Why I Work With Parents, Not in the Classroom, to Reform Our Schools

ByEmma Hulse

I am a community organizer who mobilizes parents to demand better schools, and often cite this John Dewey quote as my mantra: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” 

But the debate over education reform has little regard for the wisdom of parents. In the past decade, ed reform has morphed into a battle between a high-powered (and well-financed) reform movement and unions (and their allies) who see these “reforms” as a thinly disguised strategy to privatize public schools and break the power of public sector unions. 

The “reformers” have effectively defined the terms of the debate by advancing a seductively simple analysis and solution to educational inequity. Drawing on the business model, they argue that districts should create the conditions necessary for instructional innovation by attracting the best, brightest, youngest (nontenured) teachers, and then holding schools and educators accountable for student achievement by giving families the power to choose to send their children to the best schools.

For these reformers, choice is not just a sound economic principle: it is a civil right. Choice, they argue, is the best way to create a more equitable public school system. “The only families that can opt out of a failing school are families with financial means,” former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein wrote in the New York Daily News last year. “This leaves poor children trapped in failing schools. This is the worst form of inequality.”

As anyone who has seen a college bulletin board in the weeks leading up to Teach for America’s application deadline can tell you, young people have been the foot soldiers of education reform. Many of my classmates decided to become teachers, and I have deep respect for their commitment to transforming schools into ladders out of poverty.  

I, too, could have taken this path.  As an undergraduate, I worked as a teacher’s assistant at a school in Harlem, and I spent a year in Guatemala after graduation studying bilingual education. But I wanted to understand how communities — not just teachers and administrators — could transform their own schools. I also felt that I had a lot to learn about how schools might perpetuate, rather than eliminate, inequality. 

Driven by these questions, I’ve spent three years working as a parent organizer in East New York and the Bronx. My work involves organizing parents and students to reshape school discipline policy, fight for community-driven school transformation strategies, and become effective advocates for their children in a notoriously bureaucratic system. My time as an organizer has coincided with a particularly contentious period in the history of New York City schools, as the administration of the outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has sought to implement sweeping reforms spearheaded by over 100 school closures and anchored by new public and charter school choices for families. 

Too frequently, these reforms have been pushed through without meaningful community consultation, while mayoral control of the school system eliminated local school governance structures, effectively pushing parents and students to the sidelines. Parents and students have been reduced to consumers rather than creators of their own educational experiences.

Unlike the Bloomberg administration, organizers work from the belief that the people who are directly affected by a problem are the best qualified to identify its solution. Every day, I work with smart, savvy parents who have taught me more about the root causes of inequality in New York City public school system than I could have ever learned in the classroom. Working alongside parents has also helped me develop an understanding of “choice” that is much more complex than reformers (and their opponents) would have you believe.  

First, choice is a strategy for survival, not for change. Many of the parent leaders in the organizations where I have worked have opted to send their kids to charter or private schools, or have made use of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act to secure a transfer out of a failing school. This past spring, I organized with parents from a closing school to ensure that their children received priority in this NCLB transfer process, and to obtain alternative placements for students from a nearby K-2 school who were zoned for the third grade at the school. The reason is simple: no child can afford to waste critical years waiting for change in a failing school. 

However, neither these parents nor I believe that seeking out new choices for individual children is a solution to a collective problem. In fact, from my perspective, the choice process reinforces inequity. Applying for alternatives to a zone school — whether that alternative is a charter, screened school, small or selective high school — requires not only luck but also no small measure of pluck. The high school application process, for example, requires that families explore hundreds of possible options, attend high school fairs and open houses to receive priority (all of which fall early in the school year), and pass standardized tests for the most selective high schools. Middle school guidance counselors are poorly equipped to advise families on how to navigate this process. Competition triumphs over equity, and the students with the most capital — social and otherwise — succeed in gaining admission to the best schools. The students who face more barriers to success and could most benefit from a high-quality, supportive educational environment are left behind in struggling schools that frequently don’t have the resources to meet their needs.   

Ultimately, school choice hasn’t done much to fix the schools that serve most students: the zoned school in low-income neighborhoods. Last fall, parents from my organization marched from the home of a member to her zoned elementary, middle, and high schools, all of which are on New York State failing lists.  It was a powerful point; even in the era of choice and innovation, it is possible for a child in the Bronx to attend low-achieving schools for her entire educational career.

Children and families deserve better. 

Organizing has confirmed my long-held belief that no one who hopes to transform public education in our city or our country can afford to ignore the voices of parents and students. And addressing the persistence of the opportunity and achievement gaps will require that equity, not choice, become the guiding principle of reform.