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Bruno Manno's "Straw Mom" Argument (Annenberg Institute for School Reform)

 Keith Catone with contributor John Rogers
As interest in parent organizing and engagement grows across the country, AISR's Keith Catone and UCLA IDEA's John Rogers contrast genuine grassroots parent power to impact education reform with the "Astroturf" version recently presented by Bruno Manno.

In “Not Your Mother’s PTA” (Education Next, Winter 2012), Bruno Manno contrasts a ‘fifties-ish caricature of parental engagement, the PTA, with what he imagines to be a more robust and transformational collection of parents who really do have power to create almost instant school improvement. Doing so, Manno ignores longstanding examples of authentic parent and community organizing that have been building grassroots power to fight for equity and improvement in public schools across the nation. Instead, Manno praises recent “Astroturf” creations designed to feed current top-down policy trends promoting the rapid expansion of charter schools, weakening of teachers unions, and increased reliance on test-based measures of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

Here’s what Manno has missed.

"Swapping bake sales for sit-ins and demanding quality education for all, activists in a poor city neighborhood are shaking up the local school board – and longstanding assumptions about parents’ groups"

This quote is not from Manno’s article, but is the opening sentence of an article published ten years ago by Teacher Magazine – also entitled “Not Your Mother’s PTA. This 2001 article documented the work of Mothers on the Move, or MOM, a New York City grassroots parent organizing group that led a successful five-year campaign to transform the educational leadership and school improvement policies of Community School District 8 in the South Bronx.

In contrast, Manno’s version of “Not Your Mother’s PTA” focuses on groups led by insiders from the political and policy establishment. His praise for these groups rests on the assumption that any other existing parent organizations must be of the powerless “bake sale” variety. Manno does not reference the ongoing work of organizations like MOM that helped to pioneer the vibrant field of education organizing among everyday community residents – work that emerges from grassroots community concerns, is led by homegrown leaders, and demands a meaningful and ongoing voice for disenfranchised people – predominantly African-American and Latino parents who have struggled for better schools for decades. MOM’s parent and community organizing is representative of the work of hundreds of community-based organizations across the United States over the past 20 years.

Manno doesn’t mention, for example:

-       The Coalition for Education Justice in New York City, which has fought for and won millions of dollars in additional funding for middle schools in the city and partnered with teachers and their union to develop new teacher support strategies that have improved reading and math instruction for thousands of New York City students;

-       The Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, which has a nationally acclaimed parents-as-mentors program and helped create a new state-funded “Grow Your Own” teacher pipeline to get more teachers of color into Chicago’s classrooms and address the perennial problem of retaining high-quality teachers in hard-to-staff schools;

-       Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver, which has effectively organized high school students to win big changes in discipline policy in their district that were adversely affecting students of color;

-       Southern Echo in the Mississippi Delta, which has used its victories in a fight for statewide education funding equity to develop community conversations and action to address important student achievement and dropout prevention issues.

What separates these efforts from those profiled by Manno is their commitment to organizing – building an authentic voice and sustained power for the most marginalized populations. Ernesto Cortes, who founded the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), one of the nation’s most documented and successful education organizing efforts, says that organizing builds “staying power.” That is, it focuses on long-term leadership development that generates community power with firm roots.

The work that Manno describes, on the other hand, is primarily short-lived and does little to build sustained grassroots leadership and voice. This type of advocacy and mobilizing work is typically heavily influenced by external agendas, aimed at building what Cortes would call “instant power,” which is temporary and quickly dissipates.  

For example, Manno lauds the current efforts across the country to win “Parent Trigger” legislation. Parent trigger legislation allows parents to petition to “transform” their school by turning it into a charter or effecting some other (pre-determined) governance change. Once parents have signed the petition, their involvement is done. This situation creates “instant,” not staying, power for parents. Power and authority is quickly transferred to the charter or education management organization that is awarded control of the school, sometimes the same organization that was behind the parent trigger push in the first place.  Recently, even proponents of parent trigger legislation have been forced to take a step back and reconsider how their efforts have not effected meaningful parent engagement (see "Lessons of ‘parent trigger’" Los Angeles Times11/14/11).

In contrast, the organizing work around school transformation being conducted by the national Coalition for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS)is focused on building “staying” power with parents. This set of over 20 organizing groups has developed a proposal for school transformation that puts parents directly at the decision-making table. Under the CEPS proposal – “Sustainable School Transformation” – parents, students, teachers, and community members would thoroughly assess their schools’ individual challenges and needs and develop a reform plan to addresses those needs. The plan must be research-based, it must include supports for students and their families, and it requires an ongoing role for parent leaders to assess the outcomes of the reform efforts and to shape and reshape the plan until it works.

Genuine organizing holds great promise as an educational reform strategy, enabling communities to build the staying power and leadership necessary to identify educational challenges, propose reform solutions, and see things through to a sustainable end. Offering parents a voice through mechanisms such as the “parent trigger” does not build a sustained voice. It’s not your mother’s PTA, but it’s not true parent power, either.

Prepared by Keith Catone with contributor John Rogers.

John Rogers is an associate professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA). > Full bio

Keith Catone coordinates research, policy, and capacity building support for community organizations and school districts at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and is a doctoral candidate in Culture, Communities, and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. > Full bio