Founding Father

In getting a charter school started, I learned how to make people really angry

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME; Pencils—Getty Images

I expect people to see the good in me even when there isn't any. So when I volunteered to become a founding parent of a charter school in Los Angeles, I imagined getting a lot of kudos for my effort to improve my community, which I planned to do mostly by naming things or making speeches. I didn't really know what a founding parent did.

But I did know that being one meant my 3-year-old son Laszlo would get priority when we enroll him in kindergarten--my real motivation. Sending Laszlo to public school is important to me because private school is expensive, involves stress-inducing applications and, from what I gather from films and novels, requires students to do drugs that are also expensive. Also, having gone to public school, I believe that having the diverse student body that charters do is crucial. Not that L.A. private schools don't have diversity. One school we toured had both parents who were TV-drama writers and parents who were TV-sitcom writers.

Unfortunately, the public school in my area isn't great, since my area is in America. So I started visiting charter schools, which don't have to follow the same rules as the rest of the district. The other founding parents and the professionals who'd run our new school were incredible: They knew a lot about pedagogy, local politics and finances. They raised money and recruited great teachers, and many, like us, were invested in the school years before their kids would attend.

I had been involved in education reform since 1989, my senior year of high school, when my friend Jay Brown figured out that we could do anything if it ostensibly supported the teachers' union against the board of ed, so we got all the kids to go "on strike" by leaving school in the middle of the day. We would have pushed for a Jell-O-wrestling fundraiser in the gym if it weren't for the fact that we already had an annual Jell-O-wrestling fundraiser in the gym. Going to high school in New Jersey in the 1980s was pretty awesome.

When I went to meetings and spoke about my desire to help my community, I felt just like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis in the new movie Won't Back Down, only with far more people watching. I bonded with an ethnically diverse group of parents, some of whom had had bad experiences with their local public schools.

I learned things that surprised me: 80% of the kids in the Los Angeles unified school district get free or reduced-price lunches, and 91% of them are nonwhite. Which means that either I know every white person in L.A. or nearly every white person in L.A. somehow sends their kids to private school. I also learned a few things I wasn't told directly: charter schools set their own class sizes, create their own lunch programs, offer arts classes, focus on project-based learning and don't waste all their class time teaching to a state test. But the real difference is that they don't have to be unionized--which means they can fire teachers who, as shown in Won't Back Down, have lost their passion for teaching. The only organization besides public schools that can't fire people for incompetence is an extended family, and there's no way I'd leave my kid alone with one of them for eight hours a day anyway.

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