Parents are not a monolith

Shirley Ford

The mom on stage described how she and other low-income parents rode a bus through the darkness – six hours, L.A. to Sacramento, kids still in pajamas – to plead their case to power. In the halls of the legislature, people opposed to the idea of a parent trigger accused them of being ignorant, of not understanding how schools work or how laws are made. Some called them a “lynch mob.”

Then, Shirley Ford said, there was this sad reality:

“I would have thought that the PTA would have been beside me,” Ford said. But it wasn’t. “I’m not PTA bashing when I say this,” she continued. “To see that the PTAs were on the opposite side of what we were fighting for was another level of awareness of how the system is.”

Ford is a member of Parent Revolution, the left-leaning group that is advocating for parent trigger laws around the country. She spoke last week at the Jeb Bush education summit, sharing the stage with former California state Sen. Gloria Romero and moderator Campbell Brown. Her remarks, plain spoken and passionate and sometimes interrupted by tears, touched on a point that is vital and obvious and yet too often obscured.

Parents are not a monolith.

The divides are as apparent as the different dynamics that play out in schools on either side of town. In the affluent suburbs, a lot is going right. There is stability in the teaching corps. The vast majority of kids don’t have issues with basic literacy. The high schools are stocked with Advanced Placement classes. And there, behind it all, are legions of savvy, wonderfully dogged, politically connected parents who know how to mobilize when their schools are shortchanged.

The view is starker from the other side of the tracks. A parent in a low-income neighborhood is more likely to see far more teacher turnover in her school – along with far more rookies, subs and dancing lemons. She’ll see far more students labeled disabled and far fewer AP offerings. Issues like these plague many high-poverty schools, yet they don’t get much attention from school boards or news media or, frankly, from established parent groups like the PTA.

I’m troubled by that. And I have to say, as respectfully as I can, that I find it jarring when those same parent groups oppose efforts to better the outcomes in those schools or help low-income parents find better options.

I can’t recall the Florida PTA – or more recent and more hard-charging groups like Fund Education Now, Save Duval Schools and Parents Across America – ever saying a word about the revolving door for teachers in inner-city schools, or the jaw-dropping numbers of black students who are dubbed disabled, or other issues that have more to do with attitudes and expectations and outdated practices than funding. Instead, those groups take steady aim at an accountability system in Florida that has successfully put more focus on low-income students, and at parental choice options that are especially beneficial to those students.

A couple weeks ago, in an Orlando Sentinel story about Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which is specifically for low-income students, Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza suggested that what she sees as a lack of accountability in the program “is one of the cruelest tricks we are playing on children in education today.” I’ve mentioned before that the cabinets above my computer at work are lined with hand-written, heart-tugging letters from parents thanking Step Up For Students (which administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog). Many note the difference the scholarship and the new school setting have made in their kids’ lives. I have no doubt these parents would know if a “cruel trick” was being played with their children. I have no doubt they would act accordingly.

I don’t want to be guilty of sweeping generalizations, but I can only conclude that established parent groups take the positions they do because they’re facing different – and less dire – challenges in their schools. I wish they could find common cause with low-income parents. I think it would make a world of difference if low-income parents themselves became better organized. But until then, the point Shirley Ford made is worth repeating: The parent groups that get all the attention don’t speak for all parents.

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2 Responses to Parents are not a monolith

  1. SLH December 7, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    Parents are not a monolith. True. Unfortunately, Parent Revolution cannot accept that there are engaged parents who see and seek other solutions than the trigger. Sadly, their myopia requires that they smear good-hearted parents who believe in other strategies for student success and parent engagement. To successfully pull the “trigger”, Parent Revolution first has to demonize parents who don’t support the petition. The consequence is a school community divided and destroyed, a result that does not serve the children of a neighborhood school. The casualty count is irrelevant to Parent Revolution, as long as the end result is the one solution they back.

    It’s not true lasting empowerment and it’s not in the best interest of kids.

  2. Robert D. Skeels December 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Mr. Matus’ mendacious portrayal of Parent Revolution and Ms. Ford here is reprehensible. Calling Parent Revolution a “left-leaning group” defies understanding, especially when he mentions in the same sentence they were at an event sponsored by reactionary Jeb Bush. Parent Revolution works hand in hand with The Heartland Institute, ALEC, and a host of other fringe-right organizations. Their Executive Director, Beverly Hills Lawyer Ben Austin, was appointed by former Governor Schwartzenegger to a high level post because they had identical politics. Their 501c3 is overflowing with money from billionaires with a hard-right agenda, including the Walton Family Foundation.

    Ms. Ford makes $65,000 a year and has been a highly paid employee of Parent Revolution ever since they were founded (Los Angeles Parents Union). Ms. Ford hardly a parent in a low-income neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination. She is however, an opportunist, who tells other parents of color that she’s just like them, never mentioning her high salary and cushy position.

    When families learn the facts about Parent Revolution, they outright reject them and their reactionary methods of privatizing schools. However, as long as people like Matus paints them as something they’re not, parents are frequently fooled.

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