Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘Parent Power’ Getting More Powerful and Organized

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 16, 2015 4 min read
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Parents in California have gone to the political gym. They’re building their muscles and flexing them. Powered by the protein of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and its companion accountability system, they are altering the playing field of politics. They are not just changing who gets what, but also altering how education politics works.

This is perhaps best illustrated with a story.

Last month, I observed what Education Trust West calls its “road show” in Los Angeles, reporting on its research findings from the first year of the Local Control Accountability Process. It has held these meetings around the state.

I sat with a group of parent advocates and was surprised and delighted with the speed with which they were able to drill down to core issues. In what was called the “equity walk” EdTrustWest staff displayed data on English Learners, who make up 30 percent of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Easels holding bar charts had been set up around the room, and participants were asked to give their general reactions, their thoughts about where the district priorities should be, and to ask “what pieces of information are missing.”

The folks at my table weren’t happy, and not just because English Learners do more poorly in school. The essential data were missing. Nothing was said about the students who had been in the English Learner category for a long time. “If they don’t get out, they don’t do good,” one said. “We need to focus attention there.”

The EdTrustWest case study of LAUSD illustrates how the parental muscle flexing takes place. Under the new finance formula, the district received $837-million in supplementary funds. There was no shortage of ideas about how to spend it.

Teachers and, to a certain extent, the district wanted to build back what had been lost in the recession. Many districts followed this course. There had been no general raises for seven years. Positions had been slashed, and class sizes had risen during the recession.

A coalition of 50 community organizations pushed back. They were not necessarily against raises and smaller classes, but they wanted to make sure that funds were spent on the LCFF priority groups: low income students, foster youth, and English Learners.

Not only did they get organized around “what we want;" they brought powerful data to bear on the issue. Led by the Advancement Project, a number of civil rights organizations created a Student Need Index to prioritize school funding. Using geo-mapping tools from Esri, they located the schools of highest need. As a short case study illustrates, the parents got a good hunk of what they sought.

Parent organizing around the budget process initiated by California’s Local Control Funding Formula is still very much a work in process. A lot of it is not pretty, seamless, or without self-interest. But then neither is anything political.

It is clear that parents can, and do, get organized. They get organized faster and more forcefully in urban school districts, where there is a history of preexisting community organizations, than in the quiet suburbs. This continues to make urban school politics more rough-and-tumble and give school administrators in suburban and rural areas more unquestioned decisions. Thus, encouraging and inciting parent voice in quiet places is as much an issue as making parent voice productive in the cities.

It’s also clear that working class parents can learn how to be insightful budget advocates. During the first year of the LCFF process, Families in Schools—a non-profit founded as part of the last great wave of school reform in Los Angeles—has trained more than 140 parent leaders in 10 school districts. Some of them, such as San Bernardino City Unified, have invested heavily in Parent Universities with the goal of having a parent center in every school.

As FIS president Oscar Cruz noted at the meeting, parent education is important because the goal has changed from distributing categorical funds to understanding how the whole school budget can be aligned to better support student learning. And this needs to be anchored in data. “It’s no longer, ‘what you want,’' he explained.

The increase in parent voice changes local politics. These parents were not talking about starting charter schools or taking their local schools into charter status. They were advocating for changing public budgets so their children got a better deal.

Some parent advocates, and some who have supported parent voice financially, see organized parents as an oppositional voice to teacher unions. But in practice, parent voice appears more complicated than drawing a line with community on one side and organized teachers on the other.

The experience of the last year shows a merging of interests on some issues and a divergence on others and the opening of the Local Control Accountability Plan process as a functional extension of both budgeting politics and collective bargaining.

Top: One of the posted notes calling attention to foster youth, a group of students that were largely invisible until they were included in the supplemental funding allocations under LCFF. Bottom: Oscar Cruz, president of Families in Schools, talks with participants about lessons from parent training. Photos: CTK

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.