7 Rules for Radical Parents to Demand Great Education

My (almost) 5-year-old is super excited about September 12th.  That’s the day when she and her 3-year-old brother will start their fall schedule as homeschool students.  As we enter into another “Back to School” season, my heart is breaking for the thousands of families across Chicago that do not have that same sense of certainty about when school is going to begin for them.  And I wonder what might happen if more parents were to do what my wife and I did and act radically on behalf of their children’s education.

So as a trained community organizer and a radical parent myself, I thought I would take a page from Saul Alinsky’s book and lay out some Rules for Radical Parents who are ready to demand a great education for their children no matter the cost or the consequences.  

  1.  Your child is your child.

It has become some kind of unspoken rule that public schools have a right to facilitate the education of every child, especially children from low and moderate-income families.  But, this is not at all true.  It has been said much more artfully than I can say it here; but parents must never abdicate their role as the primary caretaker and educator of their own children.  If someone wants the privilege of participating in the education of my little miracles, they will have to earn it.  Don’t ever forget that God gave your children to you, not to any school (district run, charter or otherwise).

  1.  It’s okay to have high expectations.

What do you dream for your child?  Do you imagine that she can become something amazing?  Do you hope that he can have an unforgettable impact on the world?  There’s no reason not to.  And there is no reason why each one of our children should not have access to the kind of education that enables them to reach their full potential.  In many ways (some subtle and some not so subtle) the system wants to tell us that for children who grow up in poor neighborhoods and in families of color that greatness is just not in the cards.  But, that is a lie.  Every child (including yours) has incredible potential.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you (or your child) anything different.  And that goes for those who tell you verbally and those who tell by their actions and decisions.

  1.  While the grown ups fight, our kids keep growing up.

It just took our state government almost two years to pass a budget.  And when they did, it was a partial budget full of gaps and contingencies.  The Chicago Teachers Union is on the brink of it’s second major strike in five years.  The Union blames CPS.  CPS blames the Union.  The Democrats blame the Republicans and the Republicans blame the Democrats.  And don’t even get me started on the people who blame the mayor.  Every adult has a story to tell about why the schools have not lived up to their promise and responsibility to provide a great education for every child.  But, there is really only one story that matters and that is the story of the children whose lives are at stake in these schools.  The story of our children.  And in that story, they only get to be in 3rd grade once.  We don’t have time to sort through grown up mess.  We have little lives to look after.  We need solutions that work right now.

  1.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ok…I didn’t make this one up.  But it is a truism that rings loud and clear in the current educational climate in Chicago.  It seems like nothing is working.  The state doesn’t provide enough funding.  Despite best efforts, the public school district struggles to keep its large bureaucracy churning out quality at every school every day.  The Chicago Teachers Union can’t come to terms with a contract that a third party arbiter agreed was fair given the circumstances.  The cost of private education is at an all time high.  The Catholic schools seem to have all but disappeared.  And the supply of quality public schools (traditional and charter) is far outpaced by the demand.

In times like these, children need radical parents who will take drastic steps to ensure that they receive the high quality education that they deserve.  Forget about “save our schools”.  How about “save our children”?

  1.  We parents have more power than we think.

When I was an organizer in training on the Westside of Chicago, I learned a phrase that is still alive in movements across America today, “The people united will never be defeated.”  When people come together they have the power to withhold their participation, to apply the force of their voices, their values and their votes on decision makers, policy makers and even other private citizens.

Just think about it.  There are almost 750,000 children in the City of Chicago (and all of them have a right to a public school education even if some of these families have selected other options).  If we have on average 3 children each, that means that there are somewhere around 250,000 parents in this city (and many of those “parents” are couples).  The point is that there are more of us than there are principals, or CPS board appointees or Chicago Teachers Union members.  The last mayoral election was decided by 65,562 votes.  There are nearly four times that many parents here.  

And those are just the numbers.  I don’t even have to try to convince you that parents have more logistical abilities (can you say bedtime routine?), creativity and staying power than anyone could ever imagine.  If you’re raising kids, then you know this.  If we wanted to, we could make anything happen in this city.

  1.  You don’t have to take it.

This rule becomes quite obvious when you read rule #5 (at least as it applies to parents as a collective unit).  But, I’m not talking about the fact that WE don’t have take it because WE are so powerful.  I truly mean that YOU don’t have to take it.

It’s not because you’re a part of a powerful group of people.  It is because you are an important and valuable person.  Your humanity entitles you to an experience of dignity, respect and opportunity.  Your position as an American ensures you the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  After all, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Don’t settle.  Don’t ever settle.  Not for yourself and certainly not for your children.  Your family deserves the very best and it is disrespectful and unacceptable for anyone to offer you anything less.

  1.  Your children are totally worth the effort.

It takes work to be radical.  When my wife and I decided to homeschool our children, we were taking on some extra work.  She would have to leave a career she loved.  We would both have to read books (me more so than her since she’s a teacher by trade).  We had to build out rooms in our house and community in our lives.  We have had to seek out extracurricular activities and pay a little more on our electric bill.  But, when my four-year-old daughter picks up my Sunday paper and starts to read the front page articles, I realize that it’s worth it.  It is all worth it.

And your child is worth it too.  Whatever it takes, I promise that when you see real results for your children, every sacrifice will seem small.  But, then again…you’re a parent.  You know that already.

So, do I think that every parent should become a homeschooling parent?  Of course not (though I do think a lot more of us should think about it).  Homeschooling is not the only radical thing that parents can do.  I guess that’s the point of being radical.  Radical is ambitious and creative.  Radical might take over a school via the LSC or by pushing for a new leader.  Radical might design a school and push it through the charter approval process.  Radical might form new partnerships with loving, committed teachers that have nothing to do with Chicago Public Schools or the Chicago Teachers Union.  Radical might develop community based education networks run by teachers, parents, families and community volunteers.  Radical just might do anything…anything but settle.

Radical parents won’t stop until their children have the high quality education that they deserve.
Chicago Unheard is inviting all radical parents to meet us at our very first Parent Congress.  We’re going to talk.  We’re going to unite.  We’re going to be radical together.  Get more information here.  

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.