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School & District Management Opinion

Not Your Parents’ PTA

By Andrew P. Kelly & Patrick McGuinn — September 25, 2012 6 min read
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Education reform is awash in a surge of “parent power.” Long considered bystanders (or even obstacles) to the push for school reform, a slew of new “education reform advocacy organizations,” or ERAOs, such as 50CAN, Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, and Democrats for Education Reform are mobilizing parents to agitate for policy change. From the grassroots pressure on states to raise charter caps and enact teacher-evaluation reforms during Race to the Top to the emergence of the “parent trigger” idea for initiating the overhaul of individual schools, ERAOs are enlisting Mom and Dad to upend the traditional politics of education.

Education reform proponents are rightfully excited about this new parent power; the broader the constituency that supports change, the more pressure elected leaders will feel to enact new policies. But early successes have also unearthed the challenges facing parent-driven reform, raising questions about its impact and sustainability over time. If this new movement is to serve as a lasting counterweight to established interests, advocates must learn from these hard-won lessons.

In an effort to shed light on what education reform advocacy organizations have learned about parent organizing, we interviewed representatives from a wide array of groups—ranging from those with a national presence to those working in just one district. These are not your parents’ PTAs: Rather than bake sales and field trips, these groups are focused on mobilizing parents for political activism beyond the schoolhouse. Though the groups vary widely in their organizing approach and the goals they pursue, several key lessons emerged.

First, contrary to much of the rhetoric, urban school districts are not full of latent parent activists aching for an opportunity to get politically involved in school reform. Rather, ERAOs are trying to generate political activism where it is least likely to exist. Research on political participation reveals that low-income minority citizens typically have less trust in government and participate in politics at lower rates than the more affluent. Parent-organizing groups are attempting to reverse these relationships, a task that has proved difficult for prior political campaigns and social movements.

Mobilizing parents is difficult unless they see a clear benefit from getting involved."

Second, when parents do get involved, they are typically driven by their immediate aim of finding a better education for their children. This self-interest is a powerful motivator, but it also means that the case for systemic reforms is not always self-evident. Much parent-organizing work revolves around “connecting the dots” from parents’ immediate experience in the schools to broader policy issues such as choice, tenure reform, and governance changes. Groups spend significant amounts of time and resources educating parents about local school performance, the policymaking process, and the need for advocacy. Even with all of this training, mobilizing parents is difficult unless they see a clear benefit from getting involved.

Self-interest also creates a tension between political “voice” and the opportunity for “exit” via school choice. The most involved parents will be the first to pursue school choice, and those who successfully exit the system may have less incentive to push for district-level reforms. While choice parents are easy to activate when their schools or voucher programs are threatened, mobilizing them around broader issues like tenure reform and mayoral control that may have little bearing on schools of choice has been more challenging.

Third, groups are under pressure to prove they are engaged in “authentic” grassroots organizing. Research on social trust and urban politics suggests that low-income citizens are often skeptical of outsiders. This suspicion leaves ERAOs at a disadvantage; they typically challenge the educational establishment’s familiar narrative, essentially asking parents to break with influential and trusted members of their communities. And even if organizers can find a sympathetic audience, parents’ lack of free time and low interest in politics tend to stack the deck against activism. The result is a movement vulnerable to charges it is little more than “Astroturf” activism, or an effort by outsiders to give the illusion of grassroots support for a reform agenda.

For groups that mainly engage in sporadic, broad-based mobilizations to signal support for a particular policy, questions of authenticity are somewhat less important. But other groups, particularly those that operate at the district level, have confronted this authenticity challenge by building permanent parent chapters. Stand for Children organizes parents into school-level “teams” led by parent leaders who receive training in political organizing. The chapters then push for district- and state-level policy change. Other groups, such as Democracy Builders and Families for Excellent Schools, have worked to build charter school families into lasting political organizations. These approaches draw on older community-organizing models and take significant investments of time and resources in fewer sites. But sustained presence in local debates may make them more politically potent.

Fourth, some organizing groups are moving more fully into electoral politics, raising questions about how electioneering will affect bipartisan support for education reform advocacy. The political logic of moving from picket signs to the ballot box is simple: Politicians care mainly about votes, and they know that low-income minority voters are less likely to turn out in local and state elections. Even the most impressive display of grassroots support will be unlikely to drive policy change unless it is backed up by political clout. Stand for Children endorses candidates and mobilizes parents in local elections, with high-profile successes in Denver and Memphis. In New York City, Democracy Builders helped elect candidates to a number of local offices within the Democratic Party, a direct challenge to established Democratic opponents of charter schooling.

Fifth, while it is tempting to think of ERAOs as a monolithic movement with a single agenda, the groups embrace different positions on a host of issues, including the role of the federal government in education, school funding, collective bargaining, and school vouchers. ERAOs are also struggling to navigate complicated intra- and inter-party fissures over school reform, and cultivate relationships with business groups, civil rights organizations, and teachers’ unions. In addition, their efforts are fragmented geographically as well as organizationally. As these groups expand their activities and geographic reach, however, it will become more important for them to think strategically about how they can differentiate and coordinate their parent-organizing work.

The concerted effort by ERAOs to inform and engage parents around school reform is a crucial component of contemporary education politics. In just a few short years, and with limited resources, these groups have begun to shift the balance of power in education politics. It is important to recognize, however, that this nascent effort has only just begun, and these groups still face a minefield of determined opponents and nasty politics. ERAO leaders are increasingly realizing that the successful enactment, implementation, and protection of the education policy reforms on their agenda—and public perception of the agenda’s legitimacy—necessitates the development of a new, more active approach to parental engagement. This new approach will need to build a permanent, coordinated network of organizations engaged in the type of grassroots parent organizing that can create a lasting social movement behind reform.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as Mobilizing Parent Power for School Reform

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