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Can parents save the schools?


Few people not directly employed by the Rochester school district are as nimble at navigating local policies, labor agreements, and state education law as Carrie Remis.

In 2006, Remis co-founded the Rochester Fund for Educational Accountability, an all-volunteer organization that provided technical assistance and training to parent groups on federal education law (the group has since dissolved).

And in 2009, she founded the Parent Power Project to help parent organizations develop the skills to break through school bureaucracies.

Her efforts have earned her friends in high places. They've also earned her some enemies.

Critics say Remis peddles a particular brand of support for parents popular with politicians and the business community. And they say she's anti-teacher and anti-union — little more than another white do-gooder in a largely black and brown school district who doesn't really understand the communities she's trying to help.

But Remis has no problem defending herself. She is bright, contemplative, and not afraid to speak her mind. When Lovely Warren launched her mayoral campaign last year, Remis was at her side. And she was one of Warren's campaign education policy advisors.

When Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski challenged Warren to a debate on education issues, the Warren campaign offered Remis instead. The debate never took place, but Remis says she was up for the job.

From day one, Warren seized the education platform by offering an alternative to the city's failing school system. It's not surprising that Warren recently appointed Remis to co-chair her Early Learning Council. The other co-chair is Joanne Larson, an education professor at the University of Rochester's Warner Graduate School.

Warren wants to engage the community in a robust conversation about Rochester's dire educational situation, Remis says.

"She's got a bolder vision of family involvement," she says.

Empowering students and parents is a guiding principle shared by Warren, Larson, and Remis.

Larson recently published "Radical Equality in Education, Starting Over in US Schooling." She takes the position that the current public school model is broken and obsolete, and that a new model involving greater student and parent participation for the purpose of learning rather than strictly job prep is needed.

Remis says the changes needed in Rochester's schools and in many urban districts could have come sooner if parents had the resources. But in many urban districts, she says, parents lack the time, education, and resources to comb budgets, policies, and curriculum the way their suburban peers can.

The power dynamics are different, Remis says, and for urban parents, engagement is frequently relegated to volunteering as lunchroom monitors and other less important tasks.

Arming parents with knowledge does not make her anti-teacher or anti-union, Remis says. And she says she won't make scapegoats of the teachers union or its president, Adam Urbanski.

"First of all, I come from a family of public educators," she says. "But I do think there is a difference between teachers and union leaders. I would never say teachers shouldn't be represented. I know the history."

But Remis took a much more strident tone when she addressed a hearing of the New York State Senate Education Commission last year. She accused unions of stifling education reform.

"Special interests — namely the New York State United Teachers and their surrogates — are strategically taking advantage of parents who feel excluded, amplifying our concerns and distorting the issues," she said.

Remis says she was trying to stress that union representatives frequently wrap their public conversations in terms of what's best for students and parents, though they represent neither. And parents need to have their own autonomous voice, she says.

Remis says there needs to be greater transparency to labor agreements, and that parents and the public should have some say in what goes into them. Decision-making between the superintendent and union bosses behind closed doors has diluted what should be a more democratic process, she says.

Though Remis doesn't advocate for the elimination of tenure, she says the standards for awarding it are low and uneven. That keeps younger teachers from developing into strong professionals, she says.

The combination of tenure and seniority, which allows senior teachers to displace newer teachers, has become a serious management issue for some school administrations.

The really troubling issue facing the city school district — one that illustrates the problems with the current teachers' contract — is how the district will handle inevitable layoffs as enrollment declines, Remis says.

"It's just a matter of time," she says. "When you look at the total overall student-to-teacher ratio, we have the lowest in the state. And that's not sustainable."

The current contract would prevent the district from making thoughtful employment decisions in favor of simply cutting the newest teachers, Remis says.

And Remis is particularly bullish on the idea of clarifying talk around accountability and autonomy — favorite buzzwords in the education reformers' lexicon.

There should be less emphasis on central office governance, she says, while teachers should have more autonomy at the school level to make decisions about everything from hiring to curriculum. It's an approach that Boston's Pilot Schools have taken with some success.

In terms of accountability, Remis recommends having student and parent surveys become part of the professional evaluation of teachers and principals. The concept, which is not uncommon in higher education, is permitted under state education law, she says. But it didn't make it into the local evaluations.

Tests results and graduation rates matter, Remis says, but there's a difference between how parents and the government view accountability. The government tends to be more data-driven, she says, while parents expect clear and timely communication.

And parents become frustrated when calls go unreturned or their questions get passed from voice mail to voice mail, Remis says.

Sometime in June, the Early Learning Council will make recommendations to Mayor Warren about strengthening parents' educational hand.

Remis says the council has been focused on pre-k, and figuring out how many children need access to it, since not all enroll through the city school district.

She dismisses the criticism that Warren's limited influence over the school district means she won't be able to follow through on a campaign pledge to increase educational opportunities for Rochester's students and families.

Remis says Warren can fill information gaps, one of the central barriers to meaningful parent involvement, through easy- to-understand guides like school report cards that fully describe each school in the city, including private schools and charters. They would include key information about each school to help parents make the best choices, she says.

Remis also criticizes the district's cumbersome enrollment process. She says she favors a citywide application that could be used for pre-k on up and even include the city's public charter schools. That would deflate the narrative of charter parents being more engaged because they're motivated enough to fill out the applications, Remis says.

Remis says all public schools should compete for students and the funding that goes with them — what some policymakers refer to as backpack funding.

"That shifts the conversation away from whether parents have the motivation to fill out forms, to parents choosing schools that are a good fit," Remis says. "That shifts the responsibility to the schools to start building those relationships with parents early."

Perhaps the most important thing Warren can do is apply the necessary political pressure to drive change in Rochester, Remis says. She can use her position to keep education on the front burner — something that Remis says Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy started to do when he was mayor.

Rochester is stuck in talking mode about its education problems, Remis says, but little discernable action comes out of it.

"If Susan B. Anthony operated this way, I wouldn't have the right to vote," she says.