LOS ANGELES — Shoehorned into a small living room in a South Los Angeles apartment, a dozen parents discuss why their kids' school ranks as one of the worst in the nation's second-largest school district.
The answers come quickly: Teachers are jaded; gifted pupils aren't challenged; disabled students are isolated; the building is dirty and office staff treat parents disrespectfully.
"We know what the problem is – we're about fixing it," said Cassandra Perry, the Woodcrest Elementary School parent hosting the meeting. "We're not against the administrators or the teachers union. We're honestly about the kids."
School parent groups are no longer just about holding the next bake-sale fundraiser. They're about education reform.
The Woodcrest mothers and fathers, all wearing buttons saying "parent power," are one of the newly formed "parents unions" that are springing up from San Diego to Buffalo, N.Y., with the same goal – to push schools to improve academic achievement.
Behind the parent empowerment movement is a feisty Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Parent Revolution, which in 2010 pushed through a landmark law giving parents authority to force turnarounds at failing schools through a petition.
Known as the "parent trigger," the California law was the first of its kind in the nation. It inspired Texas and Mississippi to adopt similar laws and legislation is under consideration in 20 other states. Two states have voted down parent trigger bills.
"Parents have a different incentive structure than anyone else," said Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director. "They're the only ones who really care about kids."
It's a compelling argument for many parents.
San Diego mother Teresa Drew founded United Parents for Education after her daughter's reading and math scores fell below grade level for two years. The district is not doing enough to ensure teachers are effective and weed out bad educators, she said.
"I talked to other parents and found they had the same experience," Drew said. "I have nothing against the PTA, but the problem for me is there's a T in PTA. This is parent-led."
Unions say it's oversimplistic to blame teachers. Parents should enlist educators in the solution, not dismiss them, they say.
"It's well meaning, but misguided," said Frank Wells, who heads the Southern California chapter of the California Teachers Association. "Parents shouldn't be acting with authority in a vacuum."
Parents already have a tool to leverage policy change – school board elections, Wells said.
Unions have mobilized against parent-trigger laws. In July, the American Federation of Teachers posted a slide presentation on its website detailing how it successfully won a dilution of the Connecticut parent-trigger proposal so parents can recommend change but have no authority to enact it.
After ensuing media coverage of "Plan A: Kill Mode," the union took down the document and disavowed it.
For Austin, union opposition to parent trigger underscores what's wrong – unions reject reform efforts such as charter schools, tenure changes and new performance evaluation measures in order to protect jobs, but at the same time many schools are failing, especially in the inner-cities.
"The system is calcified," he said. "`It's designed to go against change."
In somewhat of an ironic twist, Parent Revolution is organizing parents using old-school, labor organizing tactics, employing a former union organizer with United Farm Workers and Service Employees International Union to lead the effort. So far, more than 20 unions have been formed.
Organizing parents is a lot tougher than workers, said Pat DeTemple, the organizing director. "Simply finding parents is a ridiculous amount of work. Parents don't know each other," he said.
And, unlike with an employer, parents don't usually have common grievances with a school – they all have different experiences depending on their child. Still, parents' heartstrings are a powerful tug.
"Their kids are at stake, so at a deep level there's an incentive there to organize," DeTemple said.
Organizers show parents how to conduct effective house meetings, distribute flyers in front of schools, canvass door-to-door, write letters, and create surveys and petitions. They also inform parents about their rights and students' rights, and about how educational system works, how to judge a school's state test scores, for example.
Woodcrest's Perry said the training has opened parents' eyes. "We're not informed so we don't know what to ask for," Perry said. "We don't know where we fit in." The Parents Union is now surveying parents of Woodcrest students, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and will present the results to the principal for action.
At a community center in a South Los Angeles park, Spanish-speaking parents from nearby Los Angeles Academy Middle School are starting to organize. They've gathered for a training session on a textbook union organizing strategy called "stories of self," learning how to succinctly tell why they became motivated to stand up for a better education for their kids.
"It brings people together," DeTemple explained. "It helps them connect by sharing their values through their stories."
One mother said she became disgusted after seeing kids smoking and bullying another child and reported it to a group of teachers, who were busy gossiping and did not take action, another said she was angry that poor parents and students are treated dismissively.
District officials welcome efforts to get parents more engaged in their kids' education, especially in low-income areas. Parental involvement is the key factor outside school in boosting student achievement, said Maria Casillas, chief of school, family & parent/community services for Los Angeles Unified.
Parents unions can be an effective tool. "They're loud, they're pushy, and they have every right to be," she said. "We want to promote parents as advocates for their children's learning. For our low-income kids, that's the part that's missing."
The idea of parent activists is spreading.
In New York, parents formed Buffalo ReformED and wrote a parent-trigger bill for their district after hearing about the California movement.
"There's systemic dysfunction here," said Hannya Boulos, ReformEd's director. "We have a 47 percent graduation rate, 25 percent for black and Latino males. The district has failed to turn the schools around."
Organizing the parent unions marks a shift in strategy for Parent Revolution, which went through a bruising court fight and divisive community battle with the Compton Unified School District earlier this year over the first use of the parent-trigger law at a low performing elementary school in Compton.
More than half the school's parents signed a petition to turn over the school to a charter operator, but at the district's request, a judge ruled the petition invalid – the signatures lacked dates.
Parent Revolution, which is funded by a handful of deep-pocketed foundations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, still claimed victory – the county authorized two charter schools to open in Compton, the first independent, publicly funded schools in that district.
Austin, a 42-year-old father of two preschoolers, acknowledges his organization made mistakes in Compton by not allowing McKinley Elementary School parents to decide their own destiny. The parent-trigger law allows parents to choose charter conversion, replacing the staff or closing the school.
"We came in with a pre-packaged solution," Austin said. "I think it was the right solution, but we didn't have enough parent leadership. Signatures were gathered by Parent Revolution organizers, not school organizers."
Now, instead of organizing parent-trigger campaigns, the nonprofit is focusing on developing parent leaders to foment their own change. "This movement is way more than signing a petition," Austin said. "No one has ever done this before."
Contact reporter Christina Hoag at http://twitter.com/ChristinaHoag.