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Exclusive: Ben Austin launches Kids Coalition to give LA students a legal right to a high-quality education

Sarah Favot | September 18, 2017

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Ben Austin (courtesy)

The man who helped craft the state’s parent trigger law and who founded Parent Revolution has launched a new organization that aims to put a kids-first agenda into practice and give LA Unified students and their parents legal rights in decisions about their education.

The organization is called Kids Coalition and will be headed by Ben Austin. The organization was officially formed Friday with a vote by LA Promise Fund’s board of directors, which will incubate the new organization.

“A kids-first agenda, if you were to actually implement it, is one of the most radical political agendas in the country,” Austin said in an interview. “What’s exciting to me about this moment is the potential opportunity to translate kids first from a catchy political slogan into an operational reality and a legal right for all students in the LAUSD.”

The organization aims to give Los Angeles kids a legal right to a high-quality public education. No such right exists at the state level.

In discussing the need for a kids-first agenda, Austin cites data points that show that less than half of 2016 graduates were eligible for the state’s public university system and that 71 percent of LA Unified students were not proficient in math on state standardized tests last year.

Austin, who has been working in education reform for two decades, said it is a unique time in LA Unified’s history with the election of a pro-reform majority of the school board who won their seats without the support of an incumbent mayor.

He also said the fact that four board members will have 3.5 more years on the board, and three members will have 5.5 years on the board, means more time for the current board members to enact policy without elections getting in the way.

While parents can attend school board meetings and speak for a minute or two during the public comment period, Austin said that is not enough. Most students can’t vote for their school board members, and some parents can’t even vote due to their immigration status, Austin said.

He said the kids-first agenda will be based on a foundation based on power, not policy.

“We need to create legally and politically powerful seats at the table for parents and students to engage in this conversation as equals with traditional holders of power in LAUSD.”

Austin’s first foray into education politics was working for First 5 LA to create universal preschool. He then worked on the successful effort to bring Locke High School under Green Dot Public Schools’ charter school network. He then began working to pass the Parent Trigger Law and founded Parent Revolution to help parents use the new law, which allows them to change the administration of a low-performing school. He also worked for Students Matter, which brought the landmark Vergara v. California case that challenged the state’s teacher tenure laws.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the education bureaucracy is rigged. Trying to get the system to serve kids under its existing power structure is like going to Vegas and trying to consistently win against the house. It’s mathematically possible, but unlikely. That doesn’t mean the LAUSD isn’t populated by committed educators and good people. I’ve been an LAUSD dad for six years, and this is my third year on our school site council. I love my school community. My children have received a good education from some great educators. But it’s in the context of a broken system,” he said.

Kids Coalition is taking school board President Ref Rodriguez’s kids-first resolution, which called for the superintendent to include a student impact statement for every decision that comes before the board, a step further.

Austin said that when he and the deputy director of Kids Coalition, Maribel Gonzalez, registered as lobbyists with the district, students were not an interest group listed as an option to lobby for. Austin said he check the “other” box and wrote in “students of LAUSD.”

This explains how the system isn’t set up to put kids first but other lobbying interests, not only employee unions but interests like textbook manufacturers, Austin said.

Austin said he isn’t interested in creating a new Parent Revolution, but his group will work within the education ecosystem that exists in LA. He lists Parent Revolution as a partner along with LA Promise Fund, Speak UP, ExED, and Reframe Labs.

The organization will be funded by philanthropists like Frank Baxter, Bloomfield Family Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Megan Chernin, and Richard and Heidi Landers. It is also funded by the Los Angeles School Police Association.

Austin said Kids Coalition’s goals were formed by his work organizing parents at low-performing schools in low-income and communities of color as well as his experience as an LA Unified parent at the high-performing Westside school his daughters attend.

He said he’s seen the difference between how parents from these two communities are treated by LA Unified administrators, but he added that he’s also seen privileged parents be mistreated by school officials.

He also noted that when he drops off his daughters and walks them into their classrooms, the classroom looks, smells, and operates the same way his LA Unified classroom did 40 years ago.

“I think all kids right now need an education that prepares them to be their best selves in the world of today, not the world of yesterday.”

Gonzalez said she believes that families are demoralized, skeptical, and lack information about issues and aren’t being given the opportunity to help implement initiatives.

“If they believe it’s a good idea for their children, I really believe that communities are going to help and be invested and be bought in,” she said.

Both Austin and Gonzalez worked on the LA Unified board elections. Gonzalez most recently was the California managing director at Students For Education Reform, and Austin worked on an independent expenditure committee supporting Nick Melvoin. Both Austin and Gonzalez worked at Parent Revolution.

Disclosure: The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation funds Spanish translation on LA School Report en Español. 

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