In 2015, a group of Chicago parents staged a 34-day hunger strike to protest the closing of Walter H. Dyett High School. Chicago Public Schools closed Dyett because of declining enrollment and poor academic performance. The hunger-strikers demanded that Chicago Public Schools reopen the neighborhood school, fund it properly, and refocus it on green technology and global leadership. The pressure worked, and Chicago Public Schools reopened Dyett—although as an arts-focused school. Nevertheless, parent activism saved a school in a low-income neighborhood. This is the power of parent organizing.
Whether their children attend traditional public schools or charter schools, low-income parents must organize in order to have their voices heard.
Public schools in low-income areas position themselves as knowing what is best for students and families, and use a carefully constructed caring language that’s inviting. For example, the “no excuses” phrase favored by charter schools plays on Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” philosophy, which resonates with families of color, particularly black parents. But this often serves a pacifying, not empowering, purpose. Schools want parents to participate—but specifically to make sure students get their work done, participate in class, and behave. I’ve personally attended meetings facilitated by parent engagement coordinators where parents are encouraged to do everything but challenge the school on decisions made they disagree with.
While financial resources are important, a lack of them will not prevent a unified group of parents from being influential.
Empowerment is not just sending your child to a school where they can reach their full potential. Empowerment is also being able to gain concessions on behalf of your child when you see them as necessary.
There are various tactics that communities can use to influence schools where the idea of success is rooted in test scores and student compliance. While financial resources are important, a lack of them will not prevent a unified group of parents from being influential.
New Jersey is now returning its longheld control of Newark’s school district back to the city after residents elected Mayor Ras Baraka, who pushed for local control as a key part of his platform. This was after Newark parents and community activists filed years of complaints with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (OCR). As a result of this parent initiative, Newark Public Schools also agreed to sign a voluntary resolution agreement to identify and “repair harm” to students negatively impacted by state-sponsored charter school conversions and public school closures. Newark parents also organized a boycott against the district as they waited on the results of the OCR investigation, which contributed to the resignation of then-superintendent Cami Anderson.
All parents want their children to succeed academically, and to see that success translate beyond the classroom. Education reformers carefully frame test score results or “growth” to mean college and career preparation. Schools tell parents that test scores equate success and will translate into college readiness. It can be difficult for parents to challenge schools if, like charters Uncommon Schools and Urban Prep Academies, they advertise 100 percent college acceptance rates. But it’s important to remember that this form of strategically measured success does not always translate into college success.
Capitalist principles applied to public education sound good in theory because competition offers the illusion of choice. Installing a business model for struggling urban schools (traditional or charter) appeals to low-income parents who are tired of underperforming and under resourced schools.
Sending your child to a charter school because you can’t afford to move to closer to a high-performing school district is not a free choice, but a desperate one.
But urban school competition actually limits choice. Sending your child to a charter school because you can’t afford to move to closer to a high-performing school district is not a free choice, but a desperate one.
There are barriers for low-income parents seeking to organize. For some of these parents, language is one. Other parents work non-salary jobs, for whom leaving work means losing wages. Some parents may be intimidated by the prospect of challenging powerful institutions and the elite, educated people who run them.
These barriers are legitimate, but organizing as a group offers its own protection and power. Collectively, parents can sway policies and practices at their schools by refusing to comply and participate, complaining publicly and often, and electing new leaders within their schools and cities. Together, parents have the ability to hold schools and districts accountable and halt the privatization push that’s hijacking the education and wellbeing of their children.
Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ.