The discussion on the blog has turned, once again, on how to be an effective agent for change in Seattle Public Schools. There are proponents of a variety of strategies and tactics. There are those who propose letter-writing campaigns directed at district decision-makers, meeting with district decision-makers, media campaigns, marches and rallies, WASL boycotts, litigation, influencing other electeds, summit meetings of advocacy groups, and still more ideas.
I have seen some things work, and I have seen most things fail.
Letter writing campaigns to district decision-makers.
This sort of worked one time - when the District tried to eliminate Spectrum in 2001 the Board received hundreds of emails alerting them to June Rimmer's bad faith. They stopped her from dumping the program (she claimed that was not her intent) and ordered reform of Advanced Learning. A committee recommended a list of reforms, none of which were implemented. That is the greatest success I have ever seen from massive letter-writing. Recent examples are not nearly as successful. Consider how many people wrote to urge the Board to reject the recent high school math adoption. On the whole, this does not appear to be an effective strategy.
Meeting with district decision-makers.
This happens a lot more often than most people would suspect. Every so often someone I know will mention that they took a meeting with a district leader. I do it, too. Not a lot, a couple times a year at the most. Although I have never had a meeting with Maria Goodloe-Johnson on any topic, and Raj Manhas refused to even acknowledge me, I did used to meet with Joseph from time to time. I met with Steve Wilson a couple times and I have met with Carla Santorno a couple times. About a year ago I got a meeting with Holly Ferguson and Carol Rava-Treat about the Strategic Plan. I think that I can say with some confidence that not one of these meetings ever did a tinker's dam worth of good. None of the ones I had and none of the ones that I have ever heard about. While they can be good for building relationships, they are not an effective means for influencing policy or practice.
Here's the good and the bad about media campaigns. First, they work. The District is EXTREMELY sensitive to press. That's the good. The bad news is that they are extraordinarily difficult to conduct. You have to have an issue that makes a good story and, usually, a good visual. The best one I ever saw was a brilliant stunt by Brita Butler-Wall (a longtime activist before she was on the Board) who "arrested" a Coke machine that was in violation of the District's new (but, until then, un-enforced) anti-commercialism policy. The best press reaction I ever got was with a Spectrum WASL boycott effort in 2003 that got national media attention. A thousand letters from families did nothing, but one call from the New York Times asking about a possible boycott got a letter full of promises from Raj Manhas. Yes, he broke all of the promises, but I was astonished by the quick action. The press will insist on presenting both sides of an issue, so the issue can't be the story or you won't get the angle you want. The action needs to be the story.
Marches and rallies.
Forget it. Families at Rainier Beach marched for two years or more. It didn't help them get rid of the principal there and the school still hasn't recovered. Families show up at Board meetings in matching T-shirts, chant on the lawn, then come inside and get ignored. Hint for next time: the Board offices are on the NORTH side of the auditorium. Garfield students marched for Tony Wroten. Did it help? I don't think so. Does anyone have a report of a march or rally that influenced a decision? I don't. The sixties are over.
This has yet to be tried, but the threat of it has certainly caused a lot of racing around. Was it the threat of the WASL boycott in 2003 that got Raj Manhas to write that promise-filled letter or was it the call about it from the New York Times? I would guess it was the call. Just the same, I have seen ears prick up at the suggestion of a WASL boycott in a way that they have not reacted to much else.
Really this is litigation or the threat of litigation. It includes all sorts of judicial or quasi-judicial actions. I have seen this both work and fail. Given the fact that I have seen almost everything else just fail, that makes this one of the most effective options available. Alternative progress reports were getting crushed under the heel of Standards-based Learning System in 2002 until the alternative school coalition lawyered up. Litigation may have saved the grove at Ingraham. It just forced a separation of start times at Denny and Sealth (which the District had promised and then quietly taken back). I don't know if it can save the AAA or Summit. It is over-used. People certainly threaten it more than they should and there was no way it could have saved MLK. I think it would have a better track record if it were used more selectively, but that it has ever been successful in any way puts it in rare company.
Influencing other Electeds.
This not only doesn't work, I think it can backfire. When the Mayor tried to stick his nose into the District's business he got it twisted. 99% of state legislators can neither effectively promise or threaten anything. There are a couple who actually control things to a limited extent but even they won't base statewide policy on what is happening in Seattle alone. Of course, the electeds want to make you believe that they exerted influence, but I haven't really seen it.
Summit Meetings of Advocacy Groups.
Not effective. The District isn't impressed that you got the hippies, the freaks and the nerds together. They still can't get one of their number elected Prom Queen.
Huge Sums of Cash.
It goes without saying that anyone who can raise six figures - preferably seven - can pretty much write their own ticket with the District. Want to be consulted on most of the decisions for a school? I believe the pricetag for that is $1 million per year. Want to take over the District's community engagement? That costs $240,000. Want to set the direction of education reform for the whole District? That will run you about $5 million.
If you have an idea for some action that we can take that can influence the district leadership but won't negatively impact our children's education (such as holding them out of school, voting down levies, or withholding contributions), I would LOVE to hear about it. Please try to provide evidence that it is effective. Barring that, try to provide good cause to believe that it might be.
If you think that one of the tactics I dismissed has been effective, then please share that story. I am always happy to hear stories like those.
As you consider possible new strategies, try to keep in mind the motivations of the District staff. For most of them it is all about internal politics. That is the driving force and the primary determinant for everything. The more influence they exert, the greater their political clout. Any time they can get someone else to do things their way (particularly if it is NOT the best way), their stock rises. Any time they have to do something suggested by someone else (regardless of merit), their power is diminished. Every decision goes to the idea backed by more clout, which enhances the winner's capital and diminishes the loser's. Alliances gather clout. Alliances and rivalries define the battlefield. If you are aligned with their rival, then you are their rival and they will disagree with you at every turn. The winners get bonus points if their decision is unquestioned and extra bonus points if it is obviously capricious. That's why ideas suggested from outside hardly ever happen - they are coming from a source with no political capital. that's also why the decisions imposed on families are often unquestionable and capricious. Politics decide almost everything. This isn't true for all of the central staff - there are some really wonderful and noble people working there - but it does reflect the dominant culture of the institution.
That's why bad press can help you influence a decision. It shames them terribly and causes them to lose political capital. Same with litigation. Money, on the other hand, translates directly into political influence. They love to play the rainmaker.
Believe me, I know just how melodramatic all of this sounds, but if it is overstated, it is not overstated by much. There are a lot of people who would say that it is not overstated at all.