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Unite for Students and Schools

Together, parents, educators, and communities are playing defense for public schools and offense for students.
VEA Rally Put Kids First

Educators know that when they work with parents and community members their ability to advocate for students grows. Here’s proof:

Prince William County, Virginia

“There is a constant struggle with trying to provide world-class education in a classroom that is overcrowded,” says Tiffany Williams, a speech-language pathologist for Prince William County Public Schools.

Williams should know. For the past decade, her local county school board has created a balanced budget by increasing class sizes despite the fact that district enrollment grew by as much as 2,000 students per year. Recently, the growth slowed to about 1,200 to 1,500 students annually, but the county continues to have the largest class sizes in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Much of the problem was related to the recession that began in 2008. Out of a desire to maintain low tax rates, the Board of Supervisors advertised one tax rate, but adopted one that was lower. As a result, incoming revenue failed to keep pace with student growth, and it became impossible to even maintain status quo.

That’s until educators and parents faced the problem head on.

“We’ve got a black eye in Prince William County if we continue to have the largest class size in the state,” says Jim Livingston, president of the Prince William Education Association (PWEA).

Last year, PWEA hosted community discussions to address the ways oversized classes deplete education, causing the most damage to students who are disadvantaged. The Association asked concerned parents and educators to speak up at the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings.

That’s when members of the community delivered a surprise.

“[They] would talk about the kids and the need to reduce class sizes. But then they would throw in that the educators need a pay raise,” says Livingston.

“We never asked anyone to address that. But frankly, people understand that what’s good for the people they entrust with their children is good for the children.”

PWEA also stressed to members and other education advocates the importance of contacting school board members, representatives on the Board of County Supervisors, and state legislators. Tiffany Williams was one of many educators who spoke to meeting attendees about the way inadequate funding hurts kids.

An inappropriate educator-to-student ratio leads to “a lack in continuity of care,” Williams said. “It is even more difficult in classrooms that have students with diverse needs.”

The educators’ presence and stories made a difference.

In 2015, the school board created a needs-based budget with a salary step increase and additional funding for class size reduction. The proposal went to the Board of Supervisors along with an admonition that the goals of the budget could only be accomplished through maintenance of the advertised tax rates.

The board complied.

But the work is far from over. As Livingston says, the county’s situation developed over an extended period. Likewise, it will take an extended period for change to occur.

“I’m encouraged,” said Jim Livingston, “We are engaging. We have to show that we’re part of the discussion about building the economic base of our community. We’ve helped the community demonstrate that we all support our public education system.”

—Amanda Litvinov and Katie Kanner

Youngstown, Ohio

Educators, parents, and residents in Youngstown, Ohio, are united in their opposition to politically motivated laws designed to take over community schools. They view the laws as a ruse to further destabilize public schools and open the door to privately managed, for-profit charter school operators.

In Youngstown, educators, parents, students, and residents see the state takeover law as part of an attempt by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to promote charter schools. Last June, the law was secretly passed overnight without public debate and with the involvement of the state superintendent, whose deputy resigned this summer for illegally doctoring charter school grades.

The Ohio law authorizes an Academic Distress Commission with five members, three of whom are appointed by State Superintendent Richard Ross. Ross was handpicked by Kasich. The commission will pick a chief executive officer this year.

“The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t involve stakeholders—parents, educators, community members,” says Paula Valentini, a lifelong Youngstown resident and elementary teacher for 28 years.

“It empowers a CEO with a business management background to come in and act like a dictator and make sweeping changes. Too many of our kids have instability at home; they don’t need it at school.” Nearly two-thirds of Youngstown children live in poverty.

The CEO will have sole authority over all district operations and won’t have to answer to voters or the local school board. State school board member Patricia Bruns, panned the law. “Their idea is to take over the schools, dismantle what’s there, and dole them out to private, for-profit charters.”

Youngstown residents have used town hall meetings, rallies, panel discussions, and other activities to voice opposition to the takeover. Last fall, they experienced a setback when a Franklin County judge denied an injunction, which allowed the takeover to proceed. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Youngstown school district and joined by Ohio Education Association and the Youngstown Education Association.

But Valentini said the community will continue to stand up for students and schools. “With everything that’s happened, it’s brought us together because we don’t want to see our public schools replaced with private, for-profit charters that have a record of performing miserably. This is about our kids and what’s best for them.”

Parents also pressed for a legislative solution, and after nearly two dozen community meetings, Sen. Joe Schiavoni and Rep. Michelle Lapore-Hagan last fall introduced legislation to improve the law.

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—Félix Pérez

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

For Heather Sparks and other educators, parents, and community leaders, there was one clear sign that something needed to change: Third graders were taking anti-anxiety pills because they were worried that they would fail a high-stakes test and never making it to the fourth grade. Sparks, who teaches math to seventh and eighth graders, was hearing similar stories from across Oklahoma City.

“That started to really resonate with our community,” says Sparks, who was named state Teacher of the Year in 2009. “People were heartbroken by those stories, and they wanted to do something about it.”

High-stakes testing has served as a rallying cry for people all across the state, and led to creation of Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE). After doing more than 60 community presentations statewide last summer on the negative impact of high-stakes testing, VOICE became involved in the 2014 race for state superintendent of education.

Sparks says state superintendent Barresi had an “uncomfortable” relationship with parents and educators, who said Barresi refused to listen to their concerns.

To change the dynamic, VOICE invited Barresi, and the six Democratic and Republican candidates vying to replace her, to an “accountability session.” It was a chance to share information the group has collected from students, parents, educators, and community leaders about creating public schools that give all students an opportunity to succeed.

“We wanted to hold them accountable to our issues,” says Sparks, who emphasized that VOICE is nonpartisan and cannot support or endorse any candidate. “This was an opportunity to reveal what we think is working really well for education in Oklahoma. We also wanted to hold candidates accountable when it comes to our concerns.”

More than 1,000 people from many community groups turned out for the July 2014 event at Oklahoma City University.

“It was really exciting to see the community come together from across the city,” says Sparks, who played a key role in planning the session. “There was a real diversity among the organizations that all came together around the issue of education. It was just amazing.”

People are just fed up with high-stakes testing,” Sparks continues. “This really came to light during the accountability session, and it was refreshing to hear from those candidates who showed up that they support our ideas on how to create ‘A’ public schools.”

The candidates were asked to discuss their views on topics of importance to the parents and educators in the audience, including creating school assessments that are fair and take into account all factors that shape a school; eliminating high-stakes testing; funding public schools to reduce class sizes, improve resources, and pay teachers more; and restoring a love of learning to the classroom.

Barresi, who did not attend the event, was defeated by former teacher and state school board member Joy Hofmeister who was sworn in last year.

—Brian Washington

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.