Editor’s note: This is the sixth post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.
by Ben Austin
One of my first jobs after graduating from college was working on the 1992 Clinton campaign, then working in the Clinton White House. As a young adult, I saw Democratic and progressive politics as a vital path to transformative change. Two decades later, I still do.
I am a Democrat because I believe government must play a central role in providing opportunity and hope for all Americans, especially low-income communities and communities of color who are falling farther and farther behind in the new economy.
Over the past few years, the debate over parent empowerment laws – commonly known as “parent trigger” laws – has highlighted the rift within the Democratic Party about how to address a public education system that continues to fail countless low-income students and students of color every year. This debate highlights a pivotal crossroads that the Democratic Party faces over the coming decade. When it comes to educating the next generation of children in this country, are we going to be the party of 20th Century ideologies and rigid top-down initiatives, or are we going to be the party of pragmatism, empowerment and solutions for kids?
Parent empowerment laws are based on the simple idea that parents whose children are trapped in systemically failing schools should have real, legal power to create changes at their children’s school. This gives organized, informed, and engaged parents historic new leverage to force the system to serve the interests of their children, and helps to enfranchise a class of our society that has been systemically shut out of decision making within public education.
Because this is a fundamentally progressive idea – giving power to parents in predominantly low-income communities to advocate for the interests of their children – it has been strongly endorsed by a number of high-profile, progressive leaders within the Democratic Party, including ranking Democratic House Education Committee member Rep. George Miller, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, current mayor Eric Garcetti, and the entire United States Conference of Mayors. It is equally popular amongst progressive voters. In a recent poll of California voters, 76 percent of voters overall and 82 percent of Latinos support the California parent empowerment law. In PDK/Gallup’s annual education poll in 2012, 70 percent were in favor of parent empowerment laws.
Unfortunately, powerful elements of the Democratic Party’s traditional 20th Century coalition, most notably the leadership of the largest teachers unions in America, have decided to treat parent power as a threat to their own power. They have consistently fought against giving parents power from the beginning of this movement.
The Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers was caught bragging in a PowerPoint presentation about their successful attempt to kill a proposed parent empowerment law in Connecticut – by tricking parents into thinking they could have power through symbolic advisory committees. In California, the leader of the California Federation of Teachers referred to Parent Empowerment as a “lynch mob” law, and threatened to withdraw the union’s endorsement of President Obama’s re-election if he hired parent trigger supporters on his campaign (he did anyway). And in Los Angeles, the teachers union representing my own daughter’s teachers has opposed every action by every parent union – even in the cases where the campaign did not threaten a single teacher job or change one word of a union contract.
This opposition clearly hasn’t been driven by an objection to any particular outcome or policy. The unions were opposed to the entire concept of parent power because they saw it as a zero-sum game.
This approach is as unnecessary as it is counterproductive. Engaged parents and the vast majority of teachers have the same interests – schools that are great for kids are also happy, enriching, and safe places to work for teachers. At Parent Revolution, we don’t believe any group has a monopoly on good ideas, nor do we think parents, charter schools, teachers unions or any other single actor can ever transform public education on their own. We need teachers and their unions to help lead the way towards kids-first reforms rather than double down on a rigid defense of a system that no longer serves the interests of children.
Parents cannot wait for Randi Weingarten or any other union leader to eventually see the light. Our kids get older every day and only get one shot at a great public education.
The Democratic Party now faces a defining choice between continuing to embrace a rigid 20th Century ideology supported by powerful special interests, or standing for the interests of children and for the future of our country. As usual, parents and voters are way ahead of the politicians. But as a lifelong Democrat, I am betting the politicians will eventually catch up.
Ben Austin is executive director of Parent Revolution.
Read the rest of the Dem Divide series below
Gloria Romero: Money leads Democrats to put teachers unions over poor kids
Richard Whitmire: Houston & D.C. offer paths for ed reform Democrats
Joe Williams: Suburbs hold key to resolving Dem tensions over school choice
Myles Mendoza: Rahm Emanuel offers lesson for Democrats on ed reform
Rep. Marcus Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform
Doug Tuthill: New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions