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Education Advocacy Groups Seek to Engage, Tap Power of Parents

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Vocal, determined parents are taking a prominent role in many of the biggest and most controversial debates over school improvement and school choice. But what, exactly, are parents' interests in those issues? And what's the connection between their interests and those of moneyed or otherwise influential groups trying to shape school policy?

Authors Patrick McGuinn and Andrew P. Kelly examine those issues and others in a pair of papers released today by the American Enterprise Institute, titled "Parent Power: Grassroots Activism and K-12 Education Reform."

McGuinn looks at the connections between "education reform advocacy organizations" that have in one way or another sought to mobilize parents behind various strategies for turning around schools, revamping teacher pay and evaluation, and other goals. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and 50CAN have sought to build grassroots supports for local and legislative changes among parents, though such efforts remain relatively "decentralized and fragmented," McGuinn explains. (See the series of stories that my colleague Steve Sawchuk and I wrote earlier this year on the growing power of education advocacy groups at the state and local level.)

Many leading advocacy groups use common approaches in trying to organize parents, McGuinn reports. Those include trying to focus on "authentic" or "organic" mobilization of parents, meaning building support or leadership within their communities, rather than directing those efforts from afar. Some advocacy groups align themselves with parent-teacher associations, while others don't regard PTAs as natural allies, or as willing to wade into political fights. I'd note that in many communities today, PTAs and community groups are committing to an unusual role, one they wish they could avoid: trying to raise money for schools to make up for budget cuts. See a recent story by Ed Week's Nora Fleming on that topic.

Most education advocacy groups today also try to galvanize parents by shedding light on the middling performance of schools, McGuinn writes. In fact, part of what distinguishes parental organizing today from past periods is the "increased availability and transparency of student and school performance data" for public consumption, he says. Education advocacy groups, perhaps not surprisingly, have played a role in supporting the release of that data.

Some organizing of parents, McGuinn notes, may be less grassroots than "astroturf"—which he describes as "synthetic" mobilizing aimed at getting parents to sign statements in support of a state policy agenda, with little "face-to-face" contact.

Kelly, relying partly on interviews with advocates trying to organize parents, looks at the types of parents who are most likely to immerse themselves in education issues, and the kinds of strategies that have proven most effective in rallying them to causes.

One of his takeaways is that parents concerned with school choice are especially active, but that this often doesn't translate into an interest in broader education topics. "The act of choosing schools," Kelly writes, "does not spontaneously generate activists." Instead, parents' experience with schools after enrolling—with the school's culture, with advocacy organizations—are generally what fosters active parent involvement.

Looking ahead, Kelly also suggests that education advocacy groups could become more adept at reaching and winning over engaged parents through sophisticated data analysis and modeling, such as the "microtargeting" used by political campaigns to reach voters. He says that 50CAN is already using a form of data collection and analysis called "predictive modeling" to identify likely activists.

Many education advocates today believe their challenge is to increase parent involvement beyond "sporadic rallies, protests, and public testimony" to more sustained immersion in politics, Kelly says. Creating a "lasting political bloc with choice parents at its core," Kelly writes, "represents one of the next frontiers in parent organizing."

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