Want Schools to Work? Meet the Parents.
Gadflies address the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

By Sandra Tsing Loh
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Come January, when the election frenzy is over and it's time to fix (again) our endlessly collapsing U.S. public education system, I can already see who'll be sitting around that West Wing conference table helping you craft your policies (aka, calculate the flow of dollars): the usual passel of political appointees, lifer administrators, think-tank policy wonks bearing white papers funded by the Gates Foundation, rock-and-rolly inner-city charter school innovators and the "social entrepreneurs." No actual public school parents like myself will have the remotest input.

Why? Because . . . haven't you heard? Parents are the third-class citizens of public education.

Never mind Washington. Even in our own hometowns, when it comes to the public school debate -- which is, as it is everywhere, tedious, grinding and forever -- we parents take our place behind the mayors, the unions and our (largely male, largely professional-pundit, largely not actually in the schools every day) op-ed writers. (Though I grant you, re not having to visit schools: It's lovely to not have one's lapidary flights of Milton Friedman free-market fancy clouded by actual contact with children, whose odors and waywardness definitely interfere with the fine crafting of opinion pieces, particularly in the mornings.)

Yea, public school parents' priorities are routinely placed below those of building inspectors, plant managers, even, given an errant bell schedule, cafeteria workers. Although, teachers are down in the bunkers with us, too. You'd be amazed how many extraordinary schoolteachers, who've served faithfully, conscientiously, daily for 40 years, just keep their heads down at this point.

Since most politicians have never dealt with U.S. public schools as customers themselves (in the same way that precious few of them put their own children in the Army), it might shock you, Mr. Future President, how poorly parents are treated out here in Public-School-Landia. You know how when you walk into a Wal-Mart or a McDonald's, someone greets you with, "Hello! May I help you?" It's startling how seldom you can expect this basic courtesy in public schools, how often we parents approaching the counter are treated as felons, or more often simply ignored by the frantically typing office-administrator-type-person. It's a peculiar thing, in this 21st century. Forget best-practice research and technology-driven classrooms. I really believe if anyone in the multibillion-dollar industry called U.S. public education were ever listening to us, improved schools would start, simply, with this: "Hello! May I help you?"

It's not that my own school district doesn't solicit parental input as to how it might serve us better. Just recently, circulating among the e-lists of us few parents who doggedly volunteer, came a memo: "The District's Division of Professional Learning and Leadership has been charged with the development of a plan for Quality Customer Service which will include professional development for all stakeholders." An initial meeting for volunteer parental representatives was set for the next Wednesday afternoon, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. That's relatively short for a weekday Los Angeles Unified School District parent meeting, whose monthly sessions for parents of students who are non-native English speakers are required to be at least three hours long. So there's Quality Customer Service for you! ( Hello! May I help you? Hello! May I help you?)

Where does this culture of committee-oriented time wastage -- even for parents who work -- spring from? Here's a clue. L.A. Unified recently faced such a budget shortfall that the district was actively recruiting potential save-our-schools spokesparents to submit their resumes and come to the central offices for "media training" if selected. Cut to the bone as it is, though, next year's budget still slates a hefty $78.8 million for consultants (last year a consultant was paid $35,000 to teach our superintendent how to use a computer). And yes, I realize that I'm getting off-message by noting that our school district wastes money.. . . That's like waving red meat in front of America's seniors, who'll probably vote to cut taxes again! Even though it's not the bureaucracy, but the children who get squeezed. That's all budget cuts mean, in the end. My kids have their assemblies on cracked asphalt. Now the cracked asphalt will have weeds.

But here's the good news, Mr. Future President. In a testament to the incredible can-do American spirit (and I mean that in the most drop-dead-serious way), activist public school parents are fighting back against U.S. public education's wasteful and unresponsive corporate "professionalism." (Remember George Bernard Shaw's quip about the professions being "conspiracies against the laity"?) City by city, homegrown "parents for public schools"-style Web sites are springing up daily, little rebel force fires on the horizon. From New York to Chicago, Seattle to San Francisco and beyond, activist parents are starting to blog their outrage over millions of education dollars wasted on non-working computer technology, non-child-centered programs and, of course, those entities whose education dollars are never, ever cut -- the standardized-testing companies.

Even more amazingly, these activist parents are partnering with their administrators, teachers and communities to help improve their struggling public schools. Which parents? Think "soccer moms." But a different kind of soccer mom. In 2008, many of us educated, middle-class, upwardly (or at least laterally) aspiring moms have the Type A personalities and obsessive maternal devotion to be soccer moms . . . but 20 years later, the times are different. What my Gen X sisters and I have inherited from the Boomers is not a better world, but a blasted public education and community landscape.

The sociological strip-mining began 30 years ago, when many of our parents' generation either pulled or bought their kids out of "bad" urban schools with high numbers of minority poor. To be fair, much of the busing back then was done with all the cultural finesse and thoughtful application of a Gang of Four program. We're not saying that we too wouldn't flee society's depleted core if we could. It's just that private schools now start at $20,000 a year and starter homes in "good" school districts cost $1.2 million. Instead of "soccer moms," then, think "soccer apocalypse moms." Picture us hurtling about not in creamy Volvos but in Mad Max/Road Warrior trash cars. Ours are the kids who will only play soccer if we personally hand-stitch the soccer ball, nail up the goalposts and put shovel to field.

Which soccer apocalypse moms -- including healthy numbers of the infamous stay-at-home moms -- are doing at an accelerating pace. Either stuck in -- or moving back into -- the cities, these women are re-gentrifying inner cores denuded after 30 years of neglect, with all the sociological complexity that entails. They're using VH1 "Save the Music" to obtain orchestral instruments. Using the nonprofit KaBoom! to build new playgrounds. They're writing garden grants, starting after-school arts and enrichment programs, forging deals with local real estate agents (at one Los Angeles school, for every parents' group referral, the agent returns $1000 to the school for beautification purposes). They're helming 5K walks down business corridors to fund elementary-school physical education programs. They're starting library foundations, 501(c)3s, "friends of" groups, booster clubs (some that earn almost half a million a year), even re-discovering that legendary old warhorse, the PTA.

We soccer apocalypse moms with "dogs in the fight" have to make do daily with what we have. As we re-gentrify our conveniently located urban schools, our mission is to maintain a proper balance between affluent and poor children (we have to; displace any poor children and we lose our Title I funding); to give the boot to lousy teachers by any means necessary; to riddle our school board with e-mail bullets if needed (in L.A. recently, a mere 50 e-mails were enough to retain a district-wide honors orchestra program); to be the aggressive, entitled, howling, demanding watchdogs over elaborately funded programs that are clearly a bunch of hooey.

And regarding the test scores of low-income kids. Note that the one proven educational reform rarely discussed is -- here's an idea! -- developing the essay-writing skills of English-learning children by putting them into daily contact with children who are native English speakers. Note that at today's current level of racial segregation in public schools, only one in five immigrant children is likely to have even one native English-speaking friend. There is no new computer technology in the world that will solve that.

In short, these nameless, faceless parents are cheerfully (and have we mentioned it's fun?) doing the hard work of integration that no savvy political candidate wants to touch. Oh, if only on top of those millions in Gates money there would be $300 Gates micro-grants to assign one middle-class mom to each poor school. That would be enough to help each of us get a really fast version of Excel to maintain our spreadsheets for box-top collecting, field trip bus seats, jogathon miles walked and for how many dollars.

So, Mr. Future President, if you bring our PTA moms to the table in January, we really will get the job done. And of course we'll bring our own coffee. We always do.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and radio commentator. Her most recent book is "Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting."

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