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NYC parent forms national group to push for ESEA change

One of New York City’s most vocal parent activists is launching a national organization, enlisting parents in cities across the country in a fight against the Obama administration’s proposed changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Called Parents Across America, the group was developed jointly by Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters in New York, and Julie Woestehoff, of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) in Chicago. Its formal launch was at a forum last night in a public school in Tribeca, where parents from as far as San Francisco and Seattle traveled to share their unfortunate experiences with local education laws and policies.

Parents Across America’s platform is against much of what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, such as his competitive grant program Race to the Top, and the federal School Improvement Grants he’s given to states to turn around their lowest-performing schools. The organization also opposes Duncan’s blueprint for what he wants out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s eventual reauthorization.

A letter written to Duncan last spring, and signed by many of the organization’s leaders, admonishes the Secretary for keeping parents at arm’s length. It states:

A central flaw in this administration’s approach is the complete failure to encourage parent involvement in decision-making. Studies show that the more involved parents are at the school level, the better their children’s outcomes. Yet the proposed education budget would eliminate the sole funding dedicated to family engagement, and the ESEA Blueprint removes essential mechanisms for engaging parents at the school or district level.

PAA’s other suggestion is that the federal government push for small class sizes to increase student achievement. In her opening remarks to the middle school’s filled auditorium, education historian Diane Ravitch placed these ideas in opposition to those supported by groups like the Gates Foundation.

“This is a group that has no interest other than the well-being of children,” she said, noting that for “corporate reformers,” “children are an abstraction.”

Some of the parents who spoke said that the federal government’s reliance on standardized testing and the support for charter schools had hurt their and other children’s schooling at the local level.

One mother from New Orleans, Karran Harper Royal, said she had to sue the city to get public transportation for her son to and from his charter school. She hadn’t wanted to send him to a charter school to begin with, she said, but after Hurricane Katrina hit, his school was reopened as a charter and she wanted to keep him in the same building “for normalcy,” she said.

Haimson explained that when she and Woestehoff began looking to fight issues like charter school expansion and standardized testing at the federal level, they hadn’t found any larger groups with which to align themselves.

“We were looking for a group on the national level that reflected the point of view of the majority of public school parents and we could not find a single one,” Haimson said.

There are national parent associations, but Haimson said they are “pretty much silent” when it comes to issues she and Woestehoff believe are important. And after years of working together to changes policies in New York and Chicago, they both wanted to target federal policy.

“A lot of the issues we’d been fighting on the local level were now being imposed nationally,” Haimson said. “And there’s no point in trying to stop Bloomberg or the State Education Department if they can say, ‘Oh no no, the Obama administration is making us do this.'”

Haimson said the organization has plans to travel to D.C. to lobby for changes to ESEA and is also focusing on building local chapters around the country. For financial support, it is relying on contributions from its membership and from the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, which helped pay for the forum.

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