I spend a good deal of my time at work reaching out to parents across the state of Florida. As a grassroots organizer for Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog), I value my relationships with parents, grandparents, and guardians who have chosen to enroll their children in our program. They inform my work and I find great value in hearing their stories and concerns. Because of them, I have the greatest job on the planet – empowering parents, encouraging them to use their voice to advocate for their children and the right to choose the school that best fits their needs.
Sometimes I have to attend summits and conferences. This has value, too, especially if sessions are held to improve techniques and tools for organizers like me. Unfortunately, most education conferences are held for other reasons – to discuss policy and issues, and to thank lawmakers for their courage and support.
Again, there is value there. But it’s not really for me.
Therefore, I’ve been on a quest of sorts for a few years now. A quest to bring more parent and teacher advocates to these summits and conventions. I’ve written a few columns for this blog on the subject and have called and emailed and called again to national foundations and think tanks, encouraging them to add some time in each of their summit agendas to include moms and dads and teachers. I’ve said we need to involve more people who are affected by these policies and issues and we must seek their counsel, listen to their concerns, and thank them for their courage and support.
Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now were the first group to say yes.
Last week, DFER and ERN held a summit called Camp Philos in beautiful Lake Placid, NY, where advocates from all over the country gathered to talk about education reform and parental choice. I was thrilled to hear speaker after speaker talk about transferring power from the status quo to families and educators. People who share my political views talked about the importance of grassroots support and parental involvement in everything from mission statements to action plans and every other aspect of this movement.
It’s significant that DFER and ERN set aside 90 minutes for a plenary session/panel discussion about and by parents and teachers. I arranged for the panelists to fly in from Florida and Idaho, and moderated as we talked about their experiences advocating for their children. We discussed ways that organizations can reach out to and involve more parents, and what Democrats can do in particular to help moms and dads understand their options and access what they need.
My panelists told their audience to listen more and build relationships. They said if organizers reach out to just a few parents and tell them what’s happening in their state legislatures and how to get involved, they’ll take it from there. Moms will reach out to other moms and dads will reach out to other dads. All organizers need is a few parents to get many more on board.
It worked in Florida.
Parents united with one voice backed legislation that would grow and improve the state’s tax credit scholarship program. They brought it back from the dead, and saw it passed by both the House and Senate on the last day of session.
So these parents knew what they were talking about.
Panelists also reminded an audience of middle- and upper-middle-class, white liberals that they may have degrees, but no one knows their kids and what they need better than them.
You could have heard a pin drop.
And that panel discussion wasn’t the only place learning occurred during the summit. Our parents spoke up at other sessions when they were in the audience, and in the hallways, and at meals – constantly driving home the point that there should be more focus on parents and more involving them in the discussions. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Including them in Camp Philos not only helped this event be more meaningful, it was a great way for DFER and ERN to model the behavior it seeks in others. Any national group that purports to shape the future of education in this country cannot do it without parents and teachers. Conventions and summits filled with lawmakers and policy wonks are hopelessly out of touch.
They’re boring, too. I don’t want to hear people who’ve never struggled tell the rest of us what those in the trenches really want and need. Those in the trenches speak quite well for themselves, thank you very much.
Camp Philos wasn’t perfect. We should have had more people in the audience for our panel discussion, and the instinct to elevate lawmakers instead of grassroots supporters is still alive and well. However, it was a start. And when our parents suggested organizers start small and listen, tell a few dedicated parents what’s needed and let them run with it, that advice applies to all of us. My crew told a few organizers and now they can return to the field and tell everyone.
It’s catching on.
You don’t just empower parents to demand more choices for their kids and then tell them, “See you next session!” They know what it’s like to pass laws now. When they speak, newspapers and lawmakers sit up and take notice. Partisan legislators who shut doors in my face, saying I don’t know what I’m talking about, can’t and won’t do that to someone who’s talking about their babies.
Our parents won’t have their involvement limited to a few committee hearings and phone drives.
They are joining every aspect of this movement to remind us: It’s about their kids. And we won’t forget it. Because they won’t let us.