Students whose parents are involved in their children’s education do better in school. There’s no dispute about that.

But one parent group, San Diego United Parents for Education, or UPforEd, has recently been in a skirmish with the teacher’s union, formally known as the San Diego Educators Association. The union has accused UPforEd of trying to turn neighborhood schools into charter schools.

Christie Ritter on Schools

By unanimously agreeing to issue a proclamation recognizing UPforEd at its meeting Tuesday night, the San Diego Unified School District board has, at the very least, declared itself to be in support of parent involvement. But there could be some push-back from the teachers union.

It’s not controversial on its face: The school board decides to honor an organization that encourages and trains parents to play an active role in their children’s schools.

After all, the district is sponsoring National Parent Involvement Day Thursday, Nov. 21. It has a department for Parent Outreach and Engagement, and hosts a Parent University. Cindy Marten, the district superintendent, has been praised nationally for her “deep parent ties.” (Marten also once served on UPforEd’s education advisory committee.)

But the union suspects the group is trying to spearhead no less than a corporate takeover of public schools.

Teachers union president Bill Freeman said UPforEd’s goal is not just parent engagement. “They were soliciting signatures from parents to attempt to convert some of our district schools to charters. I don’t know what their intentions are, what we have to go by is their website.”

The website does indeed include a Parent Toolbox with an explanation of California’s Parent Trigger Law, which allows parents to organize in order to force a school district to transform a failing school. So far only two schools statewide, one in Adelanto and one in Los Angeles, have become charter schools through the law, but parents at other schools have used the measure as leverage to negotiate for leadership changes and other school improvements.

The San Diego teacher’s union held a workshop on Sept. 28 aimed at training teachers how to “work together to involve other union members and parents in protecting your school from takeover.” They called UPforEd “a corporate-funded group” whose “leaders and paid staff are a who’s who of the charter school movement” in a flier advertising the event.

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of UPforEd, said the union is “making that assumption because I worked for the California Charter Schools Association.” She said UPforEd has done research about what San Diego parents want, and using the Trigger Law to transform failing schools into charters is not it.

“Parents here want to work to improve schools and that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Berlanga said. “We view the Parent Trigger as the last resort. We’re nowhere near that. We’ll be 3 years old in February and there hasn’t been a single petition circulated. That’s not what we’re about, and the evidence supports that.”

Among the union’s other concerns about UPforEd:

UPforEd launched its own teacher awards program.

Freeman said the award nominations are a ruse to build a database of parent contact information. The union sent a flier to teachers urging them not to send the UPforEd teacher nomination forms home with their students and to call Marten’s office to urge the district to “stop using its resources to support UPforEd’s program to turn district schools into privately operated charters.”

“If they want to honor teachers, that’s fine, we have a Teacher of the Year program where teachers are honored, but we do not collect parent information from all of our students, that’s our concern,” Freeman said. “It has nothing to do with honoring teachers, it’s collecting information on our parents, by sending forms home with our students, that’s what we don’t want. It’s not that we don’t want to honor teachers.”

Charter school teachers are rarely unionized.

Nationwide, the number is about 12 percent.

In his most recent State of the District address, Freeman told teacher union members to be wary of UPforEd.

“So-called reform groups, such as UPforEd, are becoming more and more aggressive with their agenda and are working to organize parents to support their policies. These groups will put downward pressure on the standards in our district, making it even more important that we work to organize parents across the district.

As of this year, there are 49 charter schools in our district, with only four of them being union. At least three more charters are anticipated to open soon. These non-union schools, without the ability of their educators to collectively bargain, will also place downward pressure on the standards in our district.”

UPforEd is largely funded by a major charter school supporter.

Berlanga acknowledged that philanthropist Rod Dammeyer gave the group $1 million in seed money, but said he has not committed to provide any funding past 2013. (Full disclosure: I’m a parent and donated $5 to UPforEd, as a hat tip to their live tweeting of school board meetings.) 

Dammeyer bankrolled a failed effort to radically revamp the school board. He’s also on the board of charter High Tech High and the California Charter Schools Association.

Freeman acknowledged that Berlanga reached out to try to schedule a meeting with him after he addressed the school board on May 14 about the union’s concern regarding UPforEd’s activities.

“It’s just that I’ve not had time to sit down and talk with her, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, it’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s that I’ve not found the time to do it yet,” Freeman said.

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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