'Big Mouth' Parents' Group Brandishes Information as Weapon
NEW YORK--Claudia Butler's voice rises noticeably as she talks about unions, the city's central board of education, and other "educational insiders'' in the nation's largest school district.
"The schools are here for the children, not the teachers or the political groups,'' says the parent-activist, who contends that the well-entrenched insiders shoulder parents aside in their efforts to control the agenda in the public schools. "I mean, who's employing who anyway?''
In the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, with a stack of papers threatening to spill over her desk here in the cramped offices of the Parents Coalition for Education, Ms. Butler appears ready to wage a war on behalf of public school children with information as her only weapon.
Fortunately for her and like-minded parents, she may also have the numbers on her side.
Over the past several months, parent activism in the one million-student district has surged, due in large part to an emergency asbestos cleanup that pushed back the opening of school and threw the system, and countless households, into temporary disarray. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)
Many parents, through organizations and on their own, reacted angrily, charging that city and school officials had not come clean with them on the extent of the asbestos problem or included them in the decisionmaking process.
Their reaction to the asbestos situation may fuel their interest in other issues, activists here say.
"The asbestos crisis opened up the awareness of parents to other conditions and health hazards,'' says Luz Quirindongo, a parent in District 19 in Brooklyn and a coalition activist.
And the parents' coalition has jumped squarely into the fray.
A Community Base
In just the last few months, the group's streetwise leadership has championed its causes in the local press, issued reports on what it says are the school system's failings, and met frequently with top school officials.
John Fager, the coalition's co-chair and a former producer of investigative news shows for television, was frequently quoted in New York papers during the asbestos crisis.
But not only has the coalition criticized the city's handling of the asbestos cleanup, it has agitated for better conditions in kindergarten classrooms, moved to expose the presence of potentially dangerous levels of lead in schools, and fought for more parent involvement in the local school councils that must be formed under a recent state law.
"We're trying to be a voice other than bake-sale parents and adopt-a-school business leaders,'' says Mr. Fager, who is also the director of communications and education for the city's department of consumer affairs.
"We're the big-mouth group,'' Ms. Butler adds.
On a recent morning in the coalition's offices, only brief periods of quiet interrupt the ringing of phones.
Three staff members navigate between stacks of boxes, a long table dominating the front room, and various file cabinets and tables loaded with newsletters and assorted papers.
After fielding yet another phone call from a parent, Jon Moscow, the executive director, sounds not unlike someone conferring with comrades about a battle plan.
While some 20,000 parents belong to the coalition through their membership in 37 community-based organizations and parent-teacher associations and parent groups at individual schools, a politically savvy circle of leaders is responsible for a large part of the group's efforts.
In fact, the coalition apparently is the only parent group in the city with a full-time staff and office.
The United Parents Association, the other independent citywide group, has a longer history of involvement in the schools and a large membership. But the coalition has distinguished itself as an upstart group concerned primarily with examining the policies of the central board of education and the schools chancellor.
The U.P.A. focuses more on curriculum and other day-to-day issues in the schools and on how well the individual parent associations are functioning.
According to Mr. Moscow, the coalition's membership is representative of the city's population: About 80 percent of the members are Hispanic or African-American parents.
The group's monthly newsletter is published in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Chinese, he adds.
The coalition was launched about 11 years ago, when Advocates for Children--an organization that educates students about their rights and provides legal assistance for those facing disciplinary measures--received a small grant to train parents to get more involved in the schools.
The experiment was so successful that the parents formed an independent organization after the first grant dried up, with funding from the Aaron Diamond Foundation, the ADCO Foundation, the New York Foundation, the Primerica Foundation, and the Jewish Fund for Justice. This year, the coalition's budget is $200,000.
Now their offices are just several flights up from the headquarters of Advocates for Children in Queens.
'Outsiders and Troublemakers'
The coalition's leaders agree that their priority is to make parents heard--and to carve out a permanent spot for them among the city's many interest groups.
"Parents are either treated with indifference or hostility,'' Mr. Fager contends. "They're seen as outsiders or troublemakers, partly because they're agents of accountability.''
He adds that school officials often "discourage parent involvement and then turn around and say, 'Gee, where are the parents?'''
He says he recalls a school board member once complaining that parents never came to 3:30 P.M. board meetings.
"Well, everyone was working!'' he says, pointing out that a large number of the city's public school parents are single, low-income wage earners who are juggling jobs and child care.
Several members of the group advocate expanding the ways parents can get involved, urging schools to schedule community programs in the evenings and on weekends. And, they say, the schools should at least schedule "back-to-school nights,'' which are not currently offered.
However, Ronnie Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, responds that the existing "open-school week'' gives parents a chance to meet with teachers.
The coalition has also moved to get parents involved in the schools on a more political level.
Lilly Lopez, a parent who works for the coalition, consults with the parent associations and the P.T.A.'s at individual schools about running meetings and building membership.
"Many times, when parents thrust themselves into this kind of leadership, they have no idea what to do,'' she says.
"Our message to parents is about demystifying the schools, so parents, administrators, and others can come to see each other on an even keel and start talking about important issues,'' she adds.
The strategy appears to have paid off in several of the city's 32 community school districts.
In Brooklyn's District 19, for example, Ms. Quirindongo and other parents worked with board members and the local superintendent to protest the physical conditions of the neighborhood's schools by holding a joint rally last week at the central board of education's headquarters.
While much of the parents' attention has been focused on the upkeep and improvement of the city's 1,069 school buildings, the coalition is also attempting to institutionalize parental control in the schools through the state's school site-based management law.
On that issue, the coalition has frequently been at odds with the U.F.T., a group many parent-activists scrutinize as closely as the school board itself.
A recent report by the coalition concluded that the latest efforts to decentralize the schools had neither freed the system from bureaucratic constraints nor created a way for parents to get more involved in decisionmaking. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)
Susan Amlung, a spokeswoman for the teachers' union, says the union and the coalition have cooperated successfully on citywide budget coalitions. And Mr. Moscow points out that they have worked together on a campaign to force the board to meet state health code and staffing mandates for kindergarten classrooms.
But Ms. Amlung acknowledges that the parents and the union part ways on the composition of school-based-management committees.
Several parents have lobbied for a model similar to the one adopted in Chicago, where parents comprise the majority of school council members and have the authority to hire principals, make budgeting decisions, and create a school-improvement plan.
But when New York was first initiating shared decisionmaking in selected schools several years ago, the union argued for, and won, majority representation for teachers on the committees.
The parents cried foul.
Once again, they countered, parents were being excluded from a movement designed to hand over local control and bring new players into the game.
However, the issue was essentially resolved when the groups negotiated an arrangement that allows individual schools to decide who will sit on the committees, Ms. Amlung says.
The coalition and Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines have asked for an extension of a state deadline for submitting the city's consolidated plan for the management councils. The coalition leaders are less than happy with the current arrangement.
They fear that, as the city proceeds with its plans, the teachers will use their power to diminish parental control, as they have done in the past, Mr. Fager asserts.
"When the teachers or administrators come to the table, they have a union behind them,'' Mr. Moscow adds. "Parents are the only group expected to come without that.''
Mr. Davis of the teachers' union says that teachers "encourage more parent participation and look forward to working with them.''
"We feel that's the only way schools can improve,'' he says. "And we want to dispel the myth that we feel otherwise.''
Many parents say that they are optimistic, however, about working with Mr. Cortines, who they say has been attentive to their concerns since he assumed his post last month.
"Our sense of Cortines so far is very positive,'' says Mr. Moscow, whose children attended public schools in the Bronx. "He seems to be listening to parents.''
"He's made a point of reaching out to parents, consulting with them, and visiting districts,'' adds Robert Terte, a spokesman for the chancellor.
Mr. Terte points out that Mr. Cortines regularly works with parents on his two parent-advisory committees. One committee is composed of leaders from all of the community districts, and the other is made up of representatives from most of the large parent groups.
In addition, board meetings are open to the public, and the school system's office of parent involvement is available as a resource, Mr. Terte says.
"There are numerous opportunities for people to voice their concerns to the board,'' he adds.
But Ms. Butler and other coalition members argue that, when decisions come down to the wire, school officials still pass over those parents "who have worked in the system for years.''
"They're not interested in the parents who have learned the ropes, because they're too smart,'' Ms. Butler charges.
However, the group continues to challenge the system, mustering grassroots support at the schools and applying political pressure on school officials.
"Everything we do at the citywide level is informed by those at the school level,'' says Mr. Moscow, who adds that the coalition is embarking on a campaign to train parents to participate on school-based-management teams.
"We may be facing a very hostile school system that doesn't want parent oversight,'' he points out.
But "parents are angry, they're knowledgeable, and they're looking for a chance to be involved,'' he says. "And I think we've finally found a way to be effective.''