Families & the Community

‘Parent Unions’ Seek to Join Policy Debates

By Sean Cavanagh — March 06, 2012 9 min read
Gwendolyn Samuel, 46, at laptop, founder of Connecticut Parents Union, works with student volunteers at her Meriden, Conn., home, in preparation for an education rally on March 14.
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Whether they’re organizing events, buttonholing legislators, or simply trading ideas and information, a growing number of “parent unions” are attempting to stake out a place in policy debates over education in states and districts, amid a crowded field of actors and advocates.

As the term implies, some of these organizations see themselves as countering the political might of teachers’ unions, though others see the labor groups as allies. Still other parents’ unions are less concerned with teacher and labor-management issues than with advancing their own tightly focused—or very broad—agendas. Those agendas include improving school gifted-and-talented programs, for instance, and closing achievement gaps between minority and white students.

Many parents’ unions are still in their infancy, and can count few outright successes or failures in trying to shape policy. Whether such groups emerge as powerful voices, or fade into obscurity, remains to be seen.

In Connecticut, a parents’ union currently is attempting to play an active part in shaping state legislation on school choice, teacher tenure, and other issues.

In Ohio and Texas, efforts to establish such unions are just getting started, and are being led by parents working out of their homes and sharing information with counterparts in other states.

In Washington state, a former Microsoft executive, frustrated by what he sees as poor state and national school performance, has begun raising money and is preparing to launch a union this year.

As they take a more forceful role in education debates, some parents’ unions have drawn more scrutiny, and criticism, for their work and their alliances with education advocacy organizations representing various interests and ideologies. If there is a common thread linking the parents’ organizations, though, it’s the belief that parents’ voices have been shut out of policy debates for too long.

“I knew that parents needed more say about schools,” said Gwendolyn Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which grew out of an effort to enact a so-called “parent trigger” law in that state.

“Otherwise, we were beholden to everyone else’s decisions,” she said. “We’re more at the table than we ever were before.”

Choosing Allies

While parents’ unions are relatively new players in education, many organizations have long identified themselves as the voices of parents in one way or another.

The best known of those is the National Parent Teacher Association, a 5 million-member organization based in Alexandria, Va., which describes itself as the largest volunteer child-advocacy association in the nation.

The National PTA takes policy positions—it has advocated for and against No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization proposals, for instance—as do its state and local affiliates, though its “keystone issue” is promoting family engagement in education, said Betsy Landers, the president of the national group.

Other organizations working with parents have taken harder-edged—and, in some cases, opposing—positions on specific state and local policies.

For example, Parents Across America fights what it sees as private-sector overreach into education and excessive testing; it supports small class sizes and equitable funding across schools and student populations.

Parents Across America has opposed parent-trigger proposals—a stance that puts it at odds with another parent-advocacy organization: Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group that has spearheaded efforts to give families more leverage to make changes to low-performing schools. (Parent Revolution receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of parent-empowerment issues.)

Ms. Samuel, the mother of two school-age children, says her effort to found a parents’ union was sparked by the push in Connecticut for a parent-trigger law, an effort she supported. In other states, those laws, which have drawn opposition from teachers’ unions, allow parents to reorganize schools, or convert them to charters through a majority vote.

State legislators eventually approved a law that created school governance councils, composed of parents, teachers, students, and others, with the power to recommend, though not require, that academically struggling schools be reorganized. Ms. Samuel said she was frustrated by the “watered-down” law, and formed a union in January of last year.

Today, her group has more than 700 members, she estimates. Most of her time so far has been spent building membership and advocating policies such as strengthening the power of school governance councils, expanding school choice, and setting higher standards for teacher tenure—a goal that Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is backing this year. (“Conn. Governor Promotes Changes to Teacher-Tenure System,” February 22, 2012.)

Ms. Samuel’s organization has received financial support from ConnCAN, a school advocacy group based in New Haven that supports expanded public school choice, higher standards for tenure, and other measures. ConnCAN says it provided the Connecticut Parents Union with $1,750 in 2011. Lawyers and others volunteer time to the union, Ms. Samuel said.

The national advocacy organization StudentsFirst, founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, is working with the Connecticut Parents Union, a spokeswoman said, though not providing it with financial support. (StudentsFirst also receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation.)

The Connecticut Parents Union’s interest in political advocacy has drawn the attention of state officials. Last month, the Connecticut office of state ethics, a watchdog agency, wrote to both Ms. Samuel and Ms. Rhee, saying that their organizations needed to register as lobbyists if they planned to spend $2,000 or more on lobbying activity. (Ms. Rhee’s organization has done so, but Ms. Samuel’s has not, because she said it has no plans to exceed the monetary threshhold.)

While Ms. Samuel said the title of her organization is meant to draw a contrast between its role and that of teachers’ unions, she said it agrees with unions on many issues, including promoting safe schools and giving educators adequate resources and training.

“There will be more alignment than not,” Ms. Samuel said.

Tempered Response

Francine Lawrence, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her national teachers’ union has no objection to the work of parents’ unions, though it opposes some of the proposals favored by Ms. Samuel, such as the parent-trigger concept.

Depending on the issue, the AFT can work just as easily with parents’ unions as it does with groups such as the PTA, Ms. Lawrence said. “Parent engagement and involvement are absolutely essential” to improving schools, she said.

But Ms. Lawrence also said the relationship will depend on “the agenda of the leadership of those parents’ groups” and the ability to discuss policy issues free of “passion and politics.”

Another parents’ group, the New York City Parents Union, supports giving parents more power over schools, but is skeptical of the approach used through some parent-trigger proposals and similar efforts it believes will lead to more control of schools by private companies, with less accountability, said Mona Davids, the group’s founder and president.

Her organization supports charters, but also believes they should be strongly regulated, and that ineffective ones should be shut down, she added. Those safeguards lead to “true parent empowerment,” Ms. Davids said.

The organization, which has 740 members, is more closely aligned with teachers’ unions than some parents’ groups. It received $10,000 in support of a fundraiser last year from New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

Varied Goals

In Ohio, the founder of a parents’ union says her decision to start the group was directly related to her experiences with her children, which drew nationwide attention.

Kelley Williams-Bolar, of Akron, was jailed after authorities concluded she broke the law after she enrolled her daughters in a nearby school district, the Copley-Fairlawn system, where she did not live. She served nine days in jail, and her felony convictions later were reduced to misdemeanors by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican.

Ms. Williams-Bolar, said she sought out the Copley-Fairlawn district for her children for safety and academic reasons. She said her union, launched last year, will support policies in Ohio that allow students to attend schools out of district.

“I don’t feel any parent should have to endure what I went through,” she said.

In Washington state, an effort to launch a parents’ union next fall is being led by Scott Oki, a former senior vice president for sales, marketing, and service for the Microsoft Corp. Mr. Oki said in an email that the new organization would be a “counterbalance to the entrenched interests” that hinder school improvement. Mr. Oki did not specify those interests, but he said his group would work with teachers’ unions and other organizations.

His philanthropy, the Oki Foundation, in Bellevue, Wash., is providing seed capital for the group, along with other donors he declined to name. Eventually, Mr. Oki wants the parents’ union to be supported financially by its members.

Parents’ organizations that succeed in shaping policy and improving schools typically have several things in common, said Edwin C. Darden, the director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a nationwide nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that focuses on social-justice issues and attempts to engage parents. The successful ones use technology effectively to build membership and support for their ideas, and they know how to use data to give their arguments credibility, he said.

Parents’ groups that are focused on improving schools academically also need to ensure that all of their work is “tied to student learning,” rather than peripheral matters, such as fundraising, extracurricular activities, and political controversies, Mr. Darden added.

Matt Prewett, who founded the Texas Parents Union last year, began with a central goal in mind: improving gifted-and-talented programs, which he said were lacking at an Austin-area school district his son attended. His son now goes to a private school.

Mr. Prewett, an electrical engineer, works to build his organization out of his home in Cedar Park, Texas. In addition to improving gifted-and-talented programs, he wants to reduce schools’ emphasis on high-stakes testing, which he says detracts from other subjects and school programs—a view shared by many teachers’ unions—and expand school choice. He envisions having members of the parents’ union in all of the state’s school districts.

That will take some work: Mr. Prewett estimates his organization has between 20 and 30 members now and about 1,000 Facebook followers.

But he’s confident. “There’s just a lot of feeling that parents should be the primary stakeholders in education,” Mr. Prewett said. An increasing number of parents, he said, are saying “I’m willing to make this my project.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Parent Unions’ Join Policy Debates


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