Low-income parents are also underdogs in ed reform

Everybody loves the underdog except when it comes to education reform. More than a week after the Florida Senate rejected the parent trigger bill, the story line is now David v. Goliath, with David (played by established parent groups like the Florida PTA and Fund Education Now) squeaking out a victory over Goliath (starring Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and the Republican-dominated Legislature.)

The truth is, titans clashed while David was en route to his second job.

The underdogs who are lost in this narrative are low-income and working-class parents. They have virtually no one in their corner as they deal with conditions in their schools that would spark outrage – and quick remedies – if they happened in more affluent schools.

To take teacher quality and equity as an example: High-poverty schools have the highest teacher turnover rates, the most rookie teachers, the most out-of-field teachers, the most teachers who failed certification exams, the fewest board certified, etc.  We all know how destructive that is, year after year, kid after kid, generation after generation. And yet, it’s just kind of accepted.

Established parent groups have tended to focus on adequate funding for public schools, which is critical. But I don’t remember them pushing for meaningful differential pay that may help staunch the steady flow of teachers from inner cities to suburbs. I don’t remember them pushing to keep underperforming teachers from being routed to high-poverty, high-minority schools.

Now don’t get me wrong. The established parent groups have legitimate beefs and play an important role in the process. I’m glad they’re fighting.

But let’s also bring a little more precision to the media story line as it relates to the parent trigger. If you represent hundreds of thousands of parents – a fraction of whom can swamp a lawmaker’s phone lines at a snap – you’re not Rocky. And if you are working in close alliance on an issue with the state teachers union, elected school boards, superintendents and big-name Democrats, you’re not Jeremy Linn.

The bigger problem with the parent trigger story line is the suggestion that the established parent groups represent all parents — and that all parents won. They don’t. And they didn’t. The kind of schools for which the parent trigger was intended are those that tend to be located in the neighborhoods of our poorest parents and children. As I said before, I had mixed feelings about the trigger bill. But I didn’t see the trigger as a way to put a bullet to somebody’s head. I saw it as a way to send up an SOS flare. Who knows? Maybe a brief flash now and then would get everybody’s attention.

Maybe then we’d root for the parents who really have it tough.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.


Ron – I think you’ve missed a big point. Many of us out there who worked to defeat the trigger did so in large part to help our poorest parents and students. They are the ones being taken advantage of by some in the charter and reform movement. Just look at the research on charters: There are exceptions, but most do not show better achievement scores than traditional public schools and many are in fact doing worse. More importantly for me, the charter movement is re-segregating our schools. While I don’t believe for a minute that all of the charter supporters are pushing charters just so they can re-segregate our schools, it’s becoming the outcome. I find it painfully troubling and totally unacceptable.

“Established parent groups” is language meant to trick readers into thinking that PTA, Fund Education Now, and the their coalition partners are not volunteer organizations. Members of these “established parent groups” were traveling to Tallahassee on their own dime while Goliath (your employer) paid people to fly to Tallahassee to lobby on behalf of the trigger bill.

How dare you discount the citizen activism that took place surrounding the trigger bill. “Swamping lawmakers’ phone lines” is what democracy looks like, Mr. Matus. Perhaps you’ve spent too much time with corporate reformers and lobbyists to know how the relationship between citizens and their representatives is supposed to work.

For anybody reading this column, I’d ask, whom do you trust to look out for the interests of low-performing, high-poverty schools and students: PTA and Fund Education Now, or Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, Rupert Murdoch, Betsy Devos, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)?

Hi Terry,
Thanks for reading our blog, and thanks for taking time out to write. I agree with you that the results for charter schools are mixed, but I think there is strong evidence that some charters are doing exceptionally well with struggling students. If low-income parents rallied and sent a collective message that they wanted, say, a KIPP charter school as an option, why would we say no? I also wonder: Why do we have to wait for those parents to say they want such an option? If we know models like KIPP are doing pretty well, why don’t school districts replicate them? What is the hold up?

On charter schools and re-segregation, I have to admit I don’t know enough to agree or disagree. You may be right to be alarmed. But I do know this: Even though there are exceptions, many magnet schools look pretty segregated when you look within the magnet programs themselves. On paper, the schools look integrated, but when you get right down to it, the magnet kids are predominantly white and the “traditional” kids are predominantly minority. Similarly, in Pinellas, where I used to work as a reporter, they have something called fundamental schools, which are in high demand and offer thousands of seats by lottery. Some of the fundamental schools are virtually all white. Lastly, PInellas schools have undergone dramatic resegregation in recent years as the district has moved away from court-ordered busing. If we’re concerned about charter schools and re-segregation, shouldn’t we be concerned about the significant re-segregation that’s occuring within traditional public schools, too? The focus on charters in this regard seems selective to me.

I don’t doubt that some folks who fought the trigger bill thought they were helping parents in struggling schools. But again, there’s selectivity here that I wonder about. I know from talking to parents at high poverty schools over the years that they don’t like how many rookie and out of field teachers are teaching their kids; or how often their kids have substitute teachers; or how administrators can’t seem to get a handle on student discipline problems; or how, at least in Pinellas, some teachers in top-flight magnet programs can get pretty hefty differential pay, but the teachers in their schools can’t; and on and on. I especially sympathized with those parents because they seemed to be especially isolated. Too many of the other parents at their schools were not engaged, and they did not seem to be getting help from engaged parents elsewhere.

Hi Terry,
Sorry, the above post was from me, not anonymous. I’m still getting used to how this blog works. 🙂

Ron – I’m concerned about re-segregating our schools no matter where this is taking place. It’s an issue that is slipping under the radar. Ultimately, it is not healthy for our future & portends huge problems. The more the charters start dumping minority and poverty students, the more we are going to see lawsuits. And make no mistake – many of these schools “counsel” out students who are not achieving. These are often the very often students from black and/or poverty households.

It’s my strong belief that a number of traditional public schools need to be given the resources to become full service, community schools. (That funding should not just come from education budgets, either.) And the teachers who teach in the more troubled schools should be provided with strong incentives to do so.

Ron – You may not have “heard” the discontent over many years regarding “rookie” teachers placed at struggling schools, but it is incorrect to assume that has not been the case. TFA teachers have brief training and regularly placed in such schools, so I take it you disagree with that practice and agree TFA may not be bringing the talent required.

There is a body of evidence that the NCLB mandate on reading and its methodologies did not work. There is plenty of evidence that the conversion of schools into test prep centers versus centers of learning are not serving students in poor communities. PArent trigger offers changing of the deck chairs and not the type of reform that will reviatlize poor communities. It is disengenuous to promote the notion as the answer. how about a real conversation on what real non-standardized reform might look like for poor communities?

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