Parents join to push for better schools

Nancy Crop is a Palo Alto civil rights attorney. Cushon Bell is a Pasadena educational activist and former teacher. Teri Levy is a Los Angeles creative artist in fashion and photography.

But even though all three high-powered women are privileged to send their children to excellent public schools, they say they are haunted by the countless California children stuck at low-performing campuses. This weekend, they are giving up free time to train with 100 other parent leaders organizing for more school funding, top-notch teachers and a high-quality education for all students.

The leaders are part of Educate Our State, a fast-growing parent organizing network launched two years ago in San Francisco that now has 40,000 members throughout California. Their goal: to collect more than 1 million signatures to place a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s November ballot that would lower the voting threshold for local communities to raise money for their schools through hikes in fees and taxes.

The proposal would also seek to ensure that seniority is not the only factor in determining teacher layoffs -- a change they believe is key to retaining the best teachers, not simply the most experienced.


“Parents are outraged that we’ve allowed California schools to get where they have,” said Crystal Brown, one of six San Francisco mothers who initially started the group to protest a 25% budget cut totaling $113 million in their city schools. “We’re not happy, and we’ve decided enough is enough.”

At their training Saturday at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, Brown and other parents learned how to effectively tell their stories, organize a signature-gathering campaign and brainstorm festive campaign kickoff events.

Speakers included L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin.

“This is about getting a vast amount of parents up and down the state saying ... ‘We’re not going to take this anymore,’ ” Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) told the crowd.


That’s the message Educate Our State activists say they aim to deliver.

Levy, for instance, is a mother at high-performing Wonderland Elementary in Laurel Canyon, where she led efforts to raise $500,000 annually for art, music and other services. But Levy said such private fundraising was neither sustainable nor equitable.

So she launched efforts to raise awareness about the effects of cuts with a humorous video, “Hot for Teachers,” featuring actors Brian Austin Green, a Wonderland dad, and Megan Fox. It drew 1 million hits online, media coverage and a call from Brown in San Francisco.

The two women linked up, and other groups in Sacramento and Silicon Valley followed. Educate Our State now includes more than 20 organizations, including the California PTA.

Earlier this year, the all-volunteer, nonprofit network delivered 60,000 letters to legislators urging them to allow a vote on extending taxes to save schools from further cuts. They also launched Wake Up California rallies in 22 communities to protest budget cuts.

The proposed initiative will be the network’s most ambitious endeavor.

Brown said that the initiative’s precise content is still under discussion but that it would establish a high-quality education as a state constitutional right and allow local communities to raise taxes for schools with a simple majority vote rather than the current two-thirds requirement.

The initiative would also tackle the issue of seniority-based layoffs -- a sore point for many parents who see “rock star teachers” laid off in their schools rather than less effective but more senior educators. Brown stressed, however, that the network aimed to collaborate with teacher unions.


Yvette Garcia, a parent from the Central California town of Madera, and Bell, the Pasadena activist and former L.A. Unified teacher, said adequate funding was the key issue. Madera schools, for instance, have lost art, music, regular physical education and other activities -- causing children to lose interest in school, Garcia said.

“It will be huge to get parents to come together and realize we have the power to make changes and do right by our kids,” Bell said.