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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.

ScreenHunter_22 Jun. 14 12.54

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.  


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When someone criticizes you for who you are, rather than for what you say, it's generally because they don't have any effective response to your ideas.

My stake in this, besides in the health of the high-poverty elementary school my son has attended for the past six years, is in having an education system that works for all children, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because the future of our democracy and our country depends on it. I have seen first-hand what works and what doesn't, and I advocate for the policies I've seen work.

Pamela Grundy
Parents Across America

Maybe you can point me to your posts criticizing Whitney Tilson or the Waltons or Betsy De Vos on these terms.

Alexander...really? I am a founding member and as low-income and Latina as they come. How much delving into the local and state chapters and affiliates have you come?

How is the presence of a middle-class Anglo presence in education advocacy any real difference from the wealthy Anglo operatives in the "reform" movement?

I want to work with people who have relevant experience in our neighborhoods, whose kids go to the same schools mine do, and who believe in the self-determination of all communities. I do not appreciate the dominant-culture control of the "reformers" who parachute in, a la Peace Corps style, to show us Brown and Black folks how to be like them.

No, I want the support of people who truly understand cultural competency, like my colleague founders in Parents Across America.

Alexander, I do have two big issues with your latest attack on Parents Across America!

No, it's not the fact that your misguided thinking and simplistic conclusion is flawed. I mean, does President Obama represent only black Americans? Does Secretary Duncan only consider tall, white, basketball players who plan to go to Harvard Graduate School when he recommends policies for the nation?

No, it's not the fact that you completely overlook the notion that most of us have volunteered in public schools in low income neighborhoods. Many of us also had front row seats as we watched our once great, thriving schools deteriorate into low-performing, broken schools as a result of ill-fated reforms and wrong-headed policies.

As a 16 yr public school volunteer and career woman, I've spent many hours in schools you claim we can't relate to. Have you read to homeless students or hauled books 80 miles to a migrant workers camp or held a meeting in a tiny, rural Baptist Church to explain the current Race to the Top curriculum to people who spoke 3 different languages? When was the last time anyone in a corporate reform group ran carnivals, hauled bicycles to their "sister school" or fund raised thousands of dollars so the kids who reside near sugar cane fields could have band uniforms and compete in out of state events?

No, it's not the fact, Alexander, that I don't know one PAA leader who is independently wealthy. Every PAAer I know has sacrificed earning income to volunteer to improve the situation for every child in every school across the board.

No, it's not even the fact that you assume we're middle class just because some PAAers on our webpage are white. Really? I'm white. I was quite poor over a decade ago having left my job to care for my dying husband with a catastrophic illness. I had unpaid medical bills piled sky high. I crawled out of massive debt. I'm grateful to the public school moms, dads, and teachers who helped me and my young son in time of need. In your world, they couldn't relate to me or my needs. I'm there for them now.

My issue is this:

Your remarks appear to be a deliberate attempt to discredit and demean my compassionate, conscientious, multi-ethnic, multi-racial colleagues who are dedicated to every student in every neighborhood. We can relate because we are relating, Alexander.

I can't help but sense inherent racism in your remarks but perhaps I'm misreading them.

Lastly, my other issue is that your latest attack on PAA appears to be retaliatory in nature after you've engaged in debates with two PAA co founders. It appears beneath you.

Here are the remarks of yours I referred to in this reply:

Your comment: "I'm guessing that PAA doesn't have children attending the kinds of broken, neglected, low-performing schools that are the subject of so much activity (parent trigger, turnaround, vouchers, restaffing, etc.).
--- and ---

"PAA comes at education reform from a less immediate and compelling perspective."

thanks for the comments --

i'm not saying that PAA isn't full of activists doing good work in the communities in which they live. but that's not the same thing as coming from low income and minority communities, having kids in broken schools, or leading large numbers of parents.

the issue of race, class, and parent status for PAA leaders, as well as the issue of membership numbers, can be easily answered -- won't someone just answer the question?

if who you are isn't important, then why do PAA leaders and their allies traffic so frequently in critiques of reformers based on affiliation, employer, tax status, and funding. maybe if PAA renounced these kinds of attacks i'd take this more seriously.

here's a handful of my recent posts critical of the reform movement -- not including posts from john thompson that are published here or promotion of items by valerie strauss, dana goldstein, and other critics:

critical of value added
Updates: A Giant Value-Added Waste Of Two Years

declaring reform momentum stalemated
Reform: "Pop!" Goes The Bubble (also at education nation)

critical of charters overselling their accomplishments
Charters: What's Your Message (& Can You Back It Up)?

critical of brookings letting ravitch go
Think Tanks: Brookings "Fires" Ravitch For Being "Inactive" *

critical of ending LIFO
Update: The Politics Of Ending LIFO

critical of studentsfirst
Campaign 2012: CA StudentsFirst Candidate Squeaks Through*

critical of romney advisor leading think tank
Think Tanks: When The Exec. Director Joins A Political Campaign

critical of NOLA reformers
Photos: A Circular Discussion About New Orleans

critical of state ed reform groups
Cartoon: LOLCats Take Over School Reform

critical of ed reform foundations
Foundations: Ways To Improve Feedback & Credibility

critical of reform movement's slow evolution
Events: Weekend Thoughts On NSVF 2012

critical of edtech enthusiasts
Media: Not Another EdTech Cheerleader

etc. these aren't even my best.

Doesn't the fact that we're all public school parents, with real skin in the game, answer your questions? What more do you want to know about us? The bios of our founding members are right there on the website to see.

Why are you pretending as if we aren't fully transparent with who we are?

Last time I checked, I was not a middle class White woman. Even if I were, that should not exclude me from addressing issues related to the corporate attack on public education. As a founding member of PAA, a 20 yr. public school parent, a public school graduate and aunt to public school students, I care about changes in public education that hurt the very children they claim to want to help. As a Native New Orleanian who has fought for "real reform" for 20 years, I am well qualified to weigh in on the edreform debate. As someone who works directly with public school parents, including minority and low income parents, I see the harm done to our children in the name of reform. I am an African American mother who grew up very poor and who cares very much about quality education for all children. I resent your assumptions about who you think we are.

One question for you, have you surveyed the income bracket and racial make up of the organizations with paid organizers who advocate for these corporate attacks on public education disguised as reform?

Re: your challenges:

"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.]"

Yet you mention it. Yes, PAA received a start up grant of $25,000 from the NEA in 2010. That's it. We have made an effort to find grant money from other sources but without a paid staff this is very difficult, especially since so many foundations have drunk the corporate reform Kool-Aid and will not fund a group that questions corporate reform.

We operate on all-volunteer time. Pretty impressive, I think.

"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.]"

I have no idea what you mean by "private subsidiary" nor do I think you do. Here's how it works for those of you like Alexander who have never tried to make a difference by starting up a non profit. You find a willing existing non-profit and ask if it will act as your fiscal agent. CSM was willing to do that. This is a thankless job and we are very fortunate that Leonie and CMS will take on this role for us.

"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.]"

Please specify our "increasingly ridiculous claims" and examples of "paranoia." I'd especially like you to justify the term "increasingly."

Is it really ridiculous to point out that corporate reform staffers seem to move from well-paying job to well-paying job without having any discernible roots in the communities they plant themselves in, or any real attachment to the concerns of those communities?

As far as legitimacy is concerned, coming from person who has no apparent skin in the game and who reports on Chicago from Brooklyn, are you really in a position to raise that challenge?


In case anyone actually reads your blog I would like to confirm that indeed, I am a white woman. That appears to be one of the only accurate facts in your column titled "The Problem with Parents Across America." I am the mother of three public school students (ages 12, 14 & 16) who continue to thrive in schools throughout our Title 1 district. Our district percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch is over 63%, a rate of extreme child poverty that our community struggles to address everyday. As to this statement, "Do they have any real claims to representing anyone besides themselves?" I have an answer for you. I was elected by the citizens of my community to serve on our local Board of Education and I am humbled by the opportunity to represent all students and work towards better educational policies everyday.

I look forward to a thorough apology in your follow up column. I'll even suggest your title "Parents Across America Taught Me a Lesson (Why did I go to private school?)"

Congratulations PAA! Being on the radar and under the skin of the punditry is another rung on the ladder.

So Russo, I'm a parent of two current public school kids from Title 1 program improvement schools. By your reasoning that gives me some legitimacy. But I'm white and now, finally, middle class. So I lose points for that? But do I gain some back for working -unpaid- with parents from 10 low income neighborhood schools in my community on engagement and advocacy? Or is that somehow inauthentic in your scorebook?

Would I have more or less credibility if I was a paid organizer funded by a major foundation or wealthy benefactor and I had no kids in our schools?

We've been discussing becoming a PAA chapter. You may have just sealed the deal!

leonie? i think you're the only one left.

Wow! One of the biggest cheerleaders for corporate "reforms" savaging one of the few genuine parent movements in the country. Who would have expected that?

I'm not a member of PAA, because I'm not a parent. If I was, I'd join in a second because their policies precisely reflect those of all the families that I do countless hours of VOLUNTEER work with in my impoverished community [1]. I think PAA are actually not critical enough of the other side, whose motives are as clear as the six figure salaries they receive. Mr. Russo, show me a PAA leader paid Gloria Romero, Michelle Rhee, or Ben Austin type money, and I'll make a public apology right here.

[1] http://projects.latimes.com/mapping-la/neighborhoods/neighborhood/westlake/

Too bad. I was so looking forward to a critique of PAA--their platform, activities, tactics, language, etc. I don't give a damn how old they are, what color their skin is, or how much money they make.

If Mr. Russo thinks Leonie is "the only one left" he's more out of touch than I thought. Time to leave him to his sandbox, folks, and get back to real work.

Mr. Russo,

My bona fides: White, 56 (57 in a couple of weeks), male, graduate of the Catholic K-12 system in St. Louis, parent just signed up to PAA whose oldest two went to a suburban middle to upper middle class public schools and whose youngest went to same system but attended the rural poverty district high school in which I teach, veteran public high school Spanish teacher for 18 years-formerly certified to be an administrator but chose not to become an administrator because I could not be party to NCLB mandates. Anything else???

1) You wrote "and middle-class schools can be pretty lame." Do you have any sources do back up this statement? Please provide, thanks!

2) What is the fundamental purpose of public education and what document authorizes public education?

3) Why should I listen to the likes of Rhee, Duncan, Klein et. al. who have less years teaching experience than I have fingers on my left hand minus the thumb?

4) If private and charter schools are so great why do they need vouchers and subsidies at the expense of the public system? Can't they drum up enough business based on their own performance?

5) What is the difference between student learning and student achievement?

6)What are the differences between “teaching and learning” and “training and testing”?

7) Can a quality be logically quantified?

8) What are educational standards? Are they a chimera?

9) Did you know that in a standardized testing situation that at least 20% (1 out of 5) of the scores are miscategorized?

10) How many years have you taught in a public school?

I have many more questions I could ask. Be that as it may I look forward to your answers.

Duane Swacker

Thanks for asking these questions of PAA. I'm so happy PAA parents are able to spend all their time volunteering, posting on blogs and twitter. I'm so happy that their kids went to good schools in their middle class neighborhoods.

I'm so happy their kids didn't have to attend a failing school with no current books and technology unlike Black and Latino parents in urban school districts like Compton, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC and New York City.

I'm so happy PAA parents will never get locked up for enrolling their kids in a middle class school district where they don't live.

I'm so happy PAA members never had to walk in my shoes struggling to get my child a great education in their failing neighborhood schools.

I don't make a lot of money, but I do pay taxes. PAA members should not stand in the way of Black & Latino parents trying to get an education for their children in charters or with vouchers. That's our taxes. You have good schools in your middle class neighborhoods, we don't.

We pay taxes too and PAA does not speak for us or represent us.

Thank you.

I'm not clear if the list of previous posts was intended to be responsive to my request to "point me to your posts criticizing Whitney Tilson or the Waltons or Betsy De Vos on these terms," but if it was, only one (http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/05/photos-a-circular-discussion.html) has any mention of the racial can class make-up of the so-called-reform contingent and even that one includes an inaccurate characterization of PAA as the equivalent.

Our PAA-affiliated group includes white middle class women (guilty!), white middle class men, latino middle class women, latino middle class men, white low-income women, white low-income men, latino low-income women, latino low-income men, African American middle class women, African American low-income women, African American middle class men, African American low-income men, mixed-race middle class and low-income men and women...what did I forget? Oh yeah, education levels are all over the map.

I what is so revealing here is Alexander's inability or unwillingness to consider that middle class parents are sitting in common cause with low income parents in a very loosely-networked community called PAA. This must be disconcerting--even frightening-- to those who've fully embraced and promoted the politics of economic and racial divisiveness when it comes to public education policy in this country.

Good work!

It's very smart to both make your own sponsors happy and increase blog traffic by ripping your most vocal opposition. While you do practice that South Park tactic of occasionally mocking everyone to justify your more frequent targeting of specific groups, I don't think that's particularly admirable.

As a bit of constructive criticism, I'd say that you run this hustle of making unfounded accusations and assumptions and then just getting defensive far more often than anyone else w/your profile in the education discussion. Then you accuse others of the same.

There is a real challenge that you are pointing to in this post. It's hard to engage parents in low performing schools, and harder to engage students. But there is a marked moral difference between those who try to do so and could do more, and those who spend millions to force "buy-in" to corporate interests. No one could say legitimately that Parent Revolution, Stand for Children, current CPS governance (through FACE), or Students First has any interest in hearing the needs of the students and parents in the most challenging educational environments.

They have their own plans and are seeking to ram them with their extremely large resources.

Certainly the unions have been guilty of something similar in the past. The difference is between oligarchy and democracy--both are messy, but one is more moral than the other.

Furthermore, it's irritating that the lack of engagement of such students, parents and communities is used as a weapon to attack progressive movements in education, but when it's done sincerely and effectively, there is no support or credit given for that.

In fact, such efforts are judged much more harshly by those w/ the resources and power in education reform.

As I told you on our panel. Impoverished communities of color are not silent on the needs of their children, they are actively silences.

Please muckrake as you do so well on the people silencing them as they are far more sinister than those who as striving (and often still failing) to integrate them.

Typed on a cell phone after my amtrak broke down, so please forgive punctuation, spelling and general grumpiness.

thanks for all the comments here and the twitter conversation as well.

let me add this post from paul bruno, a contributor to this blog, in which he agrees somewhat but disagrees mostly with my initial remarks


to everyone who's noted that reformers have much the same problem of being middle class and white, i agree -- see the post and you'll note this. wait a day or two and you'll see the other side gets its turn.

and to all of you who say that who you are shouldn't matter, well i'm not so sure that's true except in a perfect world, and especially it seems strange coming from folks like PAA who've made a BIG deal out of the race, class, funding, etc. of the reformers.

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