7 Rules for Radical Parents Who Demand a Great Education

My (almost) 5-year-old is super excited about September 12th. That’s the day when she and her 3-year-old brother will start their fall schedule as homeschool students. As we enter into another “Back to School” season, my heart is breaking for the thousands of families across my hometown of Chicago who do not have that same sense of certainty about when school is going to begin for them. And I wonder what might happen if more parents were to do what my wife and I did and act radically on behalf of their children’s education. So as a trained community organizer and a radical parent myself, I thought I would take a page from Saul Alinsky’s book and lay out some Rules for Radical Parents who are ready to demand a great education for their children no matter the cost or the consequences. 1. Your child is your child. It has become some kind of unspoken rule that traditional public school districts have a right to facilitate the education of every child, especially children from low- and moderate-income families. But this is not at all true. It has been said much more artfully than I can say it here, but parents must never abdicate their role as the primary caretaker and educator of their own children. If someone wants the privilege of participating in the education of my little miracles, they will have to earn it. Don’t ever forget that God gave your children to you, not to any school (district-run, charter or otherwise). 2. It’s okay to have high expectations. What do you dream for your child? Do you imagine that she can become something amazing? Do you hope that he can have an unforgettable impact on the world? There’s no reason not to. And there is no reason why each one of our children should not have access to the kind of education that enables them to reach their full potential. In many ways (some subtle and some not so subtle) the system tells us that greatness is just not in the cards for children who grow up in poor neighborhoods and in families of color. But that is a lie. Every child (including yours) has incredible potential. Don’t ever let anyone tell you or your child anything different, neither through their words nor through their actions and decisions. 3. While the grown-ups fight, our kids keep growing up. It just took our state government in Illinois almost two years to pass a budget. And when they did, it was a partial budget full of gaps and contingencies. Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union is on the brink of its second major strike in five years. The union blames the school district. The district blames the union. The Democrats blame the Republicans and the Republicans blame the Democrats. And don’t even get me started on the people who blame the mayor. Every adult has a story to tell about why the schools have not lived up to their promise and responsibility to provide a great education for every child. But there is really only one story that matters and that is the story of the children whose lives are at stake in these schools. The story of our children. And in that story, they only get to be in third grade once. We don’t have time to sort through grown-up mess. We have little lives to look after. We need solutions that work right now. 4. Desperate times call for desperate measures. OK…I didn’t make this one up. But it is a truism that rings loud and clear in the current educational climate in most big cities. In many cases, it seems like nothing is working, and the supply of quality public schools (traditional or charter) is far outpaced by the demand. In times like these, children need radical parents who will take drastic steps to ensure that they receive the high-quality education that they deserve. Forget about “save our schools.” How about “save our children”? 5. We parents have more power than we think. When I was an organizer in training on the West Side of Chicago, I learned a phrase that is still alive in movements across America today, “The people united will never be defeated.” When people come together they have the power to withhold their participation, to apply the force of their voices, their values and their votes on decision makers, policymakers and even other private citizens. Just think about it. For instance, here in Chicago there are almost 750,000 children, and all of them have a right to a public school education even if some of these families have selected other options. If we have on average three children each, that means that there are somewhere around 250,000 parents in this city—and many of those “parents” are couples. The point is that there are more of us than there are principals, teachers or school board members. Our last mayoral election was decided by 65,562 votes. There are nearly four times that many parents here. And those are just the numbers. I don’t even have to try to convince you that parents have more logistical abilities, creativity and staying power than anyone could ever imagine (just think about bedtime routine!). If you’re raising kids, then you know this. If we wanted to, we could make anything happen. 6. You don’t have to take it. This rule becomes quite obvious when you read rule number 5 (at least as it applies to parents as a collective unit). But, I’m not talking about the fact that we don’t have take it because we are so powerful. I truly mean that you don’t have to take it. It’s not because you’re a part of a powerful group of people. It is because you are an important and valuable person. Your humanity entitles you to an experience of dignity, respect and opportunity. Your position as an American ensures you the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After all, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Don’t settle. Don’t ever settle. Not for yourself and certainly not for your children. Your family deserves the very best and it is disrespectful and unacceptable for anyone to offer you anything less. 7. Your children are totally worth the effort. It takes work to be radical. When my wife and I decided to homeschool our children, we were taking on some extra work. She would have to leave a career she loved. We would both have to read books (me more than her since she’s a teacher by trade). We had to build out rooms in our house and more community in our lives. We have to seek out extracurricular activities and pay a little more on our electric bill. But, when my 4-year-old daughter picks up my Sunday paper and starts to read the front page articles, I realize that it’s worth it. It is all worth it. And your child is worth it too. Whatever it takes, I promise that when you see real results for your child, every sacrifice will seem small. But, then again...you’re a parent. You know that already. So, do I think that every parent should become a homeschooling parent? Of course not (though I do think a lot more of us should think about it). Homeschooling is not the only radical thing that parents can do. I guess that’s the point of being radical. Radical is ambitious and creative. Radical might take over a school by joining a parent committee, or by pushing for a new school leader. Radical might design a school and push it through the charter approval process. Radical might form new partnerships with loving, committed teachers who have nothing to do with the district or the teachers union. Radical might develop community-based education networks run by teachers, parents, families and community volunteers. Radical just might do anything…anything but settle. Radical parents won’t stop until their children have the high-quality education that they deserve.
An original version of this post appeared on Chicago Unheard as 7 Rules for Radical Parents to Demand Great Education.
Christopher Butler

Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate.

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