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A Kids First Dialogue: Open Letter to Dr. Diane Ravitch

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Dear Professor Diane Ravitch:

Parents, educators, and education advocates have a lot in common when it comes to a kids-first first agenda. But we can never seize that common ground if those with whom we disagree are deemed to be "evil" and sentenced to Hell, as you did last week in your now infamous blog post.

If we can't start from that basic premise, then we are no more mature than the children we endeavor to serve. We cannot purport to encourage tolerance and discourage bullying on the schoolyard if the adults in charge of the schoolyard can't adhere to those same basic principles.

For the past year, the organization for which I serve as executive director - Parent Revolution - has been working with parents from the Watts neighborhood community school Weigand Avenue Elementary to help turnaround their failing school. Although there appear to be some areas of improvement at the school, Weigand is currently ranked 15th worst of nearly 500 elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and has been on a continual overall downward slide for the past 3-4 years under its current school leadership.

Four years is a long time for parents to wait for improvements in a failing school, despite even the best of intentions from dedicated professionals like Weigand's current principal. Unfortunately, the current principal was unable to make the progress needed to turnaround the school.

In 2011 many of these same parents petitioned along with Weigand's teachers to oust their failed principal, but had no real power to force change, and the principal retained her job. Every teacher who signed that 2011 petition is now gone, and the school has gotten even worse since then.

Many of the kids have now "graduated" without having learned basic skills. Currently, more than half of kids at Weigand cannot read, write, or do math at grade level.

So this year, the parents organized again - but this time using California's landmark Parent Trigger law, which gives parents trapped in a failing school the power to force leadership or staffing changes at the school, or convert it to a non-profit charter school.

After the parents submitted petitions representing a majority of parents at the school demanding a leadership change, the district complied with the law, verified the parents' legal majority, and in August Weigand will open up as a newly transformed school with new leadership.

Recently, in a debate about whether these parents should have the power to demand a new principal for their failing public school, you labeled me "loathsome" for siding with the parents. You declared that everyone who supports these parents "deserves a special place in Hell."

Let me tell you about Hell.

I grew up in Greenwich Village and Venice Beach, the son of two writers. My parents published a number of books, but our family struggled financially.

In many ways, I grew up lucky. I grew up with parents who valued education and loved me. They helped me get a scholarship to a private high school in Los Angeles. That scholarship may have saved my life.

My dad was an alcoholic. A few weeks before my junior year in high school, he committed suicide. I vividly remember going to the first day of school after my dad's death, soon after his funeral. As a kid, my overriding emotion that day was embarrassment. I (wrongly) assumed that all the wealthy kids at my school had near perfect home lives, and I was embarrassed about mine. I didn't want them to know about my dad, but it was such a small school that I knew that everyone would.

That's what I remember as a boy. But looking back as an adult, I see that same day through a different lens. I can see the role that educators and others played to get me through this Hell.

I see how my teachers and my principal sat down with me that first day of school to talk. They told me they believed in me. They told me they would help me. Some even told me they loved me.

They told me I could make it. And I did. I graduated from high school, then Berkeley, then Georgetown Law School. I worked in the Clinton White House as well as on five Democratic presidential campaigns. I served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat as a member of the California State Board of Education.

I was lucky. But my younger brother wasn't so lucky.

He went to a different school. His principal told him that he would never amount to anything. So he dropped out of school in 9th Grade. He fell down, and with no one at his school to help pick him up (and no dad), he lost a decade of his life.

Astonishingly, he did end up getting back up. Years later, he earned his GED, went to college, then business school and now is an awesome dad with a wonderful family. But his story is not the typical story of a 9th grade drop out.

When I see kids attending schools like Weigand, I see kids who are going through a whole lot more at home than I could have ever imagined as a boy, but who don't have a safe place where somebody believes in them, supports them and loves them. Many kids drop out like my brother, but rarely share his happy ending.

So forgive me if I take it personally when parents trapped in a failing school ask for the same kind of support for their children that saved me as a child, and that I now expect from my daughters' neighborhood public school as a father.

Your opposition to the Weigand parents is especially puzzling given the logic of your prior critique of Parent Trigger as a conspiracy to trick parents into converting their school into a charter school. The Weigand parents did not want a charter school, or new teachers, or even a new union contract. They wanted a change in leadership after 4 years of failure.

Weigand has exposed you as being opposed not just to charter schools, but to pure parent power.

To be clear, the reason that we have never personally attacked you, the principal, or any other opponent of parent power, is because our goal isn't a political victory. It is a victory for our kids, and we can't achieve that goal without ultimately working together.

Just last year, I wrote about you in the Huffington Post: "Diane Ravitch is a talented academic who has devoted her life to this issue. She clearly cares about kids and the future of public education in America." I believed it then and still believe it now, despite your mean-spirited attacks against me and the committed parents and staff with whom I work. Instead of puerile name-calling and ugly personal attacks, let's commit to a debate about a kids-first agenda and the future of public education that is worthy of our children.

Your intelligence and unique perspective have the potential to enrich this debate. But we must stipulate that this debate will not occur in Hell, Heaven, or in some imaginary world where one side has all the answers and holds all the moral authority.

Let us debate about the future of American public education on Planet Earth, where ideas and civility matter.

Sincerely,

Ben Austin
Executive Director
Parent Revolution