Three years ago, former Microsoft senior executive, Scott Oki had an epiphany. Encouraged by his wife Laurie, the 62-year-old Bellevue philanthropist decided to refocus his time and energies on a new project for the Oki Foundation: Reforming K-12 public schools.
Frustrated by the slow pace of public school reform, Oki visited public and private schools nationwide, read everything he could about education, talked with experts, and came to a realization: While there is a plethora of ideas on how to improve learning outcomes for children, few tools exist to effect systemic change.
In his 2009 book, Outrageous Learning: An Education Manifesto, Oki pointed to disturbing signs that K-12 public education in the United States is in crisis: Poor student achievement scores, declining graduation rates, disaffected parents, entrenched unions, standardized curricula, and demoralized teachers.
A self-described “serial entrepreneur” and community activist, Oki is passionate about his ideas and an ardent proponent of no-nonsense, “evidence-based” solutions. The former software innovator minces few words about his misgivings about public education. “The current school system is driven by formula,” he said. “Nothing about it makes any sense. It’s a broken, archaic way of managing schools. As a parent, I should have the flexibility to send my child to any school, but there is no flexibility in the system.”
In Oki's mind, the chief roadblocks to change are clear. A hidebound educational bureaucracy resistant to reform, coupled with well-organized teachers unions. “So long as the Washington Education Association [WEA] doesn’t back reform, nothing will happen,” he says.
Oki also is strongly in support of doing away with tenure and establishing merit-based pay for teachers. “Public schools don’t need more money. Most of that money has been misspent,” he said. “More should be spent on classrooms and decentralizing the school system. We spend 43 cents on the dollar supporting a central bureaucracy.”
His solution has been to create a new parent’s union to complement the WEA, the statewide teacher’s union. “Children have no voice," Oki explained. "WEA represents 82,000 educators and is a powerful lobby.” Oki’s goal is to recruit a membership of 250,000 parents in three years.
“Given that the Washington State PTA [WSPTA] has a membership of 148,000 and the AARP has a Washington State membership of almost one million, we recognize a potential to significantly eclipse our goal of 250,000 members.”
Oki believes his new organization, named The Parents Union, would mobilize parents and concerned Washington citizens into an independent, grassroots base of power that advocates for children’s learning. Its mission is unambiguous: To provide the political will to pass much-needed legislation at the state level, work to improve the educational system at the school district level, and steer changes at the school, classroom, and individual student level.
The Parents Union, as Oki envisions it, will be a self-sustaining, membership-based organization. The Oki Foundation has already committed $250,000 for start-up and raised more than $800,000 from private individuals, corporations, and other foundations. Oki is close to recruiting a president and CEO and has enlisted the support of such civic leaders as former Washington state Gov. and Sen. Daniel J. Evans.
Oki’s plan also addresses his problems with school governance, which he says is a big factor in the ineffectual delivery of quality public education. “There’s so much waste and inefficiency now. Washington State has 295 school districts. Sixty-two have less than 200 students, and each district has a superintendent.” His alternative — school-based management — would follow a new business model. Principals would be the CEOs of their schools, reporting to a local board of directors appointed by the governor.
Greater local autonomy and parental engagement, he maintains, would provide a platform to debate substantive issues with public education. In his blueprint for The Parents Union, Oki’s business plan concludes that parents are the missing link in the system.
“There is clear evidence detailing the benefits of parental engagement, including increased student achievement, better social skills, and a higher chance of graduating from high school,” he writes. “Furthermore, engaging parents and families can be incredibly cost-effective; schools have to spend $1,000 more per student to achieve the same gains that accrue from increasing parent involvement.”
Oki’s parents union is not the first such union in the U.S.: Green Dot Public Schools, which turns around dysfunctional high schools in Los Angeles, Calif. within a union frame, spun off a parents union years ago and a number of other parents unions have also cropped up around the country, including unions in Chicago, New York City, Texas, and Connecticut.
Still, Oki explains that his proposed organization is unique in that it is the first statewide parents union in Washington State. “There are smaller organizations, like the Los Angeles Parents Revolution, but it is not statewide. It is my strong belief that without statewide organizations like The Parents Union, there will be insufficient leverage to cause legislative reform.”
Oki — himself a graduate of Hawthorne Elementary School, Sharples Junior High (since renamed Aki Kurose Middle School), and Franklin High School — recalls a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in New York City, arranged by his former Franklin classmate — then U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Upon hearing Oki describe his project, Duncan remarked: “Isn’t it interesting that this has never been done before at the state level in the U.S.?”
The key tool of The Parents Union is what Oki terms the Knowledge Action Network (KAN) — a parent-driven, proprietary technology platform. “KAN will be the central hub for engaging our parents,” Oki explained. “It will educate them on any number of issues affecting public education. It will give parents comprehensive information on their teachers, school, and district. Using social media tools, KAN would educate and engage parents to action.”
Among the information gleaned from the network, parents will be able to submit reviews of individual teachers at their children’s schools and access reviews written by other parents. Aggregating school ratings and rankings would enable parents to choose which schools match their children’s needs.
The network would also alert parents to issues facing local and state school systems, provide access to information about school board meetings and agendas, and provide an online “bulletin board” for information sharing about school- and district-specific issues. Armed with up-to-date data, Oki believes, parents will be empowered to advocate for change at the state and local level.
Liv Finne, Director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, (which published Oki’s book), thinks that Oki’s proposal is valuable. “I think it is a sound idea to disseminate ratings of schools and teachers to allow parents to make informed choices.”
Of course, KAN will need to establish guidelines and standards by which educators are measured to ensure parent ratings are accurate. "All efforts to increase transparency are good, provided the data is credible and actionable," explains Alliance for Education president Sara Morris.
Some education observers have reservations however. “We are all over transparency, but fairness is important,” said Lisa Macfarlane, senior advisor at the League for Education Voters [LEV], a statewide reform coalition. “Schools, like restaurants, shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”
“And it makes no sense to compare the test scores at Medina Elementary with those of an elementary school that is next to a housing project where there is a constant turnover of non-English-speaking children. The State Board of Education has done some of this accountability work,” she said.
Washington Education Association spokesperson David Phelps concurs. “Fairness and understanding is critical in looking at results. The Association does not support a one-size-fits-all public education model for our students and children. We do not believe parents want their children squeezed into a one-size-fits-all model either.”
“Mr. Oki is suggesting that the competitive cut-and-thrust of the corporate world is appropriate for K-12 students and their educators. It is not. A well-rounded quality education, provided by quality educators, is,” he added.
While Macfarlane acknowledges that the Washington Education Association is a force, she says it doesn't prohibit change within the state education system. “The League [for Education Voters] has a good working relationship with WEA, but we don’t always agree with them," she explained. "We call our shots on what is best for kids. Sometimes we are working hand in glove together, and sometimes we are in a pitched battle. Even when we disagree, there’s mutual respect between our organizations.”
Critics also worry that the parents union may discredit the work of the Washington State Parent Teacher Alliance. Executive director Bill Williams describes the WSPTA as an effective grassroots organization that advocates for statewide policy change. “The Association was successful in pushing for the passage, in 2009, of House Bill 2261, which reforms the funding of schools, provides greater transparency, and revises the definition of basic education, and in 2010, Senate Bill 6696, which among other things created a pilot project to revise principal and teacher evaluations statewide."
"The WEA believes parents and families are essential to student success. Teachers must work to reach and motivate every student. Parents and families need to instill values of respect, responsibility — and a love of learning,” Phelps said. “Lawmakers need to give our public schools the resources they need. . . . It seems that Mr. Oki, through the creation of The Parents Union is both directly and indirectly suggesting that WSPTA fails to provide a strong and active voice for parents."
"The WEA does not believe that to be the case,” he added. “Although we may have occasional disagreements over the details of certain issues, WEA members respect their local PTA units and the statewide organization. Mr. Oki might be more successful in providing support to the WSPTA instead of endeavoring to reinvent the wheel.”
Williams says Oki’s ideas might also be duplicative of existing transparency efforts within the school system. “Each school district already publishes a school report card for each school in its district and the district as a whole. They are available from the local district and, typically, also on the district websites, although with 295 school districts there may be exceptions.”
The State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction publishes the data from the school report cards on its website, Williams explained. “There’s data from the state as a whole, for each district, and each school within the district.”
Whether a statewide parents union would be more effective in lobbying for state policy changes than existing nonprofit organizations remains a matter of conjecture. Macfarlane maintains that the League of Educator Voters has been an effective advocate for change in Olympia. “We’ve had some nice state policy wins that will help more kids achieve at higher levels. The League has been around for more than ten years advocating for reforms and resources, networking levy and bond committees, and school supporters and parents. We’ve amplified the voices of parents, students, teachers and voters,” she said. “Going forward, we will be doing more work organizing in low-income and communities of color.”
But Washington Policy Center education director Finne disagrees. “The League of Education Voters, Stand for Children, Partnership for Learning, and Alliance for Education are all working very hard for education reform, but they are not succeeding in getting reforms through our legislature. They lack the power of the WEA, which receives more than $33 million a year in revenues from taxpayer money deducted from teachers salaries,” Finn said. “A united voice for parents through My Parents Union would strengthen education reformers and lessen the clout of the state teachers union, which successfully blocks ten out of ten reforms in Olympia.”
Phelps takes issue with Finne's claims. “The Washington Education Association is not opposed to reform in public education. We believe in education reform that puts the needs and interests of students first. Effective education reform means that we are all working together, particularly in a new economic climate where schools must do more with less.”
“The dues which come to WEA are paid from an educator’s salary, just like membership dues for any other organization. The Association is not taxpayer-funded and to suggest or imply otherwise is both untrue and a standard tact of the Washington Policy Center.”
Critics of union groups like the WEA say that the overriding political leverage of teachers unions, particularly in collective bargaining, is keeping parents out of the loop on district-wide decisions. “Right now, the terms of collective bargaining agreements are decided in a series of closed-door meetings between union executives and school district representatives,” Finne says. “Parents are excluded. The negotiations are secret. Including The Parents Union representatives in collective bargaining negotiations would refocus all parties on the central mission of the schools: the education of children, not on the provision and protection of comfortable public sector jobs.”
Still Oki hasn't ruled out the possibility of working collaboratively with the WEA. “I want to work with teachers unions, not as adversaries but as advocates for change. If we are going to reform our public education system, it will largely be on the backs and shoulders of great teachers,” he said.
Alliance for Education president Sara Morris is also optimistic. “It depends on the leadership on both sides, but it’s certainly possible," she explains. "The Our Schools Coalition was a broad-based community effort that successfully pressed for the new Seattle Public Schools contract last year. It was built on the premise that parents, employers, and taxpayers have a legitimate voice in the bargaining process, and that bringing all factions together, most importantly teachers and administrators, in support of student achievement is the best – and really, the only – way to get significant forward motion."
Despite their reservations, educational leaders do think that Oki’s efforts deserve a fair hearing. “All comers to this work are welcome, and there’s more than enough room for everyone," Morris said. "The more voices advocating thoughtfully for students, the better.”
"Scott Oki is a passionate advocate for public schools in Washington," Phelps said. "His voice and passion are welcome. Any discussion of broader accountability is welcomed by the WEA. We believe parents and lawmakers do need to be held accountable for the achievements of our Washington public school students. If that is the basic intent of Mr. Oki’s proposal, then we look forward to focused, energetic, and genuine dialogue with him and others around these broader community accountability issues.”
For philanthropist Oki, one fact remains unassailable. Public schools will not change unless parents are empowered to advocate for children’s learning.
An earlier version of this story appeared in the International Examiner; it is reprinted under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.