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Jose A. Herrera, the father of two school-age children in New York City, said he used to be completely disengaged from politics—he didn’t even vote.
But that all changed after he successfully teamed up with other parents to push to move his elder son’s charter school from a community center into a real school building, where students would have access to a cafeteria, a library, and a gym.
That victory inspired Mr. Herrerra to begin volunteering for Families for Excellent Schools, a New York City-based education advocacy organization that trains parents to lobby for the expansion and support of charter schools in New York City and Connecticut. Now, he’s an organizer for the group, working with parents much like himself.
In urban districts across the country, a new crop of education advocacy organizations promoting ideas like school choice and free-market practices for K-12 public education has begun tapping into parents like Mr. Herrera to press for changes to the public school system at the state and local levels.
While the groups—such as StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Parent Revolution—insist they are helping solidify and sustain grassroots movements that are already bubbling up from local communities, others criticize them for strategically mobilizing parents for what they say is a national agenda fueled by outside groups and funding streams.
“I feel like what’s emerged [with these new groups] is a strategic response on the part of certain organizations that are extremely well funded by outside organizations, which is something different from traditional education organizations,” said John S. Rogers, an associate professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies grassroots community organizing in education.
Debate Over Role
These new groups tend to share an opposition to teachers’ unions, said Mr. Rogers, and a general ideological uniformity that favors free-market changes and school choice that set them apart from other political and civic efforts from parent-focused education groups.
The organizations targeting parents have emerged as a broader set of groups tries to exert influence over education policy through state-level lobbying and local activism.
But Beth Doctor, the California state outreach director for the Sacramento, Calif.-based StudentsFirst, sees it differently.
While the nationwide organization, which was founded by Michelle A. Rhee, a former chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, does actively seek out communities to lobby for certain changes—such as implementing teacher merit pay, eliminating teacher tenure, and expanding school choice options—many of the parent cohorts that Ms. Doctor works with formed on their own and later connected with StudentsFirst, she said.
Ms. Doctor describes her work as providing a “bridge” to bring parents into the political process. “We want to break the complications down and make the process as seamless as possible,” she said.
Kellen N. Arno, the vice president of membership for StudentsFirst, agreed that the organization focuses on hiring organizers with strong local ties and partnering with local community leaders who are already working for change.
But time is always a challenge when working with parents, who are already stretched between work and raising their children, he said, so it is the organization’s job to “do all the legwork to get [the parents] to the capital, ... so that everything is cued up, teed up, and ready to go, so all [parents] have to do is show up.”
That mentality could jeopardize the authenticity of their efforts, said Jeanne Allen, the president emeritus and founder of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher, pro-charter advocacy and research group, which is considering extending its parent-outreach efforts.
Organizations should focus their efforts on fostering and supporting a smaller number of parents who have the time, energy, and desire to be politically engaged in education, rather than amassing a laundry list of parents who are more superficially tied to the issues, she said.
“The reform movement needs to understand and spend time cultivating small pods of people who can literally become the experts that we in the policy world support, as opposed to us being the experts and the parents following along behind us,” she said.
Mr. Herrera, the parent-turned-organizer for Families for Excellent Schools in New York, admitted that in his experience, authentically engaging time-strapped parents is a real challenge, in part because change does not happen overnight.
“Sometimes, there’s no immediate benefit from the work that we do,” he said. “You’re fighting for something you might not see.”
Educating for Advocacy
That is exactly what some organizations, like Stand for Children, an education-policy advocacy organization based in Boston and Portland, Ore., are aiming to do.
Stand for Children has established a leadership program for parents called Stand UP—for Stand University for Parents—a 10-week course for parents of elementary students during which they learn how to interpret school data and grades, how to build effective relationships with teachers and administrators, how to support their children’s academic goals, and what the role of the parents is in their children’s education.
While Stand for Children works in 11 states, Stand UP only operates in Arizona, Illinois, and Tennessee.
Ginger Spickler is a parent and a member of Stand for Children in Memphis, Tenn., who has facilitated two sessions of Stand UP courses.
Ms. Spickler comes from a family of advocates and has always felt empowered to push for changes to the education system, but Memphis is much different from the small western Kentucky town where she grew up. “You have a lot of low-income, low-educated parents who don’t feel empowered in the same way [that I do]. They don’t feel empowered to talk to their kid’s teacher, much less go to the school board,” she said.
Stand UP teaches parents how to start conversations with principals and teachers and how to become advocates for their children, she said.
Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that Stand UP represents an authentic effort to engage and empower parents in their children’s education. “They’re tapping into what the research suggests is very important for improving student outcomes,” he said, such as teaching parents how to be involved with their children’s education and how to create meaningful relationships with their children’s teachers. Mr. Lubienski cited those efforts as ways to create an authentic grassroots leadership cohort.
However, Stand for Children has announced that the program is undergoing some changes and will no longer exist in its current iteration. Although the organization will still hold parent-engagement classes, it is unclear on what form they will take.
Trust in Teachers
But these groups are also up against a culture of distrust of education reforms and the political process, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He wrote a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, about parents’ becoming involved in education activism.
“Parents by far trust teachers more as messengers of information than any other source, so to the degree that these groups ignore or are unable to persuade teachers about the kinds of reforms they’re advocating, they’ll have a hard time convincing [parents],” he said. “Charter schools are a tough sell to teachers.”
Representatives from the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers suggest that these new and vocal groups might not be representative of parents nationwide. They point to a nationwide parent poll conducted in July by Hart Research Associates. It found that 77 percent of respondents felt the best way to improve public education was to make sure all children have access to a good public school in their community. Only 20 percent agreed that there should be more public charter schools and vouchers, according to the poll of about 1,000 parents.
The poll also found that when asked who has the “right ideas” for public education, teachers had the highest credibility rating, with 81 percent of the responding parents choosing them. Teachers were followed by principals (77 percent) and parent organizations (70 percent).
Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples of parents exerting more direct control over their neighborhood schools is the growth of parent-trigger initiatives and laws around the country.
Those laws, which allow parents to initiate a turnaround process that could include the transformation of their local school into a charter through a petition, have only been invoked in one of the seven states with them on the books—California.
At least 25 state legislatures, however, have considered such laws since the first one passed in California in 2010.
Ben Austin, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, which has led parent-trigger initiatives in the state, said the laws are intended to distribute power to all parents to advocate high-quality schools.
“Fundamentally, parents do have power already if you’re upper-middle-class and educated. In many ways, what this movement is about is making sure that poor parents, working-class parents, undocumented parents, and parents of color have a similar amount of the power that middle- and upper-middle-class parents enjoy,” he said.
That requires many of those underserved parent groups to change the way they view themselves, Mr. Austin said. To that end, Parent Revolution provides parents with curricula that addresses community-organizing strategies and education policy, he said.
“Even if we disagree with the decisions they’re making, it’s our job to give them the tools to make smart decisions and then back them up,” said Mr. Austin.
Critics, such as Mr. Rogers of UCLA, however, point to the contentious and divisive fights in communities where parent-trigger laws have been invoked as evidence that such movements do little to empower local parents and communities.
In those communities, “you’ve seen an erosion of social trust both between teacher and parents but also among parents,” he said. “For me, the critical question would be ... whether such efforts build capacity and leadership over the long term, and whether [they] build a sense of social trust that will enable communities to direct policies in their own interests for the longer term.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as New Crop of Advocacy Groups Sets Sights on Parents