Advocacy Groups Empower Parents to Act as Catalysts for School Reform

Education Next News


Bruno V. Manno,, Walton Family Foundation
Janice B. Riddell, (203) 912-8675,, External Relations, Education Next

Advocacy Groups Empower Parents to Act as Catalysts for School Reform
A growing number of nonprofit organizations bypass PTAs to force change in public education

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Nonprofit groups that organize, educate, and mobilize parents to take active roles in promoting school improvement in their communities are on the rise in a number of states.  The old-style Parent Teacher Association (PTA) – whose national membership has declined from more than 12 million in 1965 to around 5 million in 2010 – is seen by these groups as an extension of the educational establishment.  Today’s advocates for better schools are insurgent groups that challenge the establishment by encouraging parents to engage actively in K-12 reform efforts, demanding major changes in school choice and teacher policies, as well as school governance.

In “Not Your Mother’s PTA,” which will appear in the Winter, 2012, issue of Education Next and will be available at, Bruno Manno writes that the new community organizations “empower parents to make their voices and choices a primary catalyst of school reform.”  Manno focuses on three of these nonprofit organizations that have had helped to lift charter school caps, implement “parent trigger” policies, and reform teacher effectiveness provisions.  They include Parent Revolution in California, Education Reform Now (ERN), which has nine state affiliates, and Stand for Children, which has national offices in Oregon and Massachusetts and affiliates in nine additional states.  He focuses on the potential of these groups and their different organizational models, legal structures, and political strategies, all of which lead to differences in the scope of their parent mobilization, advocacy, and activities.

Parent Revolution organized the first campaign to implement the “parent trigger” provision of the 2010 California Parent Empowerment Act, which allows at least 51 percent of all parents whose children attend a failing California school to petition the local school board to reform a low-performing school by either:  closing the school and reopening it as a charter school;  bringing in new staff;  keeping school staff but firing the principal;  or closing the school and sending students to a better school.  Parent Revolution obtained 62 percent of school parents’ signatures asking for conversion of McKinley Elementary School – a K-5 school that is 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African American and ranks in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide – to a charter school.  While conversion did not happen (the school board voted it down, citing various technicalities), it led the State Board of Education to develop clear procedures for implementing parent trigger provisions.  Mississippi, Connecticut, and Ohio now have some form of a parent trigger law and at least a dozen states are considering similar laws.

Education Reform Now (ERN) has state affiliates in California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.  Under the umbrella of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) the group coordinated a major effort in 2010 to urge the New York State legislature to lift a charter school cap that had been a stumbling block in the state’s first bid to win a federal Race to the Top (RttT) grant.  The bill lifting the charter cap from 200 to 460 schools passed the state assembly 91-43 just 3 days before the second RttT application deadline on June 1, 2010, and New York ultimately was among the 10 finalists to win a $700 million RttT grant.

Stand for Children’s state affiliates are under the legal umbrella of the national organization and its respective boards, though each has advisory and other groups that provide counsel on specific issues.  The organization’s leadership center trains “everyday people” to become leaders in the fight to win improvements in children’s programs. Stand’s diverse legal structure allows them to train and organize the general public, target legislators, and raise money to support state lawmakers who support legislation the organization wants made into law.

Manno writes that each of these insurgent organizations, which rely chiefly on donations from foundations and individuals, see no immediate threats to their revenue sources, and hold strong promise for mobilizing parents to advance a school reform agenda that “goes far beyond today’s PTA.”

About the Author
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for K-12 education reform at the Walton Family Foundation and former U.S. assistant secretary of education for policy.

About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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