down to the hall, to say, ‘Oh, here comes the parent lobby.'”
About the same time, Teri Levy, the president of the PTA at Woodland Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, felt compelled to take action to protect California schools from $2.5 billion dollars in cuts slated for 2010. She enlisted the help of fellow PTA member and actor Brian Austin Green and his girlfriend, actress Megan Fox. The result is a scathingly funny video, produced by Funny or Die, that went viral overnight.
In the year since those activities, new groups have formed, merged, partnered, and established themselves as legal nonprofits, building a grassroots network of parents in the tens of thousands. Teri Levy’s group, Say No to Cuts, joined with the Sherman Elementary moms and created Educate Our State, which then linked with the Sacramento-based Support California Kids. Hoi Yung Poon’s organization incorporated under the name Parents for Great Education. Their websites contain legislative updates, action plans, and links to detailed information about how California schools are funded.
The Kitchen Cabinet
At 9 o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, the steering committee of Educate Our State is gathered around Susie Peyton’s sturdy kitchen table with plates of cookies, scones, and cupcakes in front of a window with views of San Francisco Bay. A few more moms, including Teri Levy in Los Angeles, join by phone. Crystal Brown, the main spokesperson, is doing some serious multitasking. Her laptop is open, and as she leads the meeting, she is also putting the finishing touches on a media advisory that needs to be emailed within a few hours to publicize simultaneous press conferences the next morning in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Can we talk about what our key points are?” asks Linda Shaffer, during a discussion on how best to frame their message. “I think getting the message across that parents are organizing and we’re angry.” Over the phone, Levy adds, “I think the important thing is that it’s a group of parents working together across the state. It’s not like a local thing; it’s a statewide thing where parents have come together because they want a solution, because every single year we go through the same thing. The uncertainty of what’s happening with education is playing games with our children’s lives.”
Their message is already resonating with parents. Three weeks ago, Educate Our State launched a letter-writing campaign called “Let Us Vote,” urging the Legislature to place Governor Jerry Brown’s tax extension on the June ballot. To date, more than 35,000 letters have been sent, reaching every member of the Assembly and Senate.
Making an Impression
Still, it’s too soon to say what kind of impact they’re having. Shelly Masur has been on the Redwood City School Board for six years. Masur is an unofficial advisor to Educate Our State, so she’s not without bias, but she says lawmakers are beginning to feel the ripples of this nascent groundswell. “I met with a legislator on Saturday, and I asked, ‘Have you gotten a lot of letters about the tax extensions?’ And he said that according to his staff, he’s received over 250 letters,” said Masur.
The lawmaker in question is a Democrat, and the primary targets of the letter-writing campaign are the five GOP lawmakers who have not signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, but who have also not committed to supporting the governor’s proposal. But Masur says it’s important for Democrats to hear from their constituents for two reasons: so they have compelling stories to tell during floor debates, and to be confident that they’re doing what their constituents want them to do.
The principal of Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, which hosted one of last week’s press events by the group, said that she’s never before seen any statewide parent movement, let alone one this big.
Groups like Educate Our State and Parents for Great Schools do rely on standard-bearers, like teachers’ unions and the PTA, for help, but have the benefit of working outside the structures and bureaucracies of those groups. It makes them more nimble and more bold. Hoi Yung Poon says her group can put together a call for action and email it to thousands of parents around the state within hours. There are no committees to go through and, says Poon, with a slightly mischievous tone, “no one can tell us what to say.”