Reform: The Problem With "Parents Across America"
There's a small but very active group called Parents Across America that's been around the last year and change, usually criticizing reform measures like turnarounds, value-added, and the parent trigger.
Their criticisms are all fine and good -- I have my own issues with many reform priorities. But I do have at least one big issues with them. (Or really two, but they're closely related.)
No, it's not the issue of whether they've received any money from the teachers unions. [They have, apparently, but I don't care.] No, it's not that PAA is a private subsidiary of Leonie Haimsen's Class Size Matters. [Nonprofit doesn't mean corporate or capitalist in my book.] No, it's not even increasingly ridiculous claims that PAA makes about reformers and those like me who raise questions about their allegations. [Though I have to admit the paranoia and name-calling are really annoying.]
It's actually a problem that PAA shares with its sworn opponents, the school reform community. Like many reform group leaders, PAA is mostly not from the low-income minority communities or the dysfunctional schools that are the the focus of so much reform attention, and it's not at all clear that have a legitimate claim to represent those communities and schools in any great numbers.
As you can see from ther leadership page, most PAA leaders are white, middle-class, middle-aged types whose children I'm guessing are either long done with school or aren't attending the kinds of broken, neglected, low-performing schools that are the subject of so much activity (parent trigger, turnaround, vouchers, restaffing, etc.).
I could be wrong - they could be low-income minority parents with kids attending broken schools. And this doesn't make them wrong on the substance -- white middle class parents are parents, too, and middle-class schools can be pretty lame. It just means that they're coming at education reform from a less immediate and compelling perspective than may be apparent to anyone who's not paying close attention. As a friend of mine put it recently, middle-class white parents don't necessarily know what's good for poor black/Latino kids, or even what poor black and Latino parents want.
Individual demographics aside, it isn't really clear whether PAA represents any great number of young low-income minority parents who have a direct and immediate interest in making low-performing, neglected schools better -- or even large numbers of parents of any kind. PAA has just over 1,00 Facebook likes and 91 Twitter followers. Haimsen's listserv has 600+ members. The TriBeca kickoff event I observed last winter was well-attended but there couldn't have been more than 500 people in the auditorium. Perhaps it should be called "Parents" Across America, or Middle-Class Parents Across America.
Again, there may be other membership numbers I have't seen, and being small and feisty isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite these limitations, they've done a remarkably effective job of Twitter-bombing education events and dominating the online debate over school reform.
Here's the thing: For the last year and a half, PAA has been asking hard questions about today's reform groups: Who are they? What's their stake in all this? Do they have any real claims to representing anyone besides themselves? I -- a middle class white guy who went to private schools -- am just asking some of the same questions about them.
And, as I've written about the reform movement, would suggest a little more diversity, a little more effort at genuine grassroots organizing, and a little more humility around arguments and accusations. Until that time, PAA should be prepared to answer the same kinds of questions and respond to the same kind of skepticism that it delivers so effectively against the other side.