Friday, August 21, 2009

Setting a Wild Fire Under Parent Activism

NYC parent activist Benita Rivera sent us this insightful essay in response to some of the controversy generated by our post Organizing Parents: Harder Than Herding Cats (Much), which had to be revised because of a misunderstanding of the work of the Parent Commission. Sean and I received just a tad of criticism. Fortunately, most of the comments from parents opened up a serious dialogue and were generally very positive about the work we do. (We'll be posting some comments from Donna Nevel of the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF) as a followup later on. CIF has been working with GEM).

Benita chronicles a lot of the history, naturally from her perspective, of the work of the Parent Commission in its battle against mayoral control. If there are other points of view out there, share them in the comments section.

I have comments myself, especially on the role of the UFT, but don't want to clutter this post up too much. Just check the original organizing parent post for the section on how the UFT sold out the St. Vartas event. That event and its aftermath and the number of community groups that jumped in with the UFT instead of staying the course and following through with the May 1 rally set back the opportunity to build a mass movement that could have grown over the past two and a half years. I still believe that if that hadn't happened, the recent battles to kill mayoral control might not have ended the way they did. But the UFT and Tweed accomplished what they wanted: to split people apart and sow a level of mistrust. The Parent Commission to its credit was a regeneration of some of those activists but was not out to build a movement.

Benita leaves us with hope in her finale. It is worth sharing before you even read the entire essay:

...we really need to work differently from now on, better respecting varying approaches to skinning the fat cats, trusting enough to strategize TOGETHER from every angle-- in order to mobilize more people and make the kind of history that public education in this city, deserves. If we succeed in working differently-- but all together as public education activists and parents of all colors and incomes, I have faith that we can actually spark the fire of change in education policy our city needs. When that happens in the big Apple, I also believe all America will take a bite

That so many sharp, intuitive and active parents pushed back against the power of the massive BloomKlein machine, should be noted as a sign of the major failures of the education deform attempt to control the nations' schools. May they multiply exponentially. GEM and ICE are looking forward to working with them with open arms.

Dear Norm and Sean,

Wow! Seems my attempt to convey a radical opinion started a wild fire of controversy, huh?

So here I am again, respectfully responding to Sean's statement about the Parent Commission (PC), and for the record, giving more opinionated thoughts on them. (You have my permission to post this essay if you wish).

In some ways, Sean was right on, and in others-- just wrong. BUT he gets HUGE props from me for listening to the PC's co-founders, Lisa Donlan and Leonie Haimson's replies, and for being open to learning more. Both you and Norm get MAD respect from me for being the kind of men big enough to publicly admit an error in both mis-characterizing the PC, and then posting retractions.

In an attempt to clarify confusion about who and what the PC is for those who read the blogs and list serves, I'm making known another point of view about this group from a "colorful" perspective that's not often heard.

Please know that membership in the PC was (is?) open to all public school parents and to those who represented parents in education advocacy organizations. It is a completely independent, unfunded, parent volunteer entity and I'm one of its members. I joined in the beginning of the PC's formation and although I have argued some of Sean's very points, I've stuck with them. My position with the PC can best be described by Randy Schutt's Inciting Democracy. "Until you can see the truth in at least three sides of an issue, you probably don’'t understand it. And until you can convincingly argue all three perspectives, you probably can'’t work with a diverse group of people to find a mutually satisfactory solution."

Contrary to anyone who poo-poo'ed the Parent Commission's work, we DID and still DO oppose mayoral control. Only those at the meetings would be privy to knowing that we actually (round-robin) tallied each member's thoughts on mayoral control, and the result was that the Parent Commission was overwhelming OPPOSED. We worked to make that fact known; although at times, some of us were more vocal or got individually sought after for comments by the media, than others.

The PC meet once a month at first, then bi-weekly, weekly, then almost everyday through emails and conference calls. Our purpose was to submit recommendations on the future of school governance to the NY State legislature when the 2002 laws on mayoral control sunset in June of this year. In order to come up with recommendations, we held and actively publicized public learning forums on a host of school governance topics that took place every month before we ever decided anything.

We researched other systems of education and heard from panels of education experts working in a variety of fields, both in and out of NYC. Through these learning forums and by parent committees doing vast amounts of research, we all came to understand that historically, NYC's mayors have always controlled education in some form, simply because they control the budget and allocate the dollars. We discussed and debated the novel concept of having a "partnership" with the mayor rather than giving in to any idea about continued control. We realized that the very word "control" was problematic, and all the more fueled by what Bloomberg/Klein had done with it.

The Parent Commission's Report, recommendations for a completely NEW system, and lobbying efforts spanned a little more than a year of some very hard work. The legislative bill that was drafted by the PC, and sponsored by Senator Shirley Huntley, was written from our recommendations. It very specifically called for an END to mayoral control. The passage of this original bill would have replaced the governance system of "control" with one that recognized and respected all parents as real partners (and that hateful buzz term "stakeholders") in the public educations of our own children.

In answer to Sean's comments about the PC not being representative (enough) of the diverse voices and concerns of Black and Latino parents, I agree.

Could we have done better in outreach, inclusion and representation of the majority of Black/Latino parents in NYC public schools? Absolutely YES.

Did we struggle internally with how to make that happen? YES. Did the issue of race and institutionalized racism as a structural construct in education come up for us over and over? Absolutely YES.

Did any of us have the personal skills or training required to really talk to one another about this, and how it affected our group work and individual thinking? NO. Did many of us try? ALL THE TIME.

Did the PC wind up becoming a core group of well educated, highly articulate, parent-wonks? I think so.

Was that done to purposely exclude any particular group of parents? Absolutely Not.

Was/Is the PC an elitist all White, primarily District 2 group of parent leaders, as some continue to accuse us of being? Absolutely NOT.

A third of my fellow commission members in the core (active) group are Black parents of varying means and backgrounds who hail from Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Regrettably, our numbers in the PC remain in the minority, but we STILL counted. (Four of us from the PC made up the seven Black "Ambassador Moms" who twice got some minor notoriety in the press for our citywide prayer and fasting vigils for the end of mayoral control). The PC has a small, but solid group of parents of color that in my opinion, ought to be viewed among this city's many unsung heroes.

Just one example of someone undeserving of dismissal is Rosa Flores from Sunset Park. Her efforts to get other Spanish speaking parents to join her in signing petitions, speaking out at meetings across the city, testifying and representing the too often, unheard concerns of Latino immigrant parents, was nothing short of heroic. Fighting for public school excellence, equity, respect for human rights, democracy and dignity---Rosa was, and still is, a core member of the PC-- and what she stands for matters.

Just in case you don't know, I'm a Black woman who birthed and raised proud Black/Puerto Rican children in a low income household no different than a million others. My son graduated from a failing Title 1 school in a high poverty community and I need to think that my activism, both within and beyond the PC, matters. My concerns to represent the Black and Latino community never ceased to be in the forefront of my fight. And no different than any other PC member, I spent time and energy in communities outside of where I live, like Flatbush, East Flatbush, Brownsville, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, East New York, Fort Greene and the Lower East Side, outreaching to involve more parents of color.

It could very well be that the PC's "wonkishness," was one reason why we didn't excite and mobilize masses of parents, or have more of us of color actually attending the PC's monthly meetings. Some might conclude that we were off track with this heady governance stuff, and thus, our efforts were for naught. But there are hundreds and hundreds of petition signatures gotten from parents in communities of color supporting the PC's recommendations, AND MORE importantly, consciousness raised about imperative school governance issues, and what is really at stake with politicians and corporate types ruling over our children's public school educations. (And internal consciousness about Black and Latino parent concerns was also raised for PC members as well!).

The Parent Commission doesn't deserve to be bashed for its efforts. We lobbied, called, wrote, emailed, testified and protested mayoral control with every ounce of energy we had-- and that goes ditto for those of us in the racial and income-level minority who chose to stay with this wonky-group, believing that OUR united efforts on behalf of system-wide change, had importance.

Have we suffered from organizational pains? No doubt. I can speak for myself, knowing that I sought inclusion for, and from every fellow, parent activist of color I know outside of the PC. I reached out to you-- Sean, asking you to consider coming back to the Parent Commission to help us. There was always room for the PC to improve and expand. I think we really needed the kind of brilliance, activism and leadership Sean and others like him bring to any group.

As far as talking with the UFT is concerned, the Parent Commission ought to be applauded. Cutting to the chase, if all this fuss with governance and school business is really about educating children, then teachers and parents are natural allies. For me, it was about time that we just talked to one another as equally interested parties. Regardless of how the system of education was, is or will be governed, we all know parents and teachers are the ones who make education work. I'm happy that the PC initiated a VERY preliminary conversation and every parent of color (except for one who had to work that afternoon) in the PC attended.

Am I a fan of the UFT's politics and leadership? Nope, not in the least. (In fact, the very morning of that talk, I stood with other Black activists outside of a Brooklyn Rubber Room and participated in a press conference denouncing both the UFT and the Chancellor Klein for permitting this abhorrent, embarrassing, emotionally and financially-hideous practice to even exist. Then I went to Trinity Church and prayed to have the peace of mind to participate in a no-deals- made-discussion about how, going forward, teachers and parents can be the allies our children need us to be). If a fish stinks from the head like my mom always said, I just don't see why talking to the "head" in an attempt to bridge some very big and historic divides THEY helped to perpetrate, should be seen as problematic.

Confusing too, is the intel reported on the amendments the PC lobbied for when the hand-writing was on the wall, obvious that the electeds would cave in to Gloom-berg's pressure, power and money. Some PC members did fight bitterly to try to salvage something from Albany for NYC's parents. Added to the efforts made for mandating the DoE to obey all city and state education laws, pleading for a short sunset on the new bill, term limits for the PEP, ELL and Special Ed parents on all DoE councils, a no-waiver-education experienced chancellor, an inspector general, am ombudsperson, a funded, independent Parents Union (IPO), and an Education Constitution that would be result from a citywide, public consensus on the purpose and goals of public education, turned out to be pretty fruitless, but worthy efforts nonetheless. Especially now, in light of a very bad bill the city's children, parents and teachers seem to be stuck with until 2015.

Detected from Sean's response to my original posting mentioning the PC, was a jab at Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters and the nyc parents blog. Whatever the beef, I don't think it has anything to do with the Parent Commission. Make no mistake-- I readily defend Leonie and her organization for the spirited fight to reduce class size for the good of ALL children and teachers. )When some very illegal stuff was happening at my kid's school, I didn't know her-- but reached out anyway and got great support. Lisa Donlan, another hard-core, well respected fighter, helped tremendously as well). I give full credit to them both for linking up to start the Parent Commission in the first place. They are both fearless, feisty mothers who took the initiative to do something major. I don't always get along with them, don't always see eye to eye because they just can't look at issues from my poverty stricken, Black view point, but I still praise them as visionaries for seeing the need in this city for an independent, action oriented, parent group think-tank, and being brave enough to DO SOMETHING to get it off the ground. Mad love is given to them for that.

But whoever and whatever their foes, fans, flaws or hot buttons.... be they class size, district control or even relationships to education experts (like Diane Ravitch), none of that defined the Parent Commission I worked on, fought for, fought with, and now, have the need to defend.

Every PC member was diligent and committed to doing the work we each felt was important. All members are different. Some income privileged, and many more, not so much-- especially in these days. Some came with delivery styles, views on politics, and personalities I didn't like, and that's vis-versa for how they felt about me, too. Bash us for being top heavy with egos and high I.Q.'s and you get no argument from me. BUT trust when I say that not a single individual or personal cause was ever bigger, or more important than that of NYC's public school parents, their children and futures. No one person ever got to define who we are, what we stood for... and with more support from fellow parents, community and education activists... could have been. But I'm proud of them, and the work we did together. Every one of these people I discussed ideas or brain-banged with, is committed to fighting for educational excellence in every school, for every child, of every color, in every zipcode of this city.

What will become of the PC now that mayoral control is again in place? Don't know, can't yet say.

As individual activists, we all have much to learn. Rev. Dr. David Billings of the Anti-Racist Alliance says that when Black people mobilize, the whole nation moves forward. The PC didn't heed that message, and Sean is absolutely right about the Black/Latino clergy and pols being bought and bound by billionaire bucks. Albany's power brokers would NOT have succeeded if a hundred thousand Black and Latino parents had boarded buses bound for the capitol, stopped traffic on all arteries leading to City Hall, and took to the streets demanding the end of mayoral control. Maybe the tipping point would have even been just 500 of us showing up at any place, many times over in the last three months. My opinion is that the PC should have done better, but that wasn't their mission and even if some of us could have convinced them to do so-- without real training, no one knew how to target the apathy, indifference, ignorance and fear that every other activist group is hampered with when trying to organize and mobilize the masses for social change.

It seems us parent and education activists still have a heap of heavy lifting to do, and that starts with how we perceive one another.

Finally--- what makes this on-going battle over education so very personal to me is the hurt I carry about my youngest being royally screwed by this system's control over his educational opportunities. In a few years, my grandbaby will enter the same system, likely judged as just another poor, Black kid attending a mediocre public school. I continue to confront race and income bias as the root of all evil, and recognize that no single group will ever be able to eradicate the achievement gap and obliterate the inequities by themselves. And so, I remain a soldier with like minded others in the Parent Commission, iCOPE, Neighborhood Schools for Community Control, 3-R's Coalition, BYNEE, GEM, ICE and the Coalition for Public Education. I pray that unity in our common cause will prevail.

But we really need to work differently from now on, better respecting varying approaches to skinning the fat cats, trusting enough to strategize TOGETHER from every angle-- in order to mobilize more people and make the kind of history that public education in this city, deserves. If we succeed in working differently-- but all together as public education activists and parents of all colors and incomes, I have faith that we can actually spark the fire of change in education policy our city needs. When that happens in the big Apple, I also believe all America will take a bite.

- Benita Rivera


Anonymous said...

"Please know that membership in the PC was (is?) open to all public school parents and to those who represented parents in education advocacy organizations."

Since charter parents are also public school parents, I assume they too may become members of the PC?

Anonymous said...

"Please know that membership in the PC was (is?) open to all public school parents and to those who represented parents in education advocacy organizations."

Since charter parents are also public school parents, I assume they too may become members of the PC?

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am happy to converse with you and giving you the benefit of my doubt, I will continue on by assuming that you are a Charter school parent.

If that is indeed the case (and the real reason behind your question about joining the PC), then please permit me this latitude. I believe that all humans subscribe to the very same radio station who’s call letters are: W.I.I.F.M. in other words… WHAT’s IN IT FOR ME?

That said, what is it that you want / need / wish for from any parent body?

In particular, what do you want and need to hear from the existing, independent Parent Commission that has (as I've already explained in the essay), completed it's original purpose which was "to submit recommendations on the future of school governance to the NY State legislature when the 2002 laws on mayoral control sunset in June?"

I refuse to permit divisiveness between parents to enter the equation. Parents of traditional public and charter schools should not be fighting each other for crumbs-- but rather, fighting together for a single and solitary public education system that that is both excellent and equitable for all. Having charter schools squeeze traditional public school students out of space and resources means we parents (who only want the best…) have become putty in the hands of the DoE’s Houdini-like spin doctors, and we are played like puppets against one another by politicians intent upon continuing a policy of divide and conquer.

The fact that public education has moved into a two-tiered system is deeply troubling. All children are the same, and all parents are, too. Even the worst crack-head mom or dad will sincerely say that they want the best for their kid. With an understanding that every kind of public school parent, no matter who they are or where they come, all want their child to have the best that NYC schools have to offer, having solidarity in purpose and strength in numbers makes sense.

Keep in mind that if a united parent body defined a goal to move huge blocks of votes, it could. And that’s a really scary proposition for the powers in City Hall and Albany to recon with.

So, if you are ready to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty in creating social change and work towards ONE public education system that delivers on the same promises to all parents and guardians, and has proven results-- authenticated by renowned education experts of having successfully elevated, enhanced and nurtured the potential and gifts within EVERY child, no matter their abilities or demographics, then let's talk some more about your question (which only has relevance going forward).

What do YOU think a NYC Parent Commission should be, and what is it that an independent parent body can do to unite all parents in one mission?

- Benita Rivera

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your prompt response. Granted mayoral control has been renewed, but the PC can still continue it's work of organizing parents to advocate for a quality education for their children.

Yes, I am a charter school parent and the education of my children is very important to me as it is for all parents. Charter and district school parents are all public school parents and we all want the same thing - to provide our children with a great education. I think it's time for both groups of public school parents to start working together so that ALL children have equal access to a quality education and the services and facilities that go with it. We must stop fighting amongst ourselves and unite and advocate for ALL our children.

A big issue right now is the MTA cutting the express bus metrocards for students. They went back on their word to the legislature and now families have to come up with $11 everyday for their kids to go to school otherwise their kids have to wake up extra early and get home very late. All public school parents should unite and force the MTA to keep their word!

I understand your arguments and others about charter schools. I understand why you call it a two-tiered system. I understand all of your arguments against charter schools. I don't necessarily agree with all of them but I and many other charter parents, like you, want the same things for our kids and/or grandkids.

The system is not perfect, we all agree on that. But, the onus is on the parents, not only the educators to fight for a quality education for all children.

It may be time for charter and district parents to sit down, perhaps start a coalition to fight for a quality education for all children. Let's take an honest look at the public school system and find out why things aren't working the way they should and how can ALL children - charter and district have equal facilities and services.

ed notes online said...

To anon:
I wanted to clarify one thing: charter schools are not public schools though they have been branded as such due to the use of public funding and free public school space. They are most often backed and under the control of private interests with an agenda that is not always clear. But one underlying aspect of almost all of them is to remove the concept of a union and teacher rights.

That they use tax money to institute private agendas, often backed by big corporate money, leads to a lack of oversight and unity of purpose that was the underlying factor in the creation of a public school system in this country 200 years ago.

The agenda has led to favorable and unequitable funding since charters also get money from outside interests that help them in the competition with local public schools as they wean away parents. What parent wouldn't choose a spanking clean and painted school and lower class sizes?

In the short term you may feel and rightly so that you are doing the best for your child. But in the long run when there are no public schools in a neighborhood left and charters start cannibalizing each other, you will see what has been destroyed.

Given that, we fully understand the need for parents to find a better place for their child and these parents are never unwelcome in the struggle for a better public education system. Since the PC dealt with a governance system from which charter schools are exempt, you would have to define what role you would want to play as a charter school parent. Maybe a better governance system will lead to you coming back to the public schools.

Anonymous said...

Norm, there's a great need to clarify the definition of charter schools. Many, too many for my book, seem to think that charters are public schools. As long as they think that the battle to protect public education will be longer and harder, just based on the MIS-definition of charter schools. As long as the public believe that charters are "public schools", they will not join us in the fight to protect public education. A good website must be created to illustrate and define what are charters and their true purpose.

Anonymous said...

Norm and Anonymous2:
Charters schools are indeed public schools. Parents in NYC may choose to send their children to two types of public schools - district or charter.

As an actual parent of a minority child in a charter school, I am happy to have the choice of sending my child to a school I believe will provide a quality education.

It is my choice not yours of which school to send my child. You are an educator, a paid and salaried educator. I am the unemployed parent of a minority child trying to give my child the best education possible. If the district schools in my district were outperforming the charters then I'd send my child to a district school. It's still my choice and I am still a public school parent.

I take great offense at you, who are not a parent or minority or unemployed telling me what's best for my child. These are our children not yours. Those of us who are parents of public school children - both district and charter must work together to ensure ALL children have access to the same facilities and educational programs FULLSTOP!

ed notes online said...

Why take offense? And why is it so important for you to consider yourself a public school parent? Your charter school uses public funds but is privately managed. If you are happy, enjoy. But don't fool yourself into believing that the charter school movement which serves a small percentage of students is not harming the public school system in the long run.

It is time parents rise up and demand BloomKlein fix the schools in your district.

There will be a day when there are few public schools left. As they disappear, so will services at your charter school. You will find a constant flow of young inexperienced teachers.

And less than what you are getting now once the public schools are gone. Long term, it is a lose lose situation.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:02 a.m. I am a minority parent who sent my children to public schools, attended public school, and decided to teach at a public school for many years. I have been blessed to have taught to all levels of children and especially to special needs children. As a minority educator, 95% of my students were minorities with a high percentage of unemployed parents. But my focus was always towards helping my students break the chain of poverty and strive for success. Parents should realize that public schools take ALL students with various needs, learning abilities, and challenges that NO charter schools will want to content with. I have had students who were kicked out of charter schools because they could not provide the service that those students needed in order to move forward. But, public schools opened their doors to them, provided the education that produces success. I truly hope that your child succeeds in the charter school environment. But should your child become academically challenged and the school decides to shut your child out, the public school will welcome your child with open arms.

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