It’s Time for Parents to Speak UP

Jul 20, 2016 12:00:00 AM


When parents at Broadway Elementary School’s Mandarin immersion program in Venice, California, wanted the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to reverse its decision to cut the incoming kindergarten program in half, they spent $25,000 to hire a lobbyist and public relations person to make their case. The program is highly regarded in the community and has always had a long wait list. Nevertheless, parents had a hard time for many months getting their school board representative to even sit down and meet with them to hear their concerns. In the end, only one of the two classes was reinstated, and the process wreaked so much havoc that parents were left feeling battered and distrustful of the district and its leaders. “It almost felt like a live version of calling the credit card company and being on hold for 45 minutes only to get disconnected,” said one parent at the school. If West Side Los Angeles parents with the means to hire pricey professionals have this much trouble getting through to the district, imagine the frustration of more disenfranchised low-income parents.

Parents Are Raising Their Voices

Too often, parents are not part of the process that determines how children are educated. In California, as in most states, elected representatives on local school boards and in the state legislature create the policies that directly affect our kids’ education. Powerful organizations working on behalf of their members drive the agendas. Parents, the best advocates for kids, do not have a seat at the policy table when decisions are made. Why are parent voices ignored? District and state education leaders have never been held accountable to parents, in large part, because parents typically do not show up at the polls to vote. We intend to change that. Parents in California recently launched a grassroots organization called Speak UP to raise our voices at school districts, at the state legislature and—most importantly—at the polls. The apathy towards education policy, especially at the local and state levels, harms our children. As important as federal policies are, their implementation at the state and local levels has the most direct impact on our kids, yet only a small fraction of eligible voters participate in the elections that choose the officials who make those decisions. Consider the following statistics illustrating the lack of interest in local and school board elections in Los Angeles County:
  • In the 2012 presidential election, 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
  • In the most recent Los Angeles mayoral election in 2013, voter turnout was only 23 percent of eligible voters.
  • The last two LAUSD board elections in 2013 and 2015 averaged a 15 percent turnout, with the lowest participation in the neighborhoods with the highest public school attendance rates.
Even more striking are the age-related demographic data. In all local Los Angeles elections that include school board races between 2011-2014, nearly 70 percent of those who voted were 55 or older, according to Political Data, Inc. In other words, parents let others make decisions for their kids. In Los Angeles, where Speak UP launched, parents are tired of feeling that their concerns go unheard by LAUSD. More than 70 percent of Speak UP parents say that they rarely or never have a voice in shaping LAUSD policies. “[School district officials] don't value parent involvement, and don't see parents as equal partners in their child's education,” said one Speak UP parent member surveyed, voicing concerns echoed by many of our members. At 20th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, for instance, LAUSD rejected a parent petition in March to take over the failing elementary school, reversing district policy. After two years of trying to make changes at the school, and watching the district break its promises, parents were outraged LAUSD asserted that parents no longer had the right under the state parent trigger law to force change. An agreement was finally reached this month to avert a lawsuit by having the school join the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that focuses on turning around underperforming district schools. But it should not be this hard or take this long to make change. How will Speak UP ensure that parents have a chance to be in the room when policy decisions are made? We will start by demonstrating that we are united in our focus, that we will not fall prey to efforts to exploit local differences by inserting wedges between groups of parents. Our members are a socioeconomically diverse group that come from neighborhoods all across Los Angeles, and from Northern to Southern California. They send their children to all kinds of schools—traditional district, magnet, charter, language immersion and pilot—and they face different challenges at their local schools. At times they are on opposite sides of a local issue. Despite these differences, however, Speak UP parents remain united by a set of principles that promote excellent teaching, quality resources and a learning environment that prepares all children to be successful:
  1. Transparency. Parents want to understand where the money goes and how decisions are made that affect our children on a daily basis.
  2. Responsiveness. Parents need to know that those who make the decisions that determine how our children are educated hear our voices and act responsibly on behalf of children.
  3. Autonomy. Parents, teachers and administrators at the school are best positioned to recognize and serve the needs of students.
  4. Accountability. Parents need to know how schools are performing and how they are being measured.
  5. Choice. Parents want an education that is the best fit for their children and the ability to make that choice.
With these common goals as our backbone, Speak UP members participate in leadership training, have access to vital information and engage in legislative and electoral campaigns. Armed with these tools, parents and community members are discovering the power of their voices as advocates and voters. By speaking up with a collective voice to elect representatives who are responsive to their concerns, parents will finally have a seat at the table and a sustained impact on education policy in our state.

Jenny Hontz

Jenny Hontz is an award-winning journalist, instructor and media consultant in Los Angeles. She is a founding member and communications chief of Speak UP.

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