Activistism in Public Education in Washington State

One reason for this blog - and that has always been the case since its earliest days - is discourse and encouraging activism.  

 I said this recently in an interview and I frequently have parents tell me that it's the only place they can really go to ask questions.  I am glad that enough parents know about it that they feel comfortable to come here and raise issues.  (Some also e-mail Charlie and me and that's fine as well.) 

One topic that came up in the Eric Lui interview was about how parents can be involved (and how deeply) in their children's education.  Eric pointed out that many parents don't want to speak out. 

I've said this before - my belief is most parents just want a good school that they have confidence in the staff and where they feel welcome (either as a volunteer or a parent who visits occasionally).  I don't think most parents want to be activists.  I think most parents want to be advocates for their child's education. 

But a side topic after that interview was the discussion that Eric and I had about public discourse about public education in Seattle (and Washington State).  How do we have this discussion without lines being drawn at the start?  How do we find common ground?  What should we ALL be doing? 

I told Eric of my attempts to reach out to those who I have found disagreement with (and who are the most visible and powerful people) but that it hasn't worked.  I mentioned in a Crosscut article that I felt like it would take someone both powerful and somewhat neutral to get people to the table.  (I had mentioned Bill Gates, Sr.  I don't know Mr. Gates and I don't even know his stand on public education but he has shown himself to be his own person.  I liked when he said, in an interview, "I was Bill Gates before he (his son) was Bill Gates."  He could bring people to the table.)

So I'll try to answer some of my own questions but I would appreciate input from you.

1) How to have a discussion?  I believe works better one-on-one or in smaller groups.  These summits or meetings of masses of people representing various groups doesn't seem to work well.  Some statement gets wordsmithed and there's a lot of blah, blah on equity and funding but not much action. 

Speaking of discussion, what is troubling is how some groups act like they want discourse but if you actively disagree with them, you have a problem.

This happens at LEV and at the Washington Policy Center.  They put up articles, invite input and then, won't print what is submitted.

I absolutely understand having a policy on what the public writes but I know for a fact that both those groups just don't like being disagreed with and will not allow active disagreement. 

2) Common ground.  So what do we all agree on?  I will tentatively state that I believe that nearly everyone agrees that, based on what we know to be true from statistics, we have underfunded our K-12 schools in Washington State.   

The corollary to that however is WHAT have we been spending the money on.   Are we spending it in the right proportions?  What should change?

If you read the comments after any public education article at the Times, the WEA takes nearly all the money and drives all the discussion of where it goes.  I find that baffling. 

I will go out on a limb here for more transparency in our district budgets.  Don't just show us a pie chart with broad topics -let us see, in detail, where the money goes.  

As well, I believe that two areas that most will agree on are class size and arts.  

Over my decade+ of experience, this has never changed.  (What is interesting is that charter schools DO tend to have smaller class sizes but also tend to NOT have any kind of real arts or arts integration in their curriculum.  Indeed Rocketship, a highly-touted charter group, has little to no arts.)

And yet, many of us worked very hard to pass I-728 and did we see smaller class sizes?  No.  Where the money went is mostly a mystery but I sometimes think that the hard work isn't just passing a good idea but making sure it is implemented.  

3) What should we be doing?

Job #1 right now is to write your elected reps in the Legislature and hold their feet to the fire.  Here's a link to find their e-mails and phone numbers.  Honestly, call or write them every single week until we see progress on enacting McCleary.

And I would gently suggest that you tell them that you would NOT accept this being done without some kind of new revenue.  Because folks, it would be a difficult and bitter pill to get more money for public education off the backs of people who are poor or need health care.  And that's how the Republicans are thinking this will get done. 

Job#2 is thinking about how we advocate.  It IS far better to advocate in as a group because yes, there is power in numbers.  But what group? 

PTA?  I would say yes but I would do it as your own school PTA.  The Seattle Council PTSA has not been a strong advocate for parents (and their lack of a stand on 1240 was pretty surprising).  The Washington State PTA has gone its own way and I'm not sure who they represent any more.   The clash over charter schools has bruised that group and, I believe, damaged the trust level with parents. 

LEV?  Let me ask you a question - does anyone belong to LEV?  Of course, not.  You can join their mailing list but they are not a group you join. 

Interestingly, they have an "activist training" coming up (and one topic is "learning from the rest of the nation; how to do charters right" - it might be worth the price of admission just to hear what they say about that).  

Also, they have another workshop on "leveraging our parent power in the collective bargaining process."  Here's my take on this - parents don't have a right to be at the bargaining process table.

Surprised?  Don't be.  Parents absolutely have a right to give imput - to both the WEA and the district - about what matters to parents about teachers and teaching.  In fact, it is vital to give that imput because if both sides know what matters to parents, they will have common ground.  

But this push - from LEV and now the so-called Our Schools coalition - that parents somehow have the right to be at the table?  Nope.  It's a labor/management issue and parents are not labor or management. 

CPPS (Community and Parents for Public Schools) - they are a great organization (and have done the best outreach to immigrant communities that I have ever seen) but they are maybe a bit too quiet to be effective.  CPPS is also having a great Parent Leadership 101 workshop and that's the one that I would attend if I wanted to learn more about parent advocacy.

Parents Across America - new, energetic but being new makes them harder to register on the radar.   Get to know them and see what you think.

Stand for Children?  Not unless you want to be told what to do and think as a public school parent.

I end with this portion of an article at LEV about being an education activist:

I’m no expert on the facts, figures and policies that govern our state. However, I’m an expert on my own experiences in the public school system.

I also know there are thousands of people who feel like me in Washington. We have stories. We have experiences. We are experts.

Actually, I would not consider that being an "expert."  This is very precisely what is wrong in trying to get anything done in public education.

Did you go to public school?  Check.  Now have a child in public school?  Check.  Therefore, you're an expert, right?  No.

Each person's experience with public education counts for something but to believe that your experience somehow can make you an expert or activist is misguided.  But advocate?  Absolutely.  I have always said that no one in the district knows a school better than its parents and staff.   So be an "expert" at your child's school.

To be an activist means stepping out that box and yes, educating yourself on the rest of the district, on Special Ed or state funding (whatever your interest is).  Then you get to call yourself an activist.   

Legislators and other elected officials need to know that you know what your are talking about because otherwise they will believe you are sitting in their office to vent, not advocate. 

Consider in this new year to find the issue that most matters to you - whether in your own school or the district or the state - and make that your mission to make a difference.   Your advocacy is a way to inspire others.  


Jet City mom said…
i believe that spending from I-178 was up to principals who could use it for class size reduction or for teacher training/stipends.

but I agree that many voters were mystified when the promised class size reduction didnt occur.

it pays to read all measures with a microscope. & a psychic.

posting is still wonky, on Safari, that captcha does'nt show up on my ipad. ( my college students 6 yr old laptop finally died in time for the first day of classes so I gave her mine. sob)
BahHumbug said…
If you really want to engage in discourse and be respected and have people in power respond to you in earnest, you need to stop being a bully. I have been in meetings with people at the top (superintendents) and the bottom, and they almost all overwhelmingly dislike your bullying nature.

But we know you're not going to change that. You've said over and over again that you don't care to change it. You count it a source of great pride.
He Who Controls the Gold said…
Parents have not right to be at the table in the collective bargaining process?

Well, I would say that that is a big problem.

Management can just shove a pile of money to the teachers and reduce seat time in the name of "professional development." Management gets pats on the back for avoiding a strike and supporting teachers.

Parents (and their student children) get the short end...again.

I'd also agree with BahHumbug. Nothing can shut down discourse like a Westbrook walking into the room.
Uh Bah, where have I ever said or wrote that:
- I am a bully
- I take pride in that

Never, ever. But I'll wait.

I have never had any elected official (and of all people, they should be the ones able to tell this) say that. You are the first.

He, what role do you think parents should have and how to get it?

I think you two are exactly what I mean when I say it is hard to have public discourse.
mirmac1 said…
The posters (I'll just call them Bah-He for short) sound alot like powerbrokers and city bureaucrats who moan to anyone around (including media) "those bloggers are the bullies." More disinformation. Maybe I'm a bully because I like to reveal what these folks say when they think nobody's listening. Yeah, I'm proud of that.
The Truth Hurts said…
Melissa is the pitbull you want to throw in the ring for a back alley dog fight. She is not a leader and can work with others.

Similar to HumBug, I've seen individual clam up when Melissa shows up.

Throwing on the flame retardant suit.
chunga said…
How incredibly rude to use this blog entry - which is promoting a discussion on advocacy - to lob baseless and mean-spirited accusations at Melissa! Moreover, it has nothing to do with the topic of the blog. I would delete them and give them a warning that if it happens again, they'll be barred from commenting.
The Truth Hurts said…
Waiting for Melissa to either fight like a pitbull or claim to be the victim. That is her M O.

Anonymous said…
I will take one Melissa Westbrook with strong and well thought out opinions over polite School Board Directors who rubber stamp policies from past superintendents. We luckily lost two of those Directors in the last election but several are left.

My best example is the poor discovery math textbooks they have approved for years, going against many parents and math teachers who pointed out serious flaws in this approach. I hope the new superintendent does better.

S parent
Unknown said…
Um-bah and Mr. Truth have shown how nervous Ms. Westbrook can make those who have no meaningful contributions. I admire her obvious grasp of complicated issues. if she were a man, would she be called a "pit-bull", or would she be lauded for her commitment? I wonder....
Unknown said…
I will start out by saying it sure takes a lot of ... something... for people using anonymity as their cover to lob ad hominem insults at an owner of this blog.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I have been asked to submit input to the collective bargaining agreement by someone working for one of the organizations Melissa mentions.

I just don't get how that works. I have asked for clarification on how my input though this organization is going to make it to the table. I have been told the final document will be presented to the school board, which I guess is fine, but even that answer seemed rather tentative.

But, legally, how do private organizations get involved in contract negotiations between the district and the union? Can someone please explain this? Are they actually involved in the negotiations? Is there language in the current contract that provides for this?
Greg Linden said…
On Melissa's point about activism, that "nearly everyone agrees that ... we have underfunded our K-12 schools in Washington State", I really like the idea of uniting around more funding and reducing class size.

But, thinking about it more and talking it over with a few people, I'm not sure it really is true nearly everyone agrees that the public schools should get more funding. When it comes to higher taxes to do that funding, I think we'll find a lot of people opposed.

I-1098, for example, was an income tax in Washington state that I supported but we all saw go down in defeat.

Even just among education advocacy groups, I'm not sure it's universally accepted (esp. among charter proponents) that more funding is needed for the schools (despite that it is obvious to those of us in the public schools that the funding is absurdly low, students at Washington Middle School, for example, are funded at only $5,888 each). There are plenty of people who assert that class size doesn't matter or the problem is solely the teacher's unions.

Even so, I think Melissa is making a great point that a lot of these groups should be able to rally around advocating for increased funding at the state and federal level and designating those funds for class size reduction. It would at least be interesting to see if we can all agree that more funding is the biggest issue and highest priority.
mirmac1 said…
Mary, in response to your question, I believe any input from Jane Q Public ends up in the round file. All groups like LEV want is to be able to say "we spoke with X stakeholders and, therefore, represent them" and "we have the support of the SpEd community", then they will proceed with their original agenda. period.
Po3 said…
"if she were a man, would she be called a "pit-bull"

I had that same thought when I read these nasty comments. I find the name calling ironic after Melissa's post calling

Personally, I have appreciated this blog as it has given me insight to make informed decisions about my children’s education. For that I am ever grateful.

Keep up the good (and mostly thankless) work!
Josh Hayes said…
a) Funny how name-callers never use their own names.

b) funny how people who accuse Mel of playing the victim then loudly announce they're "putting on their flame-retardant suit". Pot. Kettle. Bang.

c) There's a whole class of pejorative terms reserved strictly for women. "Shrill", "uppity", and the like. A man is admiringly referred to as a "pit bull"; a woman, not so much.

But TO THE POINT: the problem with funding education without changing revenue streams is that there's no money. The state budget really is cut to the bone. If we can only move money from other budget items into schools, from whence does it come?
You know I sometimes get asked,"Do you think you'll ever stop being an activist?" Probably not but I may work for other causes on down the road.

But you know what will never work to see me walk away? Calling me names or making wild claims especially by anonymous people who have zero to back up those claims.

I asked when I had ever said I was a bully or how someone would think I could think such a thing would be a point of pride. Silence.

The very thing that would get your comment tossed at LEV or WPC and yet, it's still here.

And that's because your name-calling makes you look bad, not me.

As for being a leader, I have ever made the claim to want to or be leaders. I have never run for School Board. I reluctantly stepped up to run one of the No on 1240 campaigns because no such campaign was on the horizon and I refused to allow it to pass without discussion or a fight.

Where are your solutions, ideas, to move our district forward? What would you do to fully-fund education?

More silence.

Ah, so you really just wanted to come out swinging for another reason.

Swing away cowards. The day one of you comes up, introduces yourself and then says something, then I might give listen. But do remember, accusations without proof mean little.
Mark Ahlness said…
These comments remind me of a time when I was invited to post here, during one of the contentious school closing episodes. I asked that people use their names when leaving comments. Wow. Hit many nerves - and made many angry.

I am encouraged to see a few more using their full names recently.

BTW, Melissa, you rock!!
Anonymous said…
Name-calling is what one does when they have nothing to contribute and only want to jealously whine that others get the attention they so desperately seek.

Go on keeping your thumbs in your mouths (or elsewhere) while MW continues to make a difference.


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