Lorie Barzano, Co-Chair, CoalitionSAUS (Strengthen Austin Urban Schools), PAA affiliate and grassroots, parent led group representing 20 public school campuses in Austin’s urban core, which has a vision of quality, accessible public education for all. You can contact Lorie at email@example.com.
These days, it can seem like a new charter school pushes to open daily, state legislators sponsor ALEC-backed bills on a weekly basis, local school districts propose a school closure every month and the school year does not end without another round of teacher lay-offs and education budget cuts. It can look like corporate-driven education reforms come at you from all sides on every level at all times. As a grassroots, unpaid, parent-led organization, it can feel downright overwhelming.
CoalitionSAUS has worked hard all year. We held a candidates forum for the State Board of Education. We conducted multiple town hall meetings with Austin School Board Trustees. We conducted outreach with the Austin Council of PTA’s and staffed informational booths at dozens of school fairs. We reached out to Parents Across America and became an active affiliate. We attended and spoke at every monthly school board meeting. We formally and repeatedly requested that AISD implement an authentic, transparent, community-based, decision-making process that involves and empowers parents and community members. We participated in countless rallies and press conferences. We unsuccessfully protested the establishment of Austin’s first in-district charter school for co-location at two of our public school campuses. We sent a representative to the US Dept. of Education’s Parent Engagement Conference in Washington, DC. We drafted and passed an Anti-High Stakes Testing Resolution and successfully lobbied AISD’s Board to do the same. We wrote reams of letters and made a multitude of phone calls. We drafted and posted articles and did interviews with multiple members of the media. We did all the things you do as a grassroots organization on a mission passionately pursued. We reached the end of the school year feeling justifiably exhausted, unfairly maligned and institutionally outgunned.
We knew we had to do something to fortify ourselves and renew our spirits, so CoalitionSAUS decided to organize a joint meeting of every local group recently active on any of the long litany of corporate education reforms associated with the privatization of public education. We invited representatives from Save Texas Schools, TX Parents Opt Out of Testing, Education Austin-AFT, Occupy Austin’s Education Working Group, PRIDE (of the east side protesting the charter school) and the League of Women Voters. Multiple members from every organization attended. We could feel the simultaneous sense of relief and encouragement abuzz in the room.
CoalitionSAUS set a simple agenda for the evening with the stated purposes of the meeting: For all organizations to get to know each other; To detail each organization’s mission and goals; To share information on educational issues and express organizational policy priorities; For all organizations to coordinate activities and events; and To create the opportunity to augment each others’ efforts on behalf of public education.
We spent the first half of the meeting going around the room with each organization introducing itself. Each group explained how they organized, outlined their past activities and campaigns, described their constituency or membership, discussed their current policy priorities and announced their upcoming activities, campaigns and events. We spent the second half of the meeting having an open discussion about all the possibilities for collaboration, coordination, mutual support and amplifying our voices.
The group had a lengthy and extremely valuable discussion about the differences between our individual organizations. We discussed how each of us seems to focus on a slightly different educational issue and how we each have a variety of different strengths and expertise. We also discussed the differences between “what” the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations can “legally” do verse the 501(c)(4) organizations verse “what” the unincorporated organizations can do. We discussed how these organizational differences provided us with a multi-group strength in that they gave us the opportunity to add dimension and complexity to any individual organization’s planned activity, campaign or event.
The group also had a lengthy and extremely valuable discussion about what all of our different organizations have in common. We felt a renewed spirit and increased strength in recognizing how many things we had in common. Our organizations all share a basic belief in public education, grassroots organizing and a knowledge pool of current educational issues. All agreed that commercial forces, corporate foundations and chamber of commerce representatives currently push for the privatization of public education. Everyone recognized how much money these forces have at their disposal to hire lobbyists, pay for speakers, buy advertising and support advocacy groups on their behalf when compared to the amount of money organizations like ours have. All recognized that we can never win the funding battle. However, everyone agreed that our real strength comes from the bigger numbers of more legitimate constituents that we represent and how we must focus on a massive number of “boots on the ground” as a winning strategy.
In the end, everyone from all organizations felt our commonalities far outweigh our differences. We reached consensus on coordinating, collaborating and cooperating on a number of actions moving forward on our common cause. We agreed to coordinate multiple forums and town hall meetings for candidates for the State Board of Education and Austin School Board elections in November. We agreed to participate in and support each others’ activities and events. We agreed to synchronize our “narratives” so that each organization’s message compliments and augments the messages of all other organizations. We agreed to coordinate our efforts to promote narratives that re-claim language and words co-opted by corporate education reformers, i.e., accountability, innovation, parent choice and student achievement. We agreed to assign a liaison from each organization with responsibility for keeping in touch and reporting back on all other organizations. Finally, we all agreed to meet jointly at least quarterly to compare notes, synchronize messages, support each others’ activities and update ourselves on relevant educational issues and upcoming events.
Bottom line: We grew the people pool of each of our organizations, increased our outreach, amplified our voices, maximized our message, minimized duplication of effort, subsidized our resources and strengthen the spirit and resolve of all of our organizations…and we did it all without raising or spending any additional funding.