Parents United for effective education

/ 4 August 2012 / eunice

Nathan Bergstedt, Grand Rapids Herald-Review, August 4, 2012 – “Schools are not just there for parents and their kids. Schools are there to provide for the community and the state. Schools are to provide democratic citizens for the state that can govern themselves,” said Mary Cecconi, Executive Director of Parents United for Public Schools, a state-wide non-profit organization focused on bettering public schools in Minnesota.

In essence part watch-dog group, part lobbyist organization, part informational entity, Parents United this year is celebrating 10 years of involvement in public school education in Minnesota. In the beginning, it was simply meant to be an organization that followed decisions made at the state level having to do with education, as well as bills that would affect spending and other boons and/or impediments to how the next generation is taught. Over the years, the purpose of the group evolved to take on the greater responsibilities of educational advocacy, and has become a highly influential group in educational policy making because of lobbying efforts, as well as by the means in which it disseminates information in a non-partisan way to those who would be most affected by changing policy.

“It was started by a group of parents from about 20 to 25 different districts who had done everything right. They had worked on PTAs and raised money, and then were asked to do levies, and some ran for school boards. They kept trying to say ‘What is Minnesota doing to keep funding for schools at an adequate level?’” said Cecconi. “And they decided ‘All we need is the information, and we’ll take it from there.’ So Parents United formed on the idea that we’ll tell you what’s happening at the state and federal level with legislation, and how it affects your local schools.”

With a higher amount of people who wanted a deeper understanding of what was happening, as well as those who wanted a greater level of involvement to initiate positive change in the educational system, Parents United began advocacy work about five years ago. And since public education is the one thing in which the state is constitutionally mandated to fund, Parents United works to make sure that the institution receives the funding that is due to it. But as much as it seeks funds for schools, Cecconi noted that “what the money goes towards is as important as the fact that they just fund it.”

“Especially over the past decade, they’re not using research, or evidence, to make their determinations where money should go,” said Cecconi. “It is ‘who’s in the political seat at the appropriate time,’ or ‘who chairs the committee.’ ‘How do we divert money into certain directions.’ ‘This is my favorite education plan…’ as opposed to ‘what is research saying?’ So we really started pushing more money, but it has to be wisely spent.”

By disassociating itself from standard partisanship, Parents United has managed to cast a wide net amongst parents of the state, and by doing so has managed to seek out some of the most logical solutions to our current educational problems. Looking specifically for evidence-based answers, the organization can manage to jettison ideological purity, and instead promote solutions which offer the greatest benefit to the widest number of families.

As an example that has made news lately has to do with “Parent Trigger” laws. Such a law failed to pass recently in Minnesota, but Cecconi has had a lot of conversations with people regarding these laws which essentially let parents take control of schools provided that they get signatures from more than 50 percent of the parents in the school to do so. Once parents have wrested control of the school, the board has to do what they say, including even going so far as to changing to a charter school.

“Big deal now, because isn’t it pure democracy? That’s the idea. Problem is, parents matriculate with their kids,” said Cecconi. “So as parents matriculate with their kids, you get a new kind of school. And then the next group of parents come in and say ‘You know, I really didn’t like that school. I think this school needs to be run on a Vo-Ed.’ And then the next group goes through. The reason that the system has a school board and the state is to provide consistency for that school so that the eldest child goes through a similar school as the youngest child.”

For more information on Parents United for Public Schools, visit their website at The organization periodically conducts ‘boot camps’ in order to teach parents and other concerned citizens how the educational system works, and what the role of various governmental entities are in the educational process.