Education Opinion

The Grass(roots) is Always Greener(?)

By Sara Mead — December 06, 2010 4 min read
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So everyone today wants to talk about Students First, the new venture that former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee launched today (on Oprah!) to organize parents and others as voices for children and a counter the the established adult interests that dominate education policy and politics.

I’m just glad to see some of the leading lights of the education reform movement finally coming around to what I argued 3 years ago they needed to be doing.

Seriously, though, there is a real need for more grassroots organizing work in the education reform space. Politics is not the only thing preventing our schools from being much better than they are, but stupid policies and entrenched political opposition remain a major obstacle to doing things that would improve our schools, and the only way to change that is by organizing and empowering parents, families, and communities to leverage their untapped political power as voices for children.

That said, I do have some concerns. First, while it’s great to have someone with Rhee’s national profile bringing new energy and $$ to this work, it would be very unfortunate if her high profile overshadowed the very important work that existing organizations have already been doing to organize parents and communities around education reform. Stand for Children, for example, is doing very nitty gritty on the ground work organizing families and other concerned individuals for education reform in six states and has notched up some pretty impressive victories at the state and local level (disc: they’re also a client of my employer, Bellwether Education Partners). ConnCAN is doing impressive work to organize parents and citizens for policy advocacy in Connecticut, with plans to take the model national. EdVoice, in California, and the members of the PIENetwork are also doing important work. And Democrats for Education Reform (disc: on whose board I serve) and its affiliated Education Reform Now! advocacy have increasingly been getting into the grassroots organizing game, with field organizers on the ground in New York city and state. And obviously, Steve Barr’s parent organizing work in Los Angeles has been well-documented. So, as my friend Dana Goldstein wrote today, no one should think Rhee is the first person to get it into her head to step into this space.

Beyond that: I deeply believe in the need for organizing of parents, families, communities, citizens, and even older students as advocates for the interests of students and children more broadly. And I believe there is evidence that the messages and policy goals of education reformers have real appeal to a diverse range of parents and community members. But we shouldn’t elide some of the tensions here, either. The best and most effective organizing is driven from the self-identified needs, concerns, and values of the people being organized. In many cases the needs and concerns that parents and citizens identify are congruent with those of education reformers, but in other cases they aren’t. Sure, parent and community member education is a critical part of any school reform organizing agenda, but I’m skeptical about the long-term sustainability of an organizing strategy that comes with a pre-baked education reform agenda based on the priorities of external reformers, and expects parents and communities to get in line with that agenda. If we really want to build a long-term, sustainable base of parents and citizen advocates for school reform, we need to be open to working for goals and needs of theirs that may not fit with the established school reform agenda (some of which may also be really valuable things for kids!), while also investing in long-term public education around goals that are not necessarily the most intuitive to the lay public. Humility and responsiveness to the needs of the folks we want to organize are critical to this work.

Ultimately, what I’d really like to see are powerful grassroots organizations organizing parents and concerned citizens to advocate on behalf of children holistically--not just for education reform (although that’s probably at the forefront of what any meaningful advocacy for kids must do), but also on the full range of issues--health, childcare, environmental issues--that affect children’s well-being and parents’ ability to raise their kids successfully in an increasingly crummy world. The emerging grassroots advocacy efforts in education reform have tremendous potential--but they only focus on one of the the issues that parents and adults who care about kids care about. There are advocacy organizations seeking to organize parents around other child well-being issues, but in many cases they are simply front-groups for established interests and agendas and are not great partners for education reform advocates to make common cause with. I’m optimistic about the potential of the emerging portfolio of education reform grassroots advocates. But I’d be even more excited if I saw grassroots organizing and advocacy capable of moving beyond the silos in which we policy and reform types tend to see kids to really advocate for children holistically in the way parents see them.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.