For years, the education debate has involved organized teacher unions, school administrators, local school committees, and government officials at all levels.
A new player is entering the game: organized parent groups with a longer reach and a louder voice that your traditional Parent Teacher Organization.
How that affects Massachusetts education remains to be seen. No longer, though, are parents automatically accepting consignment to a seat in the audience of a School Committee meeting, waiting to be told what they will accept.
They don’t want to be handed the rules. They want to help write the rules.
At the forefront of this movement is Massachusetts Parents United (MPU), a statewide organization that advertises itself as “founded by a group of moms as the independent voice of parents, advocating for children across the Commonwealth.” Its most identifiable voice belongs to Keri Rodrigues, whose group proclaims it is “ready to take our place at the policy making table.”
Parents have always voiced their concerns about schools, but their voices have traditionally been offered individually or in small groups. The sight of a parent asking to speak at a school board meeting, or writing letters to Boston, has been the norm.
It still is, but MPU is looking for much more through organization and numbers. Its web site claims more than 7,000 active members and contact with 150,000 families. Its emergence comes with a not-at-all-subtle demand for better teachers, school choice (Rodrigues defends charter schools as part of the equation) and transparency about results, which it claims we are not getting now.
Questioning the motives of those who oppose more district school funding, ask for more faculty accountability, or defend charter schools, has been a political winner when the targets have been politicians or isolated school officials. Scorning or mocking organized parent groups, whose motives involve their own children, will not be nearly so easy.
If there is to be criticism, it could be in Rodrigues’ portrayal of herself as an everyday, ordinary mom who got fed up and decided to take action. Described as a “parent provocateur” by CommonWealth Magazine, the Somerville mother of three once called herself a “pit bull liberal.”
EducationPost introduces her as an “award-winning journalist and radio broadcaster, recognized for her political reporting both nationally and internationally and host of a popular daily political talk show and newspaper column in Southeastern Massachusetts … who continued her career in advocacy as a long-time labor activist, communicator and organizer.”
In short, the woman known as “Mom-in-Chief” is not your ordinary volunteer from the school bake sale. A lifelong Democratic Party activist, she is now leading a movement that’s on a collision course with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, quite possibly the most influential union in the state.
Asked recently if the quality of Springfield district school teachers was adequate, Rodrigues said bluntly “No.” At the heart of her campaign, she says, is not to deny that district public schools need more money, but that money alone won’t fix what ails the system.
In that respect, she may be gaining allies in the Legislature, which is on the verge of the state’s biggest biggest education overhaul – with commensurate financial support – since 1993. Massachusetts Parents United’s stance is that this rare opportunity will be squandered if it consists only of pouring money into systems without a clear mission of goals and results.
The parents’ organization wants a voice in those goals. The MPU does not speak for all parents, any more than the MTA speaks for all teachers.
Within every large organization, differences of opinion are overshadowed by the group’s official stance and its spokespeople. The MPU still represents only a very small percentage of parents in a state of great diversity and competing needs.
Nonetheless, an identifiable parents’ organization – call it a lobby group if you’d like, and you would not be wrong – is a significant addition to the dialogue, especially if it stands in philosophical opposition to the MTA. Massachusetts education reform is nearing reality. It looks likely that parents will no longer be relegated to the role of spectator, waiting obediently for the results without having some say in what they’ll be.