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.