Parent advocates from across the country converged Monday, Feb. 7 on New York City for the first national forum of Parents Across America, a parent-led movement aimed at making parent voices heard in the national debate over education reform and promoting positive, common-sense solutions that will improve public schools nationwide.
A new Gallop poll released last week showed that the majority of Americans want major revisions to No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that imposes rigid testing and accountability mandates on schools.
"Parents are a sleeping giant," nationally known education historian Diane Ravitch said at the event. "If the sleeping giant awakens, we can take back education." (Check out a video of her keynote address here.)
At the forum, held in Tribeca in New York City, Ravitch -- author of the best-selling "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" -- warned about the harm done by excessive reliance on standardized tests, privatization through charter school expansion and the growing influence of wealthy private foundations on education policies. Those forces, Ravitch said, are undermining education and failing the children who are most in need.
"We need to do what works: early childhood education. Parenting workshops. Lower class size. For teachers, more professionalization, not less," she told the hundreds of people who packed the school auditorium.
"Parents Across America is an opportunity to raise our collective voices to a national level," said founding member Karran Harper Royal, a New Orleans parent activist, "to inform the policies that drive the decision making in each of our communities and nationwide. We will no longer allow our children to be subject to large-scale experimentation in the name of supposed 'innovation,' without our consent, when we know these policies have no backing in research or experience."
Harper Royal -- who works with New Orleans' Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center -- described the turmoil created by charter schools, which will soon enroll nearly 85 percent of New Orleans students. "Children with disabilities and behavior issues are being pushed out of schools and are forced to attend the lowest performing schools in the city," she said. "Under the guise of 'choice,' many children with disabilities have attended three or more schools in the five years since Katrina. This was not their parents' 'choice'." (Check out video of her remarks here.)
Sue Peters, founding member of Parents Across America and co-editor of the blog, Seattle Education 2010, spoke about the overwhelming influence of venture philanthropy on education policy, which is doing an "end run around democracy." She pointed out how the strings attached to this funding "are binding our children and binding our teachers to policies that have failed and are damaging our schools." (Video of her comments here.)
Chicago activist Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education spoke about the damaging impact of high-stakes testing on children. (Video here.)
I spoke about how the corporate reformers, including Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, are advocating for increases in class size, despite clear evidence from research and experience that smaller classes are key to improving opportunities for children:
"We should be looking at the model of Finland's schools, a system based on cooperation rather than competition, trusting and respecting teachers rather than scapegoating them, de-emphasizing standardized testing and providing small classes. Which, sadly, is the opposite direction of the one in which our country is moving now."
Other founding members of PAA at the event included parent activists Mark Mishler of Albany, N.Y.; Pamela Grundy of Charlotte, N.C.; Dora Taylor of Seattle; Sharon Higgins of Oakland, Calif; Caroline Grannan of San Francisco, Calif; Natalie Beyer of Durham, N.C.; and Andrea Mérida of Denver, who delivered the rousing closing speech. Beyer and Mérida were elected to serve on their districts' school boards.
In the audience were parent activists from NYC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Rochester and New Jersey.
PAA founding member Rita Solnet of Boca Raton, Fla., summed up our group's commitment: "Parents will no longer sit on the sidelines and accept the dismantling of their children's public schools. Enough is enough!" she said. "These are our school, and our children, and our voices must be heard."