Parent activism is the key to reforming our schools.
By Kevin P. Chavous
Slowly, yet ever so surely, a new revolution is emerging in this country as a response to our declining educational outputs. This revolution is being driven by parents who are tired of trying to navigate local school bureaucracies just to get their children a quality education. These parents come from all walks of life and are challenging the education status quo to listen, embrace innovation and be open to change. This new parent voice couldn’t come at a better time.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 15th among 65 countries in reading literacy. Our country also ranks 31st among those same 65 countries in math literacy; 23rd in science. These sliding rankings coupled with the declining rates of high school completion are depriving our nation of college-educated and trained workers needed to keep the American workforce globally competitive.
Moreover, as McKinsey & Company stated in their landmark study which quantified the economic impact of the achievement gap in America, our failure to close this gap has led to “a permanent national recession larger than the one we are currently experiencing”.
While these education shortfalls are most noticeable in low-income and working class communities, the reality is that even our historically good schools aren’t quite as good as they used to be.
But parents are stepping up and demanding change. All across the country, parents are engaging in more aggressive legislative and political activity to change laws and practices of non-performing local school districts. For example, in 2010, California passed the first parent trigger law. This law forces school districts to change a low-performing school’s leadership or convert the school to a charter school if 51% of the parents sign a petition demanding change. Following California’s lead, three other states passed parent trigger laws, and the US Conference of Mayors recently endorsed the concept. Several other states have parent trigger legislation pending and parent organizing groups have begun to sprout in places like Connecticut, New York, Indiana, Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana.
These groups demand that we “fly the plane while we fix it”. In other words, parents support long term school reform efforts, but insist that the needs of their children be addressed now through alternative means such as charter schools, scholarships, tax credits, virtual schools and even home schooling. Parents who want the best for their children don’t mind thinking out of the box and, unlike some school PTA groups, they cannot be controlled by defenders of the status quo. They demand the right to be seen and heard. And they want to be empowered to fight for what’s best for their children – on their own terms.
One example that embodies this newfound activism among parents can be seen in the Louisiana parents who have demanded options to rescue their children from failing schools. Four years ago, the Louisiana Legislature enacted a program that awards private school scholarships children from low-income families in the failing New Orleans parish school district. This year, the legislature expanded the program statewide, making 380,000 children eligible. Over 10,000 applications were submitted for the upcoming school year, demonstrating the intense demand for high quality educational options. At a gathering of parents with children in the program, low-income, single mothers spoke about the renewed sense of hope they feel because their kids are finally in good schools. One young mother, a high school dropout, poignantly stated, “Seeing how much my 6 year old loves school has motivated me to go back to get my GED. I enrolled in a program last week and am excited to study at the same time as my son when he gets home from school”.
Parents are the greatest asset we have in the struggle to improve our education system. Parents know their children best and have their children’s best interest at heart. Going forward, we should expect more parent activism which will help reform our schools. Indeed, education reform is the one area where everyday parents can lead our leaders.
Kevin P. Chavous is a noted attorney, author, national school reform leader, and former member of the Washington, D.C. City Council. He currently serves as senior advisor to the American Federation for Children and is author of a new book, Voice of Determination: Children that Defy the Odds. If you’d like to learn how you can get involved in education reform, email Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.