Parent power: Grass-roots activism and K-12 education reform

Article Highlights

  • How are grass-roots organizations getting parents more involved in education reform?

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  • In education choice does not equal parent activism.

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  • Examining parent power: the apple pie of schooling.

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Parent power: Grass-roots activism and K-12 education reform

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In this report

Mobilizing Mom and Dad: Engaging Parents behind Systemic School Reform
Patrick McGuinn

Parent Voice, School Choice, and the New Politics of Education Reform
Andrew P. Kelly

Key points

  • Parents’ role in K-12 education has most often been limited to sitting on PTAs, funding classrooms or activities, and supervising field trips. However, an emerging wave of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) are working to pull parents into larger policy debates around school reform and mobilize them to lobby policymakers, testify in front of school boards, and vote for favored candidates.
  • Currently, the ERAO landscape is dominated by young organizations with limited resources and influence, especially compared to teachers unions. Questions linger regarding these groups’ ability to move into new states and districts, increase the number of parents involved, and become a lasting political bloc of reform-minded parents rather than a collection of sporadic rallies and protests.
  • One major lesson from these groups is that choice does not equal activism. Parents are more likely to become engaged when they see an immediate payoff for their involvement or an immediate threat to their school or program, so ERAOs should consider how to foster vibrant networks, highlight policy victories, and otherwise demonstrate why their issues matter.


Foreword by Frederick M. Hess

Parent power is the apple pie of schooling: everyone likes it and says pleasant things about it. In recent decades, of course, most parental engagement has had more to do with supervising field trips, joining PTAs, and providing extra classroom supplies than anything that smacks of meaningful school improvement.

Today, circumstances are changing. A wave of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) are working to pull parents into larger policy debates over school reform by mobilizing them to lobby policymakers, testify in front of school boards, and vote for favored positions and candidates. These groups have been born of the conviction that parents can effectively battle established interests and fight for crucial reforms. Those high hopes and good intentions often lead to naïve expectations of what parent power can accomplish. Though political science can offer many lessons about the challenges of community organizing, interest group formation, and voter mobilization, for instance, few of these lessons have drawn much attention from reformers or funders.

Aside from Stand for Children, which was founded in 1996, most of the other prominent organizations engaged in these efforts—groups like Parent Revolution, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, and Democrats for Education Reform—are only a few years old. They have been little studied to date, making them ripe for thoughtful and informed assessment.

The authors of these two papers, political scientists Patrick McGuinn and Andrew P. Kelly, draw on field research and disciplinary insights to capture some lessons learned and to explore key opportunities and hurdles ahead. They step back and ask a few questions about what we have learned from early efforts to empower parents to advocate for greater school choice, teacher accountability, and similar reforms. What are we learning from these new groups? Where are they succeeding, and where are they struggling? Are certain types of parents more likely to become advocates? If so, who are they, and what distinguishes them?

McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University, examines the landscape of ERAO efforts, detailing how missions, strategies, and tactics vary across these groups. Through interviews with several ERAO leaders, he unearths several key lessons and questions to guide future advocacy work. Kelly, a research fellow in education policy here at AEI, explores the individual-level incentives to engage in parent activism, focusing specific attention on how school choice and mobilization activity may influence the decision to participate in broader education politics. Through a number of interviews with ERAO leaders, he examines the degree to which dynamics of parent participation on the ground mesh with what we would expect from political science. 

A few big themes emerge from both papers:

  • Choice does not equal activism. Contrary to the oft-voiced hopes of some would-be reformers, the mere act of choosing a school does not turn parents into activists. Rather, reform groups must actively cultivate parents, building the civic skills and engagement that are necessary for participation. Like most citizens, parents are more likely to become engaged when they see an immediate payoff for their involvement or an immediate threat to their school or program. As such, reformers should be wary of assuming that parents in schools of choice will naturally become involved in school reform debates and should instead consider how to foster vibrant networks, highlight policy victories, and otherwise demonstrate why these issues matter.
  • Exit versus voice. Similarly, parents who send their children to schools of choice have exited the traditional school system and thereby have less incentive to use their voice at future reform discussions. These parents feel less invested in larger education reform conversations because they are often satisfied with their children’s schools and many of the proposed reforms will not apply to schools of choice. Mobilizing these parents around a broad reform agenda is likely to be a challenge for ERAOs, even if they are seemingly a fertile ground for supporting school choice. 
  • Building capacity. Currently, the ERAO landscape is largely dominated by young organizations with limited resources and influence, especially compared to teachers unions. Questions linger regarding the ability of these groups to move into new states and districts, increase the number of parents involved, and become a lasting political bloc of reform-minded parents rather than a collection of sporadic rallies and protests.

Now is a great time to explore these questions and lessons from early parental advocacy efforts, and I am pleased to share these two papers. Special thanks go to the Walton Family Foundation for their generous support of this research effort and to program manager Bruno Manno for his guidance throughout. Thanks also to Daniel Lautzenheiser, program manager in education policy studies at AEI, for coordinating the endeavor and providing editorial support.

For more information, please contact Kelly ([email protected]) or McGuinn ([email protected]). For additional information on the activities of AEI’s Education Policy program, please visit www.aei.org/policy/education/ or contact Daniel Lautzenheiser at [email protected]

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