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Parent Activists Flex Their Muscles in Education Policy Debates

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From room mom to PTA president, parents have long played an important and active part in their children’s schools. But increasingly, parents are taking on a new, potentially powerful, role — activist.

In many states, parent groups have become a political force to be reckoned with — swarming  city halls and state capitols and flooding the phone lines of elected officials to voice their opinions on issues such as the Common Core State Standards, standardized testing, and school choice.

In New Jersey, parent groups, often organized through Facebook and by word-of-mouth, emerged as key players in fights over testing. After the state adopted new, Common Core-aligned tests in 2014, tens of thousands of students “opted-out” of the tests after intense backlash from teachers’ unions and parents.

And in communities across the U.S., parents have played a particularly notable role in lobbying on issues of school choice, including charter school expansion, and school vouchers.

What’s happened in the last decade to give rise to this new wave of parent activism? What are the implications for education policy and practice? That was the subject of debate during a panel last month at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C

One reason for increased parent mobilization is the availability of data, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University.

Whereas in the past parents had scant information to compare one school’s performance to another, the availability of test scores and other school performance measures means parents today can see how well a school is doing with relative ease, he said.

“We have a lot more data on the performance of individual schools and districts and states that parents have access to,” Mcguinn said. “That data in some cases has really led to a loss of confidence that existed and also a rise of education as a more central political issue.”

Not only do parents have more of a reason to be involved, McGuinn said, but with the rise of social media and other organizing tools, parent groups can organize and communicate more easily and effectively.

“Part of this has been also the rise of a new cohort of educational groups that are actively seeking to mobilize and engage parents,” McGuinn said.

He added: “Big data and data mining helps these groups target parents for mobilization and social media helps create these virtual communities and disseminate information about community mobilization and the performance of schools.”

The Role of Race and Class

But just because parents are increasingly politically engaged in education issues doesn’t mean all parents’ voices carry the same clout, said Derrell Bradford, the executive vice president of 50CAN, a nonprofit education advocacy group.

Instead, Bradford said, race and class play a significant role in how effective parents are in their efforts to influence policy. He pointed to his own experience mobilizing parents in New Jersey as an example.

“I used to have 50, 100 people [at the state capitol] from like Newark and Paterson and Camden, all black and brown moms and dads and it would be ‘a bridge too far,’” Bradford said, describing what he saw as lawmakers’ reluctance to take serious action on the parents’ demands.

But when working for “the richest person in New Jersey,” the reception was much different, he said.

“We“d show up with two or three people and they’re like ‘that’s great we want to do exactly what you want to do.’ And we passed that bill unanimously out of the legislature,” Bradford said. “It was shocking.”

Bradford added: “It’s not that families in Newark don’t have any political capital, it’s that they don’t have the kind that elicits the same response as parents in Princeton,”

While Bradford was organizing parents in New Jersey, often in support of choice-friendly policies, Julia Sass Rubin, was doing the same, but often on the opposite side of the issues.

Sass Rubin is a founding member of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots education advocacy group that began as a parent-led, organized resistance to efforts by Republican Governor Chris Christie’s education agenda. That agenda included tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and expanding charter schools.

In a testament to the power of parent organizing, Sass Rubin said that what started as a few parents in Princeton has grown into a statewide organization with more than 30,000 parents.

While acknowledging that different parents have varying degrees of political power, she said that doesn’t mean parent groups can’t bridge racial and socioeconomic differences and organize around a common cause.

“Save Our Schools started with a bunch of upper-middle class, educated parents, … which absolutely gave us social and political capital,” Sass Rubin said. “Our goal was to use that to reach out across the state and form alliances in places that didn’t have that.”

Tips for Journalists

So what should education journalists covering parent advocacy be looking out for?

First, McGuinn said, it’s important to understand the nature of the competitive and fast evolving landscape of parent organizing. Alliances often involve ad-hoc coalitions that are difficult to sustain and don’t conform to traditional partisan lines, McGuinn said.

“We’re so used to covering issues as ‘Republicans think this and Democrats think this,’” McGuinn said. “That’s not what education policy and reform in the United States is about right now, and hasn’t been for some time.”

Journalists should pay particular attention to how the issues that parents are organizing around breakdown along lines of race, class, and location.

“I think there are gonna be places where urban and suburban parents can unite on a common agenda, but I think that’s gonna be more the exception than the rule,” Mcguinn said

And as President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos set new, often divisive, education policy priorities, journalists should be watching how advocacy groups react and adjust, Bradford said.

“Alliances are fleeting now even among people who considers themselves ‘reformers,’ ” Bradford said. “One of the challenges you should report on is that some [reform organizations], I would argue, are actually not engaged in reform anymore. What we’re engaged in is ‘protect.’”