Q&A

Policy wonk-turned-producer explains new parent activism film

Producers of a new documentary about parent activism say they aim to inspire parents across the country to press for change.

The film, “Parent Power,” traces the organizing story that emanated from an effort to improve a single Bronx school in the mid-1990s and resulted in the citywide Coalition for Educational Justice. Set to premiere on Thursday, “Parent Power” was produced by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, which has long supported parent activism efforts, in collaboration with FPS Video Productions. (The premiere, at NYU’s Cantor Film Center, is open to the public.)

Filmmakers Norm Fruchter, an Annenberg Institute policy analyst, and Jose Gonzalez, a parent activist from the South Bronx, gathered 15 years of footage and photography of parent organizing efforts. They also interviewed teachers union president Randi Weingarten, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, parent activist Zakiyah Ansari, and others involved in supporting the parents’ efforts.

I spoke with Fruchter, who told me about the making of the movie, the origins of its story, and his hope that parent activists across the country tune in.

JC: Where does this story begin?

NF: [In 1996,] parents at the New Settlement Apartments in the South Bronx were concerned about their local elementary school. They got in touch with us to see if they could do a workshop with us about what their rights were and how they could go about getting involved.

The film chronicles the growth of the [New Settlement] Parent Action Committee and the work that they did to try to improve a particular school and how the community discovered that in order to improve that school they had to go through the school district and its superintendent and also the Department of Education and the schools chancellor. They realized they didn’t have enough power as a neighborhood group to move either the school district’s superintendent or the chancellor.

New Settlement convened a group of organizations in the South Bronx. Most of them decided that the public education in the South Bronx needed to be drastically improved and they were prepared to organize to bring that about. They formed what they called the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools (CC9), that would work first to improve education in District 9 in the South Bronx and then in all of the South Bronx schools.

How did you organize the film to show the parent organization efforts that grew from there?

We tell three stories: the story of the Parent Action Committee trying to impact a local school; the story of CC9 trying to improve education in District 9 and developing the Lead Teacher Project; and we tell the story of the Coalition for Educational Justice trying to improve middle schools across the system. Within the CEJ section we also tell the story of Highbridge getting a middle school.

So the goal was to tell these three big stories and one little story to show how these campaigns developed out of the local groups. It tells the story of the organizations and, in each case, makes the argument that school reform depends on the action and mobilization of community groups.

How did you gather the fifteen years of footage?

When we started trying to compile footage and photos for the film we went to all of the organizations that were part of it – CC9, the Parent Action Committee, the other programs that are part of CEJ and we appealed to individual parents who were part of the organizations. A lot of the demonstrations and actions were covered by local TV stations so we asked people for any photos of any meetings or retreats or demonstrations and that’s what we put the film together with.

We started shooting our own video for coverage’s sake in 2007, so we had footage from the years 2007 through 2010, when the film ends.

How did the different chancellors react to the parent organizing efforts?

The period of the film spans three chancellors: Harold Levy, Rudy Crew and Joel Klein. Crew was somewhat receptive to parent organizing. Levy met with some of the groups but basically was not responsive to what they wanted.

And when the Bloomberg administration — under mayoral control — reorganized the school system it became much harder to do parent organizing because the structure was constantly changing. The Bloomberg/Klein administration did not respond particularly well to criticism and really thought that the parents’ role should be confined to helping your child do well in school, which is clearly a necessary role. But parent participation beyond that was not welcome.

The film argues that parents made a fair amount of headway under the Bloomberg administration, but it was through enormous efforts of organizing and opposition.

Who is your target audience?

There are 300 to 500 groups across the country who are doing this work. We made the film primarily to distribute to them, at the inspirational level, to show them that this work does yield demonstrable results. And on the second level, to suggest some ways to go about it.

What do you want viewers to get out of watching “Parent Power”?

In a period when market-based school reform is dominated by foundations and top-down efforts, what we tried to make is a film that shows the importance of community-based, bottom-up efforts at school reform.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”