Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Parent Trigger II: Desert warfare

State regulations written to bring order and rationality to the Parent Trigger petition process are getting a bruising debut in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto. The recriminations and accusations of misinformation and fraud that undermined the first Parent Trigger effort in Compton and ended up in court last year are echoing in the battle over Desert Trails Elementary School, calling into question the capacity of rule makers to anticipate and deter bad conduct.

On Tuesday, pro bono attorneys for the Desert Trails Parents Union called for a criminal investigation into actions that led 97 parents to revoke their signatures on petitions calling for the conversion of their elementary school into a charter school. Based on the rescissions and other technical flaws they found with other petition signatures, the Adelanto School District trustees last week rejected the second Parent Trigger petition under the parent empowerment law. They ruled that the parents group fell 16 signatures shy of the 333 needed to represent a majority of the children at the school, which was necessary to demand wholesale school reform. The  parents group originally submitted signatures representing 70 percent of the students in the low-performing school.

The parents group plans to ask the school board to reverse its decision when it meets tonight and is threatening to go to court if it doesn’t. The parents and their attorney, Mark Holscher, charged that the counter-reform parents group, which was aided by California Teachers Association staffers, engaged in fraud and misled parents to revoke their signatures. The Parents Union presented evidence that in at least two instances, parents signed blank revocation forms with unchecked boxes that someone later altered to list reasons for withdrawing their signatures. These parents have signed affidavits saying they didn’t understand what they were signing.

CTA representatives and parents opposed to reform charged it was the Parents Union, organized by the pro-Parent Trigger group Parent Revolution, that misled parents into signing the charter takeover petition in the first place. What did create potential confusion was that Parents Union asked parents to sign two petitions – one calling for internal reforms, in which parents would hire the principal and have a big say in running the school, and one calling for an independent charter operator. The tactic was to submit the charter petition as leverage to broker school reforms, said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. Talks, in fact, have been going on, he said.

Silent on revocation

The State Board of Education adopted Parent Trigger regulations last summer after nearly a year of work and multiple revisions. The regulations thoroughly spell out details of the signature gathering process, such as who can vote, how names should be verified, and when the school board must act. But the regulations don’t deal with signature revocation, other than to say there should be no “harassment, threats, and intimidation” related to gathering signatures or revoking them.

Holscher claims signature revocations shouldn’t be permitted at all, and certainly not once the petitions are submitted. He  points to another section in the state election code that prohibits revoking signatures for initiatives. The intent is to protect voters, once their signatures are made public, from coercion.

No regulation can anticipate infinite possibilities of bad faith, but the state PTA, the low-income advocacy group Public Advocates, and others called for the Parent Trigger regulations to include one or two public hearings explaining the Parent Trigger process and providing parents “with useful information so that their signatures could be informed,” said Liz Guillen, director of Legislative and Community Affairs at Public Advocates. A hearing might have cut down on charges of misinformation. A requirement for a public hearing made it into the final draft of the state regulations, but the State Board eliminated it out of concern that inclusion would have been interpreted as a state mandate, adding costs and possible rejection by the Office of Administrative Law, which keeps an eye out for mandated expenses. The Board noted that nothing in the law prevents a district from holding an extra hearing on its own. Nonetheless, compared with the costs to districts and parent groups of a protracted court fight over a Parent Trigger petition, the cost to the state of an extra hearing is a deal.

For all its possible flaws, Rose, who was part of a group that crafted the regulations, isn’t grousing about them. “The regulations are vitally important but the district is not following them,” he said. “There are lots of protections here.”

The biggest is a 60-day  period, after a school districts rejects a Parent Trigger petition, allowing parents to fix problems with signatures, respond to technical reasons that signatures were rejected and collect new signatures. Rose said that in 17 instances, a parent who signed the revocation notice wasn’t the parent who signed the petition in the first place; and there were two dozen instances in which parent signatures were rejected because a signature wasn’t on file in the district office for comparison.  Add them all up, and there is well over 50 percent of parents legally on board, he said.

New program shows the promise and possibilities for parent engagement

Have you ever taken a peek into the future? A quick snapshot into tomorrow?

I did recently at a small elementary school in South San Francisco.

Twenty-nine parents walked into the school’s multipurpose room to the sound of Pomp and Circumstance. Families grinned. Children clapped. Moms and dads marched to the folding chairs in the front of the room: graduates of the PTA School Smarts Parent Academy. The principal handed out certificates and words of praise. Parent speeches in Spanish and English demonstrated new communication skills.

A graduation. A promise of the future … not only for these parents but for their children and their school.

What made this graduation so special was that it was a celebration of the dreams these parents now have for the graduation of their children. For seven weeks, the PTA School Smarts Academy helped parents learn how to support their children’s education during weekly two-hour sessions. Parents gained new skills to help them navigate the American education system, and they experienced firsthand the importance of a complete curriculum that includes the arts.

This is a pilot program of the California State PTA. Extensive research and planning conducted by the PTA found a high level of interest among parents in learning more about their schools and how they can help children. A grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation underwrote the development of School Smarts, consisting of the Parent Academy plus an initial parent engagement night to which all parents in a school are invited.

The goal is to foster parent engagement in education and create parent leaders who will promote a quality and complete education that includes the arts. This is the second year of the pilot program, now offered in 23 schools throughout California.

These parents represent the new demographics of California’s schools. Many were not born in the United States. Many have not graduated from college or high school. Many need the help of interpreters.

The seven-week course provides the basics and more for parents:

  • Whom to talk with when you have a concern
  • How to communicate to get the best results
  • Parent rights and responsibilities
  • Academic expectations
  • How to help children graduate and be ready for college and career

The course goes from the philosophical to the practical, from understanding progress reports to the logistics of having a place for a child to study at home.

Embedded in each two-hour session is an arts activity, helping to demonstrate not only the joy of learning but also how you learn through the arts.

The School Smarts pilot program has been evaluated through internal assessments and surveys as well as a formal evaluation conducted by SRI International. Highlights indicate:

  • 85 percent of participants said their knowledge of the school system and how they can help their children increased dramatically;
  • 80 percent said they were more likely to take action and get involved with their schools after completing the program;
  • The program fostered a sense of community among parents of diverse backgrounds.

The research results are clear: Engaged parents help children succeed, and the arts help children do better in school and life.

I saw the future of parent engagement at that school in South San Francisco. You can check out the graduation snapshots on Facebook or here for some other Smart Academy events.

But the most important picture of all is the picture forever held in the collective memory of a proud school community.

Carol Kocivar is president of the California State PTA. She has served as president-elect, vice president for communications, an education commission member, and on numerous committees with the California State PTA. A past president of the San Francisco Second District PTA, Kocivar has worked as a journalist, attorney, and ombudsperson for special education. For information on the California State PTA: www.capta.org

PTA unites behind an initiative to transform and fairly fund our schools

This holiday season, one item at the top of wish lists for most parents is a public school system that delivers a well-rounded education for all students – one that prepares them for college, career, and adulthood. The future of our state and our economy depends on it.

Unfortunately, school budgets have been decimated by $20 billion in cuts in just the last few years. Essential programs for students have been eliminated or cut dramatically.

One thing I see and hear firsthand when I visit local communities throughout the state is that parents, educators, and community members have had it with these cuts.

In a recent survey, nine out of every 10 local PTA leaders and members rated “adequate school funding” as extremely important – the highest response by far to any policy issue. In particular, parents and PTA members believe more funding is needed to restore the arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and physical education; as well as to reduce class sizes and add back counselors, school libraries, and librarians.

Californians see something really scary happening: An entire generation of children is being denied the public education program they need to succeed in the workforce and in life.

We cannot let this happen.

That’s why the California State PTA is planning ahead for November 2012.

The November 2012 statewide ballot presents an opportunity we can’t afford to miss for our children. That’s when voters will have a chance to do something truly transformative for our public schools by passing the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act, which was submitted to the Attorney General last week.

We’re urging everyone to unite around this measure, sponsored by the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization. Here’s why.

First, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act is the boldest and most thoughtful proposal out there. It proposes to raise the most new money solely for K-12 schools and early childhood education programs – approximately $10 billion per year. Our state faces a number of serious challenges. This measure seeks to confront the most important of those: strengthening our public education system.

The new money must be used to improve students’ academic performance, graduation rates, and readiness for career, college, and life. The infusion of desperately needed resources will help schools restore and expand the educational program for all students, with more instruction in the arts, physical education, STEM, vocational and career education, and other courses that help keep students engaged in school and prepared for 21st century careers.

Funds can also be used to reduce class sizes; hire more counselors, librarians, and school nurses; or extend learning time through longer school days, a longer school year, or summer school – all components of a well-rounded education that have been cut to the bone in recent years.

Transparency and accountability

Second, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act proposes important reforms that ensure transparency, oversight, and accountability.

The new revenue will be placed in a trust account, and the Legislature will be prohibited from interfering with local schools and districts over how to use the funds. Local parents, educators, and staff in every school community, including charter schools, will be empowered to provide input into how the new funding is used, with local governing boards authorizing the decisions. Every school and district must report clearly on how the money is used and what outcomes are achieved.

This would be a powerful reform because it takes a giant step toward real local control – as well as meaningful parent and community engagement.

Third, the initiative will help close the achievement gap. In addition to enabling all schools to provide a more complete range of courses and academic support services, the initiative provides additional per-student funding to support low-income children and English language learners. Plus, 15 percent of the total revenue from the initiative will be targeted to expand access to early childhood education and preschool programs, which are proven to increase school readiness and help to close the gap.

To generate the needed revenues, the initiative relies on a broad-based, graduated income tax increase. Polls show that voters will support such a tax increase if they know the money goes directly to their local schools.

Californians understand that school funding has been cut too deeply. Our children cannot wait any longer for legislators to get their act together to address what our State Superintendent of Public Instruction has called a “state of fiscal emergency” for our schools.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the “fierce urgency of now.” The time is now for all of us to get behind a bold plan that will provide real opportunities and a well-rounded education for all students.

We owe it to them.

Carol Kocivar of San Francisco is president of the California State PTA. She has served as president-elect, vice president for communications, an education commission member, and on numerous committees with the California State PTA. A past president of the San Francisco Second District PTA, Kocivar has worked as a journalist, attorney, and ombudsperson for special education. The California State PTA has nearly 1 million members volunteering on behalf of public schools, children, and families. The PTA also advocates at national, state, and local levels for education and family issues. For information: www.capta.org

Let’s come together in November 2012 to restore education funding

It’s time now to unite for next November.

Yes, November 2012. It may seem like a long way off, but it’s not. In just a year, our state will have a potential opportunity our children can’t afford for us to miss.

That’s when millions of Californians will go to the polls, where they could have a chance to do what our legislators have so far been unable to do: reverse the chronic underfunding of our public schools.

So far, several well-regarded organizations have been exploring potential ballot measures. Some deal exclusively with education funding, some with broader tax increases or school reforms, and some with larger state budget reforms.

California State PTA is calling for a united effort to qualify and pass a state ballot measure that focuses – first and foremost – on restoring funding for educational programs that have been cut or eliminated.

Along with other groups, we’re raising awareness about the importance of this effort, and urging state leaders, organizations, businesses, and individuals to come together around a plan that meets the needs of students.

In our most recent annual survey, PTA members and leaders from throughout the state singled out adequate state funding for education as a resounding priority: 89.2 percent said it is extremely important; 98.6 percent said it was important or extremely important.

No other issue came close to this level of support.

In addition, our survey showed that parents are most interested in making sure students have access to a full range of programs and services. In response to a list of nine specific education topics, the five top-rated responses were:

  • Access to a full curriculum that includes the arts for every student;
  • Smaller class sizes;
  • More science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM);
  • Strengthening teacher and administrator effectiveness; and
  • Reducing the dropout rate.

In another section of the survey, access to physical education also rated extremely high with parents.

Parents and family members know that what matters most is what happens on the ground in our schools and in our children’s classrooms each day. While talk in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., often centers on the reform of the week, our members have spoken loudly and clearly: Schools need adequate funding so that every child has access to a complete educational program that includes physical education, arts, and STEM (science technology, engineering, and math), as well as counselors, libraries, and smaller class sizes. We think other systemic reforms to the education system that frequently are discussed in Sacramento are important as well, but they may be better addressed through legislation, instead of a ballot measure.

In PTA we’re passionate, but we’re also realistic. We understand it typically takes a lot of money to qualify a statewide ballot initiative, especially in this polarized political climate. But that doesn’t mean we won’t put all of our energy toward working with others to try. While we are not an organization that can write a big check to get a measure on the ballot, we have something even more valuable: our members.

Together we are nearly 1 million parents, educators, grandparents, aunts, uncles, students, and others who care deeply about the damage inflicted by year after year of budget cuts. We will fight for every child, and we can help to create the broad public support and true grassroots engagement that will be needed to work with others and help qualify and pass a ballot measure.

Of course, any successful ballot measure must include new revenues. But we know that public education is our collective responsibility and that we must all step up to restore its promise.

Passing a measure won’t be easy, but we think the majority of Californians are up for the challenge.

Now, more than ever, we must act to secure the financing for public schools that will allow us to fulfill our promise of providing a quality education for all students. We look forward to forging a united effort focused on this goal. Please visit our website to find out how you can help and keep up to date on our progress.

Carol Kocivar of San Francisco is president of the California State PTA. She has served as president-elect, vice president for communications, an education commission member, and on numerous committees with the California State PTA. A past president of the San Francisco Second District PTA, Kocivar has worked as a journalist, attorney, and ombudsperson for special education. The California State PTA has nearly 1 million members throughout the state volunteering on behalf of public schools, children, and families, with the motto “Every child, one voice.” The PTA also advocates at national, state, and local levels for education and family issues.

No changes to Open Enrollment

For all its quirks and anomalies, the two-year-old Open Enrollment Act, which gives parents in low-performing schools the chance to transfer their children to a better school in another district, will remain unchanged. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have let a number of schools off the hook.

In his veto message for AB 47, Brown said that the changes would have cut the eligible schools from 1,000 to 150, which would “go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin) sponsored the bill because some schools with an Academic Performance Index of close to 800 – the state’s definition of success – and a few above that target were ensnared on the list. As a result, confused families in what they assumed were good schools were sent letters saying they could pull their kids and transfer out.

AB 47 would have excluded schools with an API above 700 two years straight and schools whose scores jumped 50 points in a year. Low-performing charter schools, excluded under the law, would have been eligible.

In case you missed our reports yesterday on key bills that Brown vetoed (Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547) and signed (Dream Act) on Saturday, check our earlier coverage.

The Open Enrollment Act was passed hurriedly with the Parent Trigger in late 2009 as the Legislature’s effort to bolster the state’s application for the federal Race to the  Top competition. Open Enrollment was to include the lowest-performing 1,000 schools, roughly 10 percent. But it excluded a number of small schools and schools for at-risk students, and no more than 10 percent of any district’s schools could be on the list. As a result, some schools that normally would not be considered failing made the list.

No one knows whether the law actually has had much impact. It was in effect last year for the first time, and there are no statewide numbers. However, potential receiving districts were given leeway to opt out by citing an adverse financial impact from taking on any new students.

Advocates, led by the nonprofit EdVoice, see Open Enrollment as a major victory for school choice for low-income, minority parents, but it does not appear to have been used much so far.

AB 47’s 700 API cutoff probably would have excluded nearly all elementary schools, since the average API is now 808, and many middle schools, too.

Brown’s veto message noted that the State Board of Education has the authority to exempt high-achieving students, and it has; it granted waivers to 96 schools that requested them, according to an analysis of the Board.

The number of State Board exemptions and AB 47’s API cutoffs angered Republicans in the Senate, particularly Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and an Open Enrollment proponent. Last month, when Huff threatened to delay the vote to confirm the appointment of State Board President Michael Kirst, two Senate aides I spoke with speculated that Huff might use the confirmation as a bargaining chip to defeat the bill.

The following week, Senate Republicans joined Democrats to confirm Kirst. Neither Brown nor Huff has said whether vetoing AB 47 was part of the deal.

As for the State Board’s exemption authority, Brown wrote in his message, “I expect the Board will thoughtfully exercise this authority and believe we should carefully review the implementation effects of the program before making significant changes.”

Empowering parents — to sign petitions or become engines for change?

On Wednesday, the California State Board of Education will vote to approve regulations implementing California’s parent empowerment law. Given the intense scrutiny this law has received, it’s important to remember that it is just a small step on the road toward truly empowering parents.

Nibbling at the edges

Passed by the Legislature in 2009, the “Parent Trigger” statute allows parents to petition their school district boards to adopt one of the turnaround interventions handed down by the feds. But community advocates like us wonder: What if parents don’t want any of these turnaround options?

There are many reasons why they wouldn’t. Though much ballyhooed by some, especially charter advocates, the new law is actually quite modest in scope. First, only 75 of the state’s 9,000 schools can actually implement a trigger. Second, if they succeed, they are essentially limited to using one of the federally prescribed and fairly narrow school turnaround interventions set out under the School Improvement Grant program. The petitioned district must either: (1) close the school, (2) replace it with a charter school or reopen with new management, (3) fire the principal and at least half the staff, or (4) fire the principal and transform the school in line with federal regulations.

Unfortunately, none of the four options was then or is now supported by research indicating that they actually work. Moreover, other strategies that have succeeded are precluded from consideration. The bottom line: Enabling parents in a handful of the state’s schools to force through one of four unproven federal turnaround options may be useful in some instances, but this minor step forward is hardly a revolution.

There’s another way – one in which parents, students, teachers, and community members are active participants in the process of developing and implementing a plan for transforming their schools, not merely signers of a petition.

A blueprint for success

We know it can be done. A report by Communities for Excellent Public Schools (“A Proposal for Sustainable School Transformation,” July 2010), a national coalition of more than 25 community-based education reform organizations, highlights the community-based school reform effort at Greenleaf Elementary in Oakland. After failed attempts to use No Child Left Behind-driven reforms (e.g., firing teachers, charter conversion), Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) supported a design development team composed of students, parents, educators, community members, and district staff to do the hard work of a year-long planning process.

This process included mapping the assets of the school and neighborhood, analyzing student achievement data, visiting high-performing schools serving similar students, and participating in extensive community engagement and partnership. The report describes how the team’s unified vision for the school became a reality:

Greenleaf Elementary, serving low-income Latino and African American students, has become a symbol of pride and hope for a long underserved neighborhood. In addition to a strong standards-based academic curriculum, students enjoy enrichment through music, art, and physical education classes. The school partners with a variety of community-based organizations who provide resources for students and families that include counseling, dental screening, food giveaways, and English and computer classes. Through an active parent leadership team parents are active partners in the life of the school. Teachers are part of a professional learning community, receive support and guidance from coaches, and share parents’ vision and expectations for high achievement for every student.

Despite multiple changes in district leadership, including a state takeover, the school community kept its eye on the prize – higher levels of student achievement – due in large part to the support, engagement, and commitment of Oakland parents, community members, and district and school leaders who had been part of the process from the beginning and were fully invested in its success.

The results speak for themselves. Just three years after the school’s transformation began, the percentage of students proficient in English had risen from 14 to 42 percent, and from 25 to 66 percent in math. Because of similar community-led reform efforts at schools throughout the district, Oakland Unified has been named the most improved urban school district for six years.

Still fighting for change

We, along with other parent and student advocates, will continue pushing to increase the rights and opportunities for low-income parents and communities to partner with their children’s schools. And we will continue to work to improve our state’s parent empowerment laws.

Why? It’s true that the “Parent Trigger” regulations attempt to make a limited and vague statute work. Assemblymember Julia Brownley’s pending AB 203 makes some important improvements to the statute as well, and it deserves to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But larger, more powerful parent and community engagement is both possible and desperately needed. Again and again, we and our community-based allies have advocated that sustainable school turnaround efforts must be developed, embraced, and implemented by an entire school community if they are going to be successful. School and district staff alone cannot identify, implement, and sustain a school turnaround.

True parent empowerment requires hard work and support to build the capacity of schools, districts, and communities so that parents can be engaged and informed partners in the school improvement process. That’s real empowerment – and that’s what our policies should be designed to encourage.

Katie Valenzuela, a Policy Advocate for Public Advocates, co-authored  this piece. Liz Guillen is Director of Legislative & Community Affairs at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. She works closely with community and grassroots organizations across California to advocate for improved opportunities to learn in the public school system.

Enough reports, studies and blueprints: It’s time to act on them

Public schools in California are in a state of crisis and our students are suffering the consequences. Our children deserve and require more attention, resources and support. While there has been no shortage of plans and policies for what our schools need, there seems to be a lack of political will to actually institute the needed reforms.

Last week, as an example, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, published a comprehensive and reasonable series of recommendations coined “Blueprint for Great Schools.” Torlakson gathered a 59-member Transition Advisory Team, made up of teachers, parents, administrators, labor and business leaders, with input from thought-leaders such as Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University School of Education and David Plank, executive director of PACE,  to craft the document. The recommendations address finance, curriculum and technology, to name a few, and the “Blueprint” could revolutionize the California public education system.

Nevertheless, Torlakson’s “Blueprint” is not particularly divergent from other reports put together in recent years by consortiums of the best-schooled in California education policy. For instance, “Getting Down to Facts,” an independent research project requested by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence in 2007, was authored by many of the experts who worked on Torlakson’s “Blueprint” and outlined many of the same reforms and improvements. This 2007 report received, and continues to receive, many accolades from policy makers, legislators and education advocates.

The problem seems to occur in implementing these ideas. In 2008, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley attempted to create a committee focused on making these recommendations a reality; her bill flew through both the state Senate and the state Assembly on its way to becoming a law, only to be vetoed by the sponsor of the 2007 report, Gov. Schwarzenegger.

During the past eight months since Torlakson took office and commissioned this “Blueprint,” California’s K-12 public education system has taken several large steps backward. School days have been shed, talented teachers have been lost, and the state’s achievement level is among the country’s bottom 10 percent. Moreover, California’s current budget will prove truly disastrous for schools wiping out even more money from schools if budgeted revenue targets are not achieved. In summary, California’s Legislature claims to value education, but the lack of action since 2007 tells a different story.

As a parent of three young kids in the California public school system, I am pleading with the Legislature, the public, and my fellow parents: enough planning, enough studies. It is time to BUILD! We don’t need more ideas – we need to put the plans into action. So let’s get our hard hats on and get to work. NOW!

Crystal Brown is co-founder and president of Educate Our State, a parent-led, grassroots, statewide campaign fighting for high-quality public education in California. She is a Bay Area native, 17-year resident of San Francisco, and mother of three young girls. She has served on the PTA Board at Sherman Elementary School and in early-2010, she and five other “PTA moms” organized a 1,200-person town hall meeting, Public Education–Funding Our Future, looking for solutions to the local school funding crisis.

Parents know better than lawmakers what’s best for their children

Across the nation, education reform is the topic of conversation among families and teachers, legislators and even the courts.  The discussion has turned into unrest among parents who know their children deserve a high-quality education, but are not seeing results.

Today, parents and children are fighting back against the “norm” — they want more from California’s education system.  They know every child is unique and processes information in different ways.  For this reason, parent options in public education are vital in today’s fast-paced, high-speed, globally connected world.

California has been on the forefront of parent choice with its many charter and public virtual schools.  These schools bring new and exciting learning methods that are designed for each student as an individual instead of the student conforming to the school.  Charter schools have literally changed parents and students lives—for the better.

Of course, with change comes adversity.  Despite the positive aspects these schools bring to the lives of the students they touch, some in the Legislature, such as Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, think they know better than parents.

Under the disguise of “accountability,” Simitian and Brownley have created a “death by thousand cuts” scenario targeting charter and public virtual schools and the students they serve. For example, AB 440 and SB  645 would give the State Board of Education new authority to impose arbitrary standards that would result in fewer schools having their charter renewed.

As it stands, local school districts determine the fate of charter schools seeking renewals and give parents, teachers and school administrators the ability to voice their support for their charter school. AB 440 and SB 645 would grant new powers by shifting the final authority over certain charter school renewals from the local school district to the State Board.  This added layer of bureaucracy would create obstacles for low-income parents and teachers unable to travel to Sacramento to advocate on behalf of their school.

Under AB 440 and SB 645, neither local school districts nor the State Legislature would have any oversight authority on the State Board’s ability to close down a school – even if the school is supported by the local district and parents. This “guilty until proven innocent” inquisition would only apply to charter and public virtual schools.

Worst of all, the bills undermine a parent’s right to choose the best school for their child.  If the charter school is working for a student whether they are an at-risk or an advance-learner, the State Board would now have the authority to eliminate that choice, should the school close.  Parents make a decision to enroll their child in a charter school for a variety of reasons such as a school’s unique curriculum or student safety. Parents are in a better position to determine these factors than a state agency

Parent choice was a major factor in the original creation of the charter school statute in California.  Any metric that judges charter schools must include this important component.  There is no denying, the accountability of our schools is essential.  However, removing local control and transferring more power to Sacramento bureaucrats is certainly not the answer.

Parents deserve the right to choose what’s best for their children.  And parents deserve the right to choose the type of school — brick and mortar, online or charter — that best suits their child’s educational needs.  Throwing up more barriers as demonstrated in AB 440 and SB 645 in front of a parent’s choice is just plain wrong and parents just won’t stand for it.

Maureen Schultz, president of California Parents for Public Virtual Education, a non-profit organization made up of volunteers whose primary objective is protecting access to a quality, virtual public education in our state. For more information about California Parents for Public Virtual Education, please visit: www.calvirtualed.org.

Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group responsible for California’s Parent Trigger law, did something rare in education politics: it outmaneuvered a powerful teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers basically admits as much in a guide used last month at the union’s TEACH conference to describe how the Connecticut chapter diluted that state’s version of the parent trigger. There, on page four, third bullet point down, it reads: “We learned from mistakes made in CA.” A few pages later, under the heading “Plan A: Kill Mode,” is list of lobbying strategies.

The guide had been posted on the union’s website along with all the other presentations from the conference. It was quickly taken down, however, after RiShawn Biddle, author of the blog Dropout Nation, posted it on his site. A note where the link used to be states, “We have posted all the presentations from the sessions to make the information available to all the attendees. However, we have received complaints about these materials and have removed them because they do not represent AFT’s position.”

The loudest complaint came from Parent Revolution at a press conference earlier this week. Executive Director Ben Austin called it a “cynical strategy to disempower parents” and released a letter sent to AFT president Randi Weingarten demanding an apology. As of this writing, there was no response from Weingarten.

Austin felt especially betrayed by the AFT because he says Parent Revolution has long supported and lauded Weingarten’s progressive approach to negotiating contracts. “She has really demonstrated that teachers union leadership can simultaneously advocate for teachers and children.”

Are you a good shift or a bad shift?

Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no question that Parent Revolution took parent power to a new level. Until now, grassroots organizing around education has remained local. Even the historic, game-changing 1968 New York City teachers strike was a battle over control of local schools in the City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood.

“The more traditional grassroots community-based organization model is one where they’re putting pressure on school boards, mobilizing in microcommunities around micro issues, like the closing of a school,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is a group that is working at the state level, which I think you have to do these days.”

Henig stops far short of Ben Austin’s claim that Parent Revolution is creating a new paradigm in the way we think about education. During a phone call after the press conference, Austin told me that support for the parent trigger from members of the State Board of Education (SBE) and California School Boards Association “speaks to the fact that the political tectonic plates are shifting underneath us.”

“It’s too grand to say it’s the wave of the future,” responded Henig.

Parent Revolution did lose its first takeover bid, in the Compton Unified School District, when the judge rejected the petitions (which we reported here).  But, that was before the State Board of Education drafted regulations.  Austin doesn’t expect that to happen again.  In fact, he says, they may not even have to submit the petitions; just the threat of having them may be enough to force change.

“It has more to do with giving parents leverage to bargain,” said Austin.  “The reality is that when parents have organized 50% of the parents in the school, they do have the ability to sit at the table and look the leadership in the eye and say, ‘For all intents and purposes we have the ability to fire you,’ and to look at the teachers and say, ‘We have the ability to cancel your contracts.'”

If it is a trend, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, worries that another outside group pushing its agenda adds to the confusing pile of reforms foisted upon superintendents and principals.

“How do they prioritize? What’s the right thing to do? I think it actually makes the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis very difficult, and it’s already very difficult,” said Levine. He argues that California needs to commit to a single strategy for the next five years “to try to change the trajectory of low-performing schools.”

Grassroots vs. ‘Astroturf’

Parent Revolution isn’t the only parent group focused on statewide change. Over the past few years a number of organizations have emerged, including Educate Our State and Parents for Great Education, with an eye on Sacramento. As we reported here last spring, Educate Our State launched a campaign during the budget negotiations that generated more than 35,000 letters to state lawmakers urging them to support Gov. Brown’s proposal to extend the temporary taxes.

Although they weren’t successful, the effort was more organically grassroots than Parent Revolution.  There were no major donors, no professional educators, and no former elected officials. Parent Revolution, on the other hand, was started by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, out of his frustration with Los Angeles Unified School District. [Update:  Barr founded LA Parents Union which evolved into Parent Revolution in 2009 under the leadership of Austin]. Ben Austin worked in the Clinton administration, served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat on the State Board of Education.

But the key difference between those other organizations and Parent Revolution is money. The group is funded by the biggest players in education reform – Gates, Broad, and Walton – giving opponents something more filling to criticize.

“They’re much less grassroots; they’re Astroturf,” said California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass, using the new tag for groups allegedly doing the bidding of wealthy business leaders. “We see Parent Trigger as just one little piece of the overall assault on education by the billionaire boys club,” said Glass, barely containing his irritation.

What he didn’t say is that Parent Revolution has a $1 million annual budget, or that the AFT has also been a beneficiary of Gates largesse. The union received three grants in recent years totaling nearly $4 million, and is a partner to a $335 million grant to support intensive training programs to improve teacher effectiveness. Ironically, Green Dot is also one of the partners.

The larger question, however, is whether parents know enough about teaching and school administration to decide which schools live and which schools die.  Loving your children and having attended school, doesn’t make parents – or legislators – experts.

“Schools can, like all institutions, be improved,” said UC Berkeley education historian and professor Daniel Perlstein. “But allowing parents, rather than educators, to direct inadequate resources simply will not revolutionize the education of children living in an increasingly unstable and unequal society.”

Ben Austin said he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  “At the end of the day,” said Austin, “all we’re saying is parents should have some power and that power should be real.”