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Mobilizing Mom and Dad: Engaging Parents behind Systemic School Reform
Parent Voice, School Choice, and the New Politics of Education Reform
Andrew P. Kelly
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:
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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