Greatest New Idea – The Parents Union

Richard Salbato 2-20-2012

I have written many times about the importance of education for all people’s future out of poverty and in fact how the founding fathers felt in the most important natural resource of any nation.Our education has become one of the worst in the world and those who are graduating cannot read or write. People who are trying to hire workers complain they cannot even find people who can be trained. Even in minimum wage jobs people apply who are un-bathed and dressed like hobos.

Everyday there are horror stories about our schools, what they are teaching, abuse of students, rape, unsafe, and learning nothing. Nonetheless, all government wants to do is give unions more money. In fact, most of the so called Stimulus Bill went to keep teachers from being fired for one year. A complete waste of money since the following year they were fired anyway because the states could not afford them.

The power of the unions is so great in Washington it seems impossible to correct the schools. However, I just read a solution that will work and I hope this plan will spread as fast as the Tea Parties.

This plan is the brain child of Scott Oki, a Microsoft senior executive. His plan is The Parents Union. Hhe



Three years ago, former Microsoft senior executive, Scott Oki had an epiphany. Encouraged by his wife Laurie, the 62-year-old Bellevue philanthropist decided to refocus his time and energies on a new project for the Oki Foundation: Reforming K-12 public schools.

Frustrated by the slow pace of public school reform, Oki visited public and private schools nationwide, read everything he could about education, talked with experts, and came to a realization: While there is a plethora of ideas on how to improve learning outcomes for children, few tools exist to effect systemic change.

In his 2009 book, Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto, Oki pointed to disturbing signs that K-12 public education in the United States is in crisis: Poor student achievement scores, declining graduation rates, disaffected parents, entrenched unions, standardized curricula, and demoralized teachers.

A self-described “serial entrepreneur” and community activist, Oki is passionate about his ideas and an ardent proponent of no-nonsense, “evidence-based” solutions. The former software innovator minces few words about his misgivings about public education. “The current school system is driven by formula,” he said. “Nothing about it makes any sense. It’s a broken, archaic way of managing schools. As a parent, I should have the flexibility to send my child to any school, but there is no flexibility in the system.”

In Oki's mind, the chief roadblocks to change are clear. A hidebound educational bureaucracy resistant to reform, coupled with well-organized teachers unions. “So long as the Washington Education Association [WEA] doesn’t back reform, nothing will happen,” he says.

Oki also is strongly in support of doing away with tenure and establishing merit-based pay for teachers. “Public schools don’t need more money. Most of that money has been misspent,” he said. “More should be spent on classrooms and decentralizing the school system. We spend 43 cents on the dollar supporting a central bureaucracy.”

Parent’s Union

His solution has been to create a new parent’s union to complement the WEA, the statewide teacher’s union.

“Children have no voice," Oki explained. "WEA represents 82,000 educators and is a powerful lobby.” Oki’s goal is to recruit a membership of 250,000 parents in three years.

“Given that the Washington State PTA [WSPTA] has a membership of 148,000 and the AARP has a Washington State membership of almost one million, we recognize a potential to significantly eclipse our goal of 250,000 members.”

Oki believes his new organization, named The Parents Union, would mobilize parents and concerned Washington citizens into an independent, grassroots base of power that advocates for children’s learning. Its mission is unambiguous: To provide the political will to pass much-needed legislation at the state level, work to improve the educational system at the school district level, and steer changes at the school, classroom, and individual student level.

The Parents Union, as Oki envisions it, will be a self-sustaining, membership-based organization. The Oki Foundation has already committed $250,000 for start-up and raised more than $800,000 from private individuals, corporations, and other foundations. Oki is close to recruiting a president and CEO and has enlisted the support of such civic leaders as former Washington state Gov. and Sen. Daniel J. Evans.

Oki’s plan also addresses his problems with school governance, which he says is a big factor in the ineffectual delivery of quality public education. “There’s so much waste and inefficiency now. Washington State has 295 school districts. Sixty-two have less than 200 students, and each district has a superintendent.” His alternative — school-based management — would follow a new business model. Principals would be the CEOs of their schools, reporting to a local board of directors appointed by the governor.

Greater local autonomy and parental engagement, he maintains, would provide a platform to debate substantive issues with public education. In his blueprint for The Parents Union, Oki’s business plan concludes that parents are the missing link in the system.

“There is clear evidence detailing the benefits of parental engagement, including increased student achievement, better social skills, and a higher chance of graduating from high school,” he writes. “Furthermore, engaging parents and families can be incredibly cost-effective; schools have to spend $1,000 more per student to achieve the same gains that accrue from increasing parent involvement.”

Oki’s parents union is not the first such union in the U.S.: Green Dot Public Schools, which turns around dysfunctional high schools in Los Angeles, Calif. within a union frame, spun off a parents union years ago and a number of other parents unions have also cropped up around the country, including unions in Chicago, New York City, Texas, and Connecticut.

Still, Oki explains that his proposed organization is unique in that it is the first statewide parents union in Washington State. “There are smaller organizations, like the Los Angeles Parents Revolution, but it is not statewide. It is my strong belief that without statewide organizations like The Parents Union, there will be insufficient leverage to cause legislative reform.”

Oki — himself a graduate of Hawthorne Elementary School, Sharples Junior High (since renamed Aki Kurose Middle School), and Franklin High School — recalls a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in New York City, arranged by his former Franklin classmate — then U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Upon hearing Oki describe his project, Duncan remarked: “Isn’t it interesting that this has never been done before at the state level in the U.S.?”

The key tool of The Parents Union is what Oki terms the Knowledge Action Network (KAN) — a parent-driven, proprietary technology platform. “KAN will be the central hub for engaging our parents,” Oki explained. “It will educate them on any number of issues affecting public education. It will give parents comprehensive information on their teachers, school, and district. Using social media tools, KAN would educate and engage parents to action.”

Among the information gleaned from the network, parents will be able to submit reviews of individual teachers at their children’s schools and access reviews written by other parents. Aggregating school ratings and rankings would enable parents to choose which schools match their children’s needs.

The network would also alert parents to issues facing local and state school systems, provide access to information about school board meetings and agendas, and provide an online “bulletin board” for information sharing about school- and district-specific issues. Armed with up-to-date data, Oki believes, parents will be empowered to advocate for change at the state and local level.

Liv Finne, Director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, (which published Oki’s book), thinks that Oki’s proposal is valuable. “I think it is a sound idea to disseminate ratings of schools and teachers to allow parents to make informed choices.”

Of course, KAN will need to establish guidelines and standards by which educators are measured to ensure parent ratings are accurate. "All efforts to increase transparency are good, provided the data is credible and actionable," explains Alliance for Education president Sara Morris.

Some education observers have reservations however. “We are all over transparency, but fairness is important,” said Lisa Macfarlane, senior advisor at the League for Education Voters [LEV], a statewide reform coalition. “Schools, like restaurants, shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”

“And it makes no sense to compare the test scores at Medina Elementary with those of an elementary school that is next to a housing project where there is a constant turnover of non-English-speaking children. The State Board of Education has done some of this accountability work,” she said.

Steve Jobs on School Unions

I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcome. I don't believe in equal outcome because unfortunately life's not like that. It would be a pretty boring place if it was. But I really believe in equal opportunity. Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education. Maybe even more important than a great family life, but I don't know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that. But it pains me because we do know how to provide a great education. We really do. We could make sure that every young child in this country got a great education. We fall far short of that.... The problem there of course is the unions. The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it's not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can't teach and administrators run the place and nobody can be fired. It's terrible.

[On Vouchers]

But in schools people don't feel that they're spending their own money. They feel like it's free, right? No one does any comparison shopping. A matter of fact if you want to put your kid in a private school, you can't take the forty-four hundred dollars a year out of the public school and use it, you have to come up with five or six thousand of your own money. I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you'd see a lot of new schools starting. I've suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have twenty-five year old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they'd start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you'd see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There's no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years

DM: But deservedly so.

SJ: But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now.

[On Digital Learning]

The market competition model seems to indicate that where there is a need there is a lot of providers willing to tailor their products to fit that need and a lot of competition which forces them to get better and better. I used to think when I was in my twenties that technology was the solution to most of the world's problems, but unfortunately it just ain't so... We need to attack these things at the root, which is people and how much freedom we give people, the competition that will attract the best people. Unfortunately, there are side effects, like pushing out a lot of 46 year old teachers who lost their spirit fifteen years ago and shouldn't be teaching anymore. I feel very strongly about this. I wish it was as simple as giving it over to the computer....

As you've pointed out I've helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don't need a computer. Here - why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don't need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

DM: But you do need a person.

SJ: You need a person. Especially with computers the way they are now. Computers are very reactive but they're not proactive; they are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something more proactive. They need a guide. They don't need an assistant. I think we have all the material in the world to solve this problem; it's just being deployed in other places. I've been a very strong believer in that what we need to do in education is to go to the full voucher system. I know this isn't what the interview was supposed to be about but it is what I care about a great deal.

(Source: Smithsonian Institution Oral and Video Histories)

The above interview was from 1995, but it is clear that Jobs did not significantly change his mind over time.  In 2007 he reiterated that unions and lifetime employment for teachers were at the heart of the problem.  This is from PC World:

During a joint appearance with Michael Dell that was sponsored by the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation, Jobs took on the unions by first comparing schools to small businesses, and school principals to CEOs. He then asked rhetorically: "What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in, they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good? Not really great ones, because if you're really smart, you go, 'I can't win.' "

He went on to say that "what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

Catholic Bishop on Public Schools

The Catholic bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., Bishop Joseph McFadden is being criticized for comments where he compares American public schools to the system that Hitler and Mussolini sought to create. I actually think that part of the criticism of McFadden is misplaced, though he is certainly worthy of criticism. McFadden’s controversial statements follow a call for Catholics to organize against President Obama and his health care program by leading Catholic leaders.

In an interview with the ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, McFadden was objecting to the lack of school vouchers in Pennsylvania and the lack of choice for many parents:

In the totalitarian government, they would love our system,” McFadden said. “This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all them tried to establish a monolith; so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things.”