Parent Power and Education Advocacy

I recently moderated a fascinating discussion about parent engagement — and not the kind that has to do with supervising field trips and providing extra classroom supplies. The focus was on how new organizations like DFER and 50CAN are seeking to mobilize parents when it comes to policy debates over school reform. This “parent power” trend is provoking some real questions about how these new efforts will play out on the ground. The conversation focused on twin new studies penned by two authors, my AEI colleague Andrew Kelly and Drew University Professor Pat McGuinn, examining parent power and reform advocacy. The panelists were an all-star lineup of Parent Revolution’s Ben Austin, Derrell Bradford of Better Education for Kids, and Kenya Bradshaw of Stand for Children. (You can check out the full 90-minute discussion here.)

Pat examines the landscape of ed reform groups, detailing how missions, strategies, and tactics vary across these groups. Andrew explores the individual-level incentives to engage in parent activism, focusing his attention on how school choice and mobilization activity may influence the decision to participate in broader education politics. A few interesting takeaways from the papers:

• Despite conventional assumptions that “choice” parents would be easier to mobilize, choice doesn’t necessarily equal activism. Instead, parents who chose their schools may have solved their immediate problem, actually making them harder to mobilize on key educational issues. While this observation seems obvious, it also goes largely ignored in ed reform circles.

• Parents on charter waiting lists, on the other hand, are a natural constituency that’s ready to be mobilized. However, these parents are often frustrated with the system, and especially with the school that denied their child a seat. As a result, it may take a third party to mobilize these parents. Andrew points to the work of Families Empowered, which seeks to mobilize “lottery hopefuls” in Houston, as an intriguing example of how this can be done.

• One of the dilemmas for parent organizers is figuring out whether to engage in “bottom up” or “top down” organizing. While Stand for Children prefers the grassroots organizing approach, Democrats for Education Reform depends less on on-the-ground tactics and more on campaign contributions and political advocacy. This question of who should “own” reforms, especially when the grasstops and grassroots disagree on good policy, is going to be an ongoing tension.

From the conversation a couple key takeaways for me:

One is the tension between urban-oriented reforms and how they impact suburban communities. Derrell noted that suburban parents in some New Jersey communities have been avidly battling charter schools seeking to open up in the “burbs,” and pointed to the enormous political power that a couple dozen suburban families can wield. It’s a good point, and highlights the problems with a reform strategy that is dismissive of suburban concerns and proudly unconcerned with how preferred policy solutions (accountability, teacher evaluation) play out in upper-income precincts.

A second is how even limited spending and activity can shift the political topography. As Terry Moe has long argued, education politics have been dominated by employee unions–in large part, because nobody else has really been seriously engaged. While today’s reform outfits are still dramatically outnumbered and outspent by the NEA and the AFT, it’s remarkable how much difference even modest activity can make. Turns out that a few hundred thousand dollars spent in a handful of state legislative races can have a catalytic impact on position-taking when it comes to K-12 schooling.

A third is some of the complicated politics that lie ahead for these reform outfits. For one thing, all of the major players are largely cut from the same cloth when it comes to their politics and ideology. They play well with Republicans on issues like charter schooling and teacher evaluation, but all are deeply progressive outfits, are appealing to the same set of funders, and don’t have real hope of wooing NEA Dems, voucher proponents, or tea party conservatives. This raises a bunch of interesting questions about how these groups will coexist and who will help broaden their school reform coalitions.

-Rick Hess

This piece originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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