Fourth in a series of profiles of PAA founding members.
For PAA co-founder Julie Woestehoff, the high point of the recently concluded Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike was the solidarity she saw between teachers, parents, students and community members.
“We showed a very powerful united front,” she said. “It was not just teachers, it was the whole community. We all felt that we were speaking out in favor of a better vision of education.”
Julie has worked for decades to bring Chicago teachers, parents and communities together. She currently heads up Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a Chicago parents’ organization formed twenty-five years ago, at the time of the last CTU strike. Then as now, many Chicago schools were dilapidated, and lacked basic service such as lunchrooms or libraries. Parents felt that the politicians making school policy had limited interest in the welfare of Chicago schoolchildren.
“We knew the real enemy wasn’t teacher avarice or unions but public officials who refused to provide the needed resources for our schools,” Julie explained.
A graduate student with two young children, Julie was drawn into PURE’s community-centered approach to parent activism and school improvement. She started working as a volunteer, and became executive director in 1995. In 2003, Julie and the PURE staff won the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award. The next year, she was named one of Chicago’s 100 most powerful women by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Working through PURE, Julie focused many of her early efforts on the development of Local Schools Councils (LSCs), which were created by state law for Chicago in the late 1980s (and which PAA uses as one model of effective parent involvement). LSCs are headed by parents and wield real power, including the ability to hire and fire a school’s principal. PURE took a leading role in recruiting and training parents to serve on LSCs, as well as participating in other parent-focused endeavors.
“There was a lot of community collaboration,” Julie explained. “The Board of Education had committees that actually discussed the business of the board in public meetings. They actually listened to you and talked to you. It was what you picture when you talk about parents being at the table, talking about important things.”
But although parents were eager to help run their schools, and early studies indicated that the efforts were producing results, progress wasn’t fast enough for Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 1995, Daley took over the Chicago Public Schools and installed his city budget manager, Paul Vallas as chief executive officer, even though Vallas had no educational experience.
Vallas, who would go on to head the school systems in Philadelphia and New Orleans, was an early proponent of a “business” approach to education, with a special interest in high-stakes standardized testing. Among other policies, he decreed that students who failed to pass “gateway” exams in third, fifth and eight grade would be held back, no matter how well they had performed during the school year. The new policy wreaked havoc on students and their families, and PURE’s staff members found themselves devoting growing amounts of time to advising families of affected students.
By the time Vallas was replaced by Arne Duncan, corporate-style “reforms” had become fashionable nationwide, bankrolled by big-money groups such as the Broad, Gates and Walton foundations. As “reformers” such as Duncan ramped up testing, closed neighborhood schools and expanded charters, corporate and foundation money moved in their direction. Grassroots parents groups such as PURE saw their funding dwindle.
While Duncan was eventually tapped to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, many Chicago parents and teachers believed his approach did far more to disrupt schools than improve them. These frustrations surfaced in the recent strike. In addition to addressing salaries and benefits, Julie noted, participants “worked very hard at sending a message about what public education should really be about.”
PURE currently operates on a much smaller budget than it once enjoyed, focusing its effort on fighting the misuse of standardized testing and on exposing shortcomings in Chicago’s charter school sector. As well as being a nationally recognized expert on many educational subjects, Julie has become a mainstay of Parents Across America. Recently, her tasks have included putting out the weekly newsletter and working on the website, along with other administrative duties.
“I hope that we can do what we’ve been doing and do more and do it better,” she says of PAA and its future. “Given the millions of dollars that have been poured into fake parent groups that mouth the corporate agenda, I think we’ve filled a real need for a national parent voice that’s authentic and tied to the issues that matter to parents in communities around the county.”