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Ben Austin

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Parent Empowerment and Randi Weingarten

Posted: 08/11/11 03:59 AM ET

After journalists and bloggers from around the country reported on the American Federation of Teachers' (AFT) secret plot to kill Parent Trigger, Parent Unions from New York, Connecticut, Texas and our own in California gathered on a conference call this week to demand an apology from AFT's President Randi Weingarten, not only for the tone of the plan, but also for its secret, callous step-by-step approach to disempowering parents.

As a result, just yesterday, Ms. Weingarten posted an apology for the content of the secret plan. We applaud Ms. Weingarten for taking such decisive action to respond to this issue. She took similarly decisive action last year when the president of her California affiliate called the Parent Trigger a "lynch mob" law, and civil rights leaders called for an apology. But Ms. Weingarten's tenure as AFT President consists of far more than just timely apologies. Her presidency is filled with examples of how she has worked to craft solutions to some of the most vexing problems facing public education. I thank Ms. Weingarten for disavowing the secret plan and believe that her apology is more reflective of her track record as AFT President than was the substance of the secret plan

I have always respected Ms. Weingarten's work. At Parent Revolution, we have often praised her both in public and in private, for her willingness to stand up and do the right thing for kids. Ms. Weingarten has created proof points in districts across the nation that a kids'-first agenda can coexist with a wall-to-wall unionized environment. We have lauded her progressive stands in favor of teacher accountability, and we have embraced the teacher contracts she negotiated in places like New Haven, CT and Washington, DC that are both good for kids as well as good teachers. In fact, I would hope that new LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and the United Teachers of Los Angeles come together and use the framework AFT has created in those to negotiate a kids-first union contract for all children in Los Angeles, including my two young daughters. And at a moment in history when conservative ideologues choose to take our nation to the brink of economic collapse rather that work collaboratively toward logical compromise, leaders like Ms. Weingarten set an important example by forging win-win solutions through collaboration.

This type of collaboration will become increasingly critical as we continue the struggle for kids-first change. Controversies around AFT's secret plan generate headlines and sell newspapers (or drive blog traffic), but they don't help kids. Ultimately, parents and teachers must forge alliances for the simple reason that we can't have great schools without great teachers.

Unfortunately, we cannot march together until AFT stops pretending that parent involvement is the same thing as parent empowerment. While bake sales, field trip supervision, and powerless advisory councils can be nice parent empowerment gives parents real, tangible power over the educational destiny of their children. Involvement is essential, but involvement alone can never rescue millions of children trapped in failing schools across our nation. For that, parents need power.

Indeed, as Ms. Weingarten is well aware, some in our country would prefer to replace teacher "empowerment" with teacher "involvement" by stripping teachers of their right to organize under the law. As we've seen in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there are those in our nation that are fighting a war to relegate teachers and teachers unions to the sidelines. They would force teachers onto powerless advisory committees offering up toothless recommendations by stripping them of their fundamental right to unionize. Especially in light of this week's historic Wisconsin recall elections, I am confident that Ms. Weingarten understands the difference between involvement and empowerment when it comes to her own members.

The parents organizing with Parent Revolution are trapped in failing schools where their children usually have less than a 50 percent chance of graduating and, in some cases, less than a two percent chance of going to college. The Parent Trigger gives these parents real power to transform their failing school the following year, because we can't wait for a pilot program, or for a school district bureaucracy to hopefully one day listen to the "advisory" calls of parents. Our kids get older every day and we need great schools now.

This is why the Connecticut law is so patronizing. As AFT's own secret plan candidly admits, the "governance committees" created by the law don't have any actual power of any kind. Ms. Weingarten would never accept advisory committees for her own members, and she should not ask parents to accept them either.

As Ms. Weingarten has courageously embraced aspects of kids-first teacher contracts and adult accountability, so too should she embrace parent empowerment. As a precondition to collaboration, AFT and Ms. Weingarten must simply afford parents the same right we afford them: recognize our fundamental right to exist as a powerful, organized, autonomous union of their own. Parent Unions are eager to work with teachers in their schools. But until Parent Unions are recognized and respected for their right to exist, they cannot begin to work with teachers toward greater common goals such as fighting the draconian budget cuts, shrinking the bureaucracy, investing in the classroom, and ensuring that teachers are treated with the respect they deserve.

AFT should start by supporting Parent Trigger laws that continue to be introduced in states throughout the country, and opposing cynical efforts such as the 'Teacher Veto' provision in California, which would have stripped all power from parents by forcing them to get a permission slip from teachers in order to transform their failing schools.

Just as teachers cannot work with administrators or political leaders who deny their basic right to unionize, parents cannot engage with AFT under those same conditions. Until Ms. Weingarten and the national AFT recognize parent power, it's clear that parents will continue to face the same harassment and intimidation that parents organizing around Parent Trigger faced in Compton, where a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge was forced to slap an entire school district with a Preliminary Injunction for violating the Constitutional rights of its own parents.

The Parent Trigger and the parent empowerment movement are here to stay. Parents are not asking for power. Under Parent Trigger, parents now have it and are not going to give it up. But to create the change we seek for our children, we must ultimately collaborate with the teachers of our children. That's just common sense. We hope the day will soon come when we march together down the path to kids-first transformation. But we can't take that first step together until Ms. Weingarten recognizes the same fundamental rights for parents that she fights to defend every single day on behalf of her teachers.

We appreciate the apology. And we respect Ms. Weingarten's courageous track record. But we don't need apologies. We need power.

 

Follow Ben Austin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@parentrev