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Mobilizing mom and dad: engaging parents behind systemic school reform.

One of the most important developments in the recent politics of education reform has been the rise of a new group of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) that are working to mobilize parents behind school reform at the district and state levels. As Terry Moe documents in his recent book Special Interest, education politics has for decades been dominated by the education establishment, the collection of teachers unions and other school employee associations derisively called the "blob" by reformers. (1)

The adults in the education establishment who benefit from the status quo are numerous, organized, and well resourced and have been historically very successful in blocking major systemic reform. They have been able to do this because there was no organized counterweight to their influence. Although parents have been periodically--and often very effectively--organized on behalf of specific groups of children or specific causes such as expanding educational access (for disabled children), providing ethnic studies (the Chicano movement), or increasing school funding (Education Law Center in New Jersey and Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York), reformers who advocate for more fundamental changes in education policy have largely focused their efforts to date on state and national lobbying rather than community mobilizing. However, as Mark Warren argues, it is increasingly clear that "urban school reform falters, in part, because of the lack of an organized political constituency among the stakeholders with the most direct interest in school improvement, that is, parents whose children attend urban schools." (2)

But the past two years have witnessed an unprecedented wave of state education reforms to increase accountability for student achievement, improve teacher quality, turn around failing schools, and expand school choice, much of this fiercely opposed by the unions. The ERAOs and their efforts to organize parents have played an important role in pushing for these changes in state capitols, and they clearly are reshaping the politics of school reform in the United States in important ways. As Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, explained, "There was recognition over time that good ideas alone weren't enough and weren't going to get us across the finish line in terms of systemic reform. There needed to be a significant investment of time and resources in advocating for political changes that would enable and protect reform." (3)

The largest of the ERAOs (in terms of staff, budget, and reach) are Stand for Children (Stand), StudentsFirst, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN), Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). Despite these large groups, this movement to engage parents remains relatively decentralized and fragmented. These groups embrace a wide variety of tactics, from grass-roots mobilization to lobbying policymakers and operating political action committees. But central to their work is an effort to organize and mobilize parents to agitate for school reform. Despite the increasing number and activity of ERAOs, we know relatively little about them and how they operate.

This paper will offer an in-depth examination of ERAOs and what we can learn from their efforts to engage parents in school reform and from other grass-roots community organizing experiences. Including academic research, a brief literature review, and field-based case studies and interviews (see the appendix), this paper will assess the circumstances necessary for empowerment campaigns to succeed and the factors that may hinder engagement.

Political and Organizational Dynamics of Parental Engagement

Before moving into a specific discussion of parent organizing in education, we should briefly survey some of the dynamics that affect the mobilization of citizens for political action more generally.

A first set of dynamics emerges from the work of political scientists and economists who have studied citizen mobilization; a few key theories are worth highlighting. Albert Hirschman observes that citizens typically have three options when involved with a failing organization: they can leave the organization (exit), express their dissatisfaction and seek changes from the outside (voice), or work to improve it from the inside (loyalty). (4) Which option a citizen chooses in any particular situation is contingent on the associated costs and benefits. As a consequence, it is important for those seeking to mobilize parents to know the incentives and disincentives for engagement in any particular context and seek to reduce the costs and maximize the benefits of participation.

One ongoing challenge for those seeking to organize citizens for political activity is the collective action problem identified by economist Mancur Olson. Olson observes that when the benefits of political advocacy are indivisible--that is, they accrue to all citizens in a particular community regardless of who contributed to the endeavor--people have an incentive to "free ride" on the efforts of others. (5) Investing time and energy in pursuit of the collective goal under these circumstances is not rational because all individuals will receive the potential benefits of the effort regardless of whether they participate. One way to circumvent the collective action problem is to provide "selective incentives"--side payments that reward individuals' contributions to the collective effort.

Political scientists have found a high correlation between income and education on the one hand, and political efficacy and participation on the other. The "resource model" of political participation developed by Henry Brady, Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlotzman, for example, argues that time, money, and civic skills are the "communications and organizational capacities that are essential to political activity" and find that they are all affected by socioeconomic status. (6) The poor tend to have lower levels of education and engage less in all types of political activity, including voting, communicating with elected officials, attending public meetings, joining interest groups, and contributing to campaigns.

A second set of dynamics is related to race and ethnicity, which exert a profound influence on urban politics, school reform, and parent organizing. The combination of immigration, racial and ethnic diversity, and poverty in urban areas can undermine the development of trust in a community as well as the social capital that is the central foundation for collaborative action. (7) As one classic study of urban politics observes, "Open conflict within and between minority groups now represented in city governments has sometimes replaced the unity that was once attained when the city and its white, established power holders were the common enemy." (8) In The Color of School Reform, Jeffrey Henig and coauthors argue that the legacy of mistrust from years of segregation and discrimination continues to exert a major influence on the attitudes of blacks toward white political and business leaders and poses a serious obstacle to the creation of urban reform coalitions. (9)

A third dynamic centers around the relationship between teachers unions and community leadership in urban areas that makes taking on the status quo in education difficult. Marion Orr has argued that public schools constitute urban "employment regimes" that are often the largest employer in the city and that teachers are the backbone of the urban middle class and its key political constituency. (10) And as Paul Hill and Mary Beth Celio observe, "The politics of jobs exacerbates these conflicts. Defenders of government control [of schools] and civil service employment note that the public school systems have become the principal employers of African-American and immigrant middle class professionals in big cities." (11) In majority-black cities like Cleveland, Ohio, the teachers unions are generally dominated and controlled by blacks and have great influence and prestige in the black community. Former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has also emphasized this point, noting that, "the black teacher class is solidly entrenched in the African American community and teachers unions occupy an important political position in the black community. A threat to them is perceived as a threat to the whole group." (12)

A final dynamic centers on parents' perceptions of school system performance. Studies have shown that parents often are ignorant about the performance of their child's school and that much of what they think they know is incorrect. Public Agenda has found that "parents rarely know the facts that make the school turnaround issue so urgent ... many simply aren't aware of how dysfunctional and ineffective some of these low-performing schools really are or how seriously their children are being set back." (13) When parents are reluctant to accept that their school or child is failing, a kind of cognitive dissonance is created that can make it harder for parents to be mobilized for action to solve an education crisis. (14) The performance issue is exacerbated by the competing claims and data from antireform groups that challenge both the notion that schools are failing and the effectiveness of proposed reforms. It is difficult to create a constituency for reform when the potential benefits are ambiguous or seem far downstream. At the same time, public schools in urban communities are also embraced as vital community institutions and social service providers for poor families who have no place else to go. Public Agenda, for example, conducted focus groups with parents and found, "Most low-income parents saw local public schools as important symbols of the community, even though they criticized them for not fulfilling their educational mission. Many had strong feelings of loyalty, affection, and nostalgia for local public schools." (15) Together, these dynamics can make it very difficult to convince urban parents that major reform is needed and mobilize them for action.

Theorists have long argued for the importance of parental engagement in education, and scholars have long documented the effect engaged parents can have on both their children's school performance and the system as a whole. (16) But it is often assumed that parents have the interest, time, or skills with which to actually become engaged. However, many challenges to organizing citizens for political action exist, and these challenges are even more pronounced in the sites where ERAOs focus much of their parent mobilization efforts--urban areas where the population tends to be poorer and less educated. (17) The communities most likely to have chronically poor-performing schools are also the ones least likely to have large numbers of engaged parents capable of advocating for change.

Stephen Rosenstone and John Hansen argue that citizens deploy a cost-benefit analysis when thinking about whether to participate in politics and that the interaction between individual resources and strategic mobilization efforts by political elites is key. ERAOs need to be cognizant of the general and local contexts within which parent mobilization occurs as they seek to reduce the barriers and increase the incentives for participation. (18)

Mobilizing Parents: Lessons from Other Sectors

Community organizing has been going on for a long time and in many areas outside of school reform, so it is important to identify the lessons we can draw from efforts in other sectors. The civil rights movement originating in the 1950s, the antipoverty movement of the 1960s, and the environmental movement that began in the 1970s, for example, all offer interesting examples of efforts to mobilize a broad coalition of citizens behind policy change. Efforts in all three of these areas successfully connected local grass-roots organizing campaigns with national legislative lobbying--which is one of the greatest challenges facing ERAOs. (19)

An important lesson from the community organizing literature is that no single model--or set of best practices--exists for grass-roots mobilization. Rather, there are a number of different models and tactics, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and a particular approach may be more or less effective with certain issues or constituencies. Jack Rothman, for example, has devised a three-pronged model of community intervention--locality development, social action, and social planning and policy--accompanied by a typology of twelve different practices, for a total of thirty-six different variables. (20) He argues that community organizers should pick and choose from this toolbox to create different combinations of tactics to meet the needs of a particular organizing context.

Kristina Smock, on the other hand, identifies five distinct models of community organizing (power-based, community-building, civic, women-centered, and transformative) and argues that each has a distinct logic that can complicate the creation of hybrid models. She concluded that although each model can fill a "distinctive community organizing niche," they also have unique trade-offs around the inclusiveness of their decision-making processes, the tension between education and action, and the capacity to effect large-scale change. Smock cautions that "organizational plurality" in a community can be a positive force for change, but only if the organizations are self-conscious about the tension between complementarity and incompatibility. (21) Research on the civil rights movement similarly emphasizes that a tension can exist in community organizing between insiders and outsiders and old and new organizations. Aldon Morris argues that although charismatic national leaders and the creation of new organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played an important role in mobilizing blacks, the movement was crucially supported by and "spread through sophisticated, preexisting formal and informal communication networks." (22) These older local community organizations, such as churches, had deep and long-established ties to the community, building a reservoir of trust that could be tapped to educate, inspire, and organize citizens for collective action.

A deeper exploration of community organizing in other sectors and the transferability of these lessons to education is a promising area for further research. It is tempting to see all community organizing--and all public policy domains--as more similar than dissimilar. But while insights certainly can and should be drawn from other sectors, it is important to note that the education sector has a number of unique features that may complicate community organizing efforts. As the Center for Education Organizing observes, "Education funding and policy are shaped by a complex web of federal, state, and local funding and regulations, making targets hard to identify. Because parents and community members do not 'live' inside schools the way tenants live inside buildings--and because many schools and systems actively discourage parent participation--it can be challenging for parents and community members to develop a nuanced understanding of local education issues." (23)

ERAOs and Contemporary Parent Engagement Efforts in Education

In this section, I will survey the landscape of organizations working to educate and engage parents around systemic reform, highlight the groups' different agendas and tactics, and assess the opportunities and challenges the groups have encountered in undertaking this work, both individually and collectively.

What Are the ERAOs? As noted above, a large and diverse array of groups are working to mobilize parents and advance school reform today. ERAOs differ in their tactics, scope, and where they operate. Groups such as DC School Reform Now, Advance Illinois, and the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education are independent operators that focus explicitly on a single state or city. Stand for Children, 50CAN, DFER, and FEE are national organizations that work in multiple states. Stand for Children currently has affiliates in ten states, 50CAN operates in four states (originating from its flagship ConnCAN, which operates in Connecticut alone), and DFER has eleven state chapters.

Although the ERAOs by no means agree on every issue, they tend to share similar reform agendas. As Andrew Kelly notes in his paper that accompanies this one, ERAOs tend to have a strong connection to school choice and, in particular, to the charter school movement. Many ERAOs emerged from the frustration of charter school operators--and their supporters in the business and civil rights communities--with the restrictions placed on charter operations and growth. In addition, ERAOs generally embrace test-based accountability, reforms aimed at improving teacher quality, and aggressive interventions in chronically underperforming schools. One of the most important developments in recent years has been the coming together of two previously separate strands of the education reform movement: system refiners, who advocate for reforms (such as standards and testing) to improve district schools, and system disrupters, who advocate for the expansion of choice to provide alternatives to them. Many reform groups are also funded by the same foundations, particularly the "big three"--the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Newer school reform advocacy organizations often partner with older groups like the Education Trust, but they differ in approach and tactics. Older groups have tended to confine their efforts to lobbying and disseminating research to policymakers, while the newer groups are more explicitly political, creating public pressure for reform to make it easier for policymakers to embrace difficult changes and then rewarding those who advance the groups' agendas. Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, observed, "In the past, the state education agency was often alone in pushing reform in the state. Now we are able to help lead the charge, attract media attention, and change the stakes and to get folks to the table." Central to this effort, as Bruno Manno notes, is the quest to mobilize parents. (24)

ERAO Tactics. While the ERAOs share many common policy goals, they differ in the approaches that they utilize to engage parents and the purpose to which they seek to engage parents. Some of the groups (such as 50CAN) seem to focus more on so-called "astroturf," or synthetic, mobilizing--getting parents to sign on to statements of support for their policy agenda in the state legislature with little or no face-to-face contact. (25) Other groups (such as Stand) focus more on grass-roots mobilizing. A related issue concerns different approaches to creating local chapters and selecting leaders for them. Stand for Children appears to be the national ERAO most committed to grass-roots parent organizing at the school level, so I will devote extra attention to their efforts. (Other groups like 50CAN and StudentsFirst seem to focus more on state-level policy advocacy built around discrete campaigns and, to the degree that they engage parents, do so only sporadically to demonstrate public support for reform proposals.) Luis Avila of Stand for Children Arizona noted that "unlike other school reform organizations, we are not campaign-based but rather stay in the communities for years."

Stand for Children's focus on grass-roots mobilization seems to stem from its unique origins and comparatively longer (compared to the other ERAOs) history of community work. The organization was founded by Jonah Edelman--the son of famous activist and Children's Defense Fund (CDF) founder Marian Wright Edelman--in the wake of the 1996 CDF-sponsored Stand for Children Day rally that he helped organize. Initially the group's mission was to mobilize parents in support of a broad array of children's issues, including but not limited to education. The group later shifted its focus to advocating for increases in school funding and in 2007 broadened its focus to include advocating for education policies related to teacher and principal effectiveness; school autonomy and accountability; standards, assessments, and data systems; and interventions in chronically low-performing schools. Although the group's agenda has evolved over time, its focus on grass-roots mobilization has not. Edelman reports that he was mentored by Cesar Chavez protege Marshall Ganz and Midwest Academy director Jackie Kendall and attended the Industrial Areas Foundation's ten-day community organizing training. These influences, Edelman said, encouraged him to build an organization that emphasizes authentic organizing by empowering local community members to play key leadership roles. (26)

Stand for Children's Megan Irwin emphasized the group's adherence to the iron rule of organizing, that "you don't do for people what they can do for themselves." One Stand leader I spoke with noted that in the states where they had tried to build a constituency from the top (state-level) down instead of from the bottom up, they had not been as successful. At the end of 2011, Stand for Children reported having 24 urban chapters, 8,600 members, 108,500 e-mail contacts, and 133,000 social media contacts.

The Stand approach to parent organizing is to create a chapter at the district level (primarily in large, poor-performing urban districts) that is supported by teams based in schools. Each team has three volunteer leaders and about thirty members who are parents, educators, or other community members. The team leaders are identified and trained (over five to six weeks) by Stand community organizers and staff and then sent out to recruit and train other team members. (Stand staff often rely on receptive principals to help them identify parents who are active in the school and would make good leaders. Although many principals are eager to help, others either are not supportive of the reforms Stand is endorsing or are scared about having their parents organized.) Stand staff support the team leaders and hold monthly strategy meetings. Interestingly, Stand asks its members to pay small membership dues (whatever they can afford) to support the organization's 501(c)(4). Although this may seem like a strange policy in what are often poor or working-class communities, Irwin believes that "by paying dues, members feel more invested and are more active owners and participants in Stand's work." The Stand parent teams occasionally focus on school-based issues but more often on affecting change at the district and state levels. Their campaigns include elections (school board, mayoral, gubernatorial, and legislative), legislative lobbying, influencing district policy and teacher contracts, and ballot measures.

In some places, ERAOs work with parent-teacher associations (PTAs) and parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), but their ability to do so varies considerably and is contingent on whether an active PTA or PTO is in place in a particular school and whether the group supports the reform agenda. In fact, Kenya Bradshaw of Tennessee's Stand chapter said that in some places, the local PTA and the local Stand chapter are one and the same. However, other observers in the field remarked that many PTAs are not willing or able to be effective advocates for reform because they "lack focus and clarity," "are wedded to the status quo," or "fear being political." But partnering with other community organizations is often a crucial part of the parent engagement process. Stand Memphis, for example, has built a coalition of groups--many drawn from the civil rights movement--that includes the Urban League, United Way, Teach Plus, Teach for America, and Communities for Teaching Excellence. They also work with Seedco, a national nonprofit that promotes economic opportunity for those in need, meeting with poor parents at its welfare transition sessions. Stand's Arizona chapter also partners with a variety of civic and civil rights groups including Mi Familia Vota, United Way, Communities in Schools, Promise Arizona, and Teach for America. Irwin observed that it is important to "avoid thinking about parent organizing as just a means to an end and instead see it as an end in itself. The key to success is a core group of committed authentic parent leaders--don't just use parents as political window dressing."

The importance of "authentic" and "organic" parent mobilization was a recurring theme in my conversations with ERAO leaders. Kathleen Nugent from DFER NJ remarked that "organic mobilization of parents is key--an outsider with no connection to the community can't lead a parent organizing effort in Newark." Her group has to date played a supporting, behind-the-scenes role: disseminating information about school system performance, organizing public forums to educate parents about proposed reforms, and partnering with schools to provide parent advocates platforms for their voices to be heard before district and state policymakers. Nugent remarked,

I've learned that reformers have to be much more aggressive in disseminating information and that the silent majority must be strategically engaged by their peers, not by outsiders. The heart of the dialogue is in and among the community. We must support those who want change and amplify their voices so they are heard above the noise. Until then, we're just not going to win. It is not sustainable to do reform without an organic base in the city that actually wants it.

Bradshaw remarked that it is a common (but incorrect) assumption "that parents aren't knowledgeable or capable of grasping policy issues--they are and we teach them." Avila seconded this point, stating, "We have learned that you should never make assumptions about parents' capabilities and limitations. You need to empower them; we need high expectations for kids and parents." However, Irwin acknowledged, "Low-income parents have a longer runway to engagement, and it takes time. We found you can't just go from 'yay, you joined' to 'let's talk about teacher evaluations.' You kind of have to go A to B to C; you've got to connect the dots for folks, and that can take a little bit of time."

Although ERAOs recruit and deploy parents differently, they share many tactics. One of the most fundamental is informing parents about the performance of their school system. Nearly all of the ERAOs support reforms to improve the quality and transparency of state standards and assessments and the creation of state report cards that enable parents to view school-level data on student achievement. The groups work hard to disseminate this information and use it to highlight the need for school reform and build support among parents and community groups. 50CAN, for example, releases a detailed "State of Public Education" report before launching each new state branch. The groups also build momentum for change by documenting community support for reform through public opinion polls. In Indiana, Stand for Children hired an independent firm to survey teachers about proposed reforms and was able to report that many reforms had strong teacher support despite union opposition. They also wage very public campaigns for the hearts and minds of average citizens by organizing town hall meetings with parents and publishing op-eds in state and local media. They publicize the report cards developed by national research organizations--such as the National Council on Teacher Quality's "State Teacher Policy Yearbook" and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's "State of State Standards," which enable comparison of each state's policies with those in the rest of the country. ERAOs also organize phone banks, rallies in state capitols, and online petitions to build momentum behind reform.

ERAO Communication and Coordination. It is tempting to see the patchwork of state and national school reform organizations that are attempting to mobilize parents as a fully integrated and coordinated movement. Yet as a January 2012 study from the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) Network concluded, "The most common thread across these states that enacted reforms was actually a lack of tight coordination among the varied members of these coalitions." (27) Although many ERAOs share goals and move on parallel paths, coordinating where it makes sense, no one group dominates or is in charge. One reason is the significant variation in political context. The unique policy landscape of each state necessitates that reform coalitions and agendas be built state by state. In Colorado, for example, the coalition that successfully pushed for the Great Teachers and Leaders Act was composed of twenty-two different stakeholder groups and forty different community and business leaders.

Although many members of state reform coalitions are education-specific groups, others focus on civil rights or business issues. Coalition size and diversity ensure considerable variation in the groups' education agendas and often even greater variation in their noneducation agendas. Civil rights and business groups, for example, often find themselves on the same side of school choice debates but on opposite sides of collective bargaining and taxing-and-spending issues. Even when groups share common agendas, they often compete with one another for limited attention, influence, or resources. As a result, a standing coalition of ERAOs is difficult to build or sustain across different policy proposals, which may make the organizational landscape confusing to parents.

Given the similar policy agendas of many of the ERAOs and their mutual desire to mobilize parents in support, however, communication and coordination must be an important part of their work. They are investing considerable and growing effort to learn from one another about approaches that do and do not work for engaging parents. Many of the ERAOs talk to one another frequently, through a regular conference call organized by the Education Trust, at meetings organized by funders such as the Walton Family Foundation, and at conferences convened by groups such as the NewSchools Venture Fund.

To the degree that there is an organizational home for ERAOs, it seems to be the PIE Network, which held its first meeting in 2007. The PIE Network emerged, according to executive director Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, because of "the growing realization that the arena of state policymaking matters a lot for school reform and you can't just do everything at the federal level." She added, "We needed to connect the conversation in Washington with a coalition of different kinds of groups at the state level--business leaders, civic leaders, and grassroots constituents." The thirty-four organizations in the network operate in twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. Network members include affiliates of Stand for Children and 50CAN; business groups like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition, and Colorado Succeeds; and civic groups like Advance Illinois and the League of Education Voters (Washington). The PIE Network is also supported by five "policy partners" that span the ideological spectrum but agree on the network's reform commitments: the Center for American Progress, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Education Sector, the National Council on Teacher Quality, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Like many ERAOs, PIE Network is funded by the big three foundations (Walton, Gates, and Broad) along with the Joyce and Stuart Foundations.

The PIE Network facilitates regular communication among its members by distributing a bimonthly newsletter, hosting a monthly conference call for leaders of its member groups, and convening two face-to-face meetings each year--one for group leaders with about forty participants and another larger, invitation-only meeting designed to bring the advocacy group leaders together with policy experts and policymakers. The organization also uses Twitter to act as an information clearinghouse by retweeting or aggregating all of the posts from its member organizations. Kubach argued that it is extremely difficult for individual state reform organizations to do this work by themselves and that the PIE Network has worked to encourage cross-state collaboration and the "cross-pollination" of reform ideas, and enable the "acceleration of the school reform movement." Robin Steans (Advance Illinois) added:

I think that there is a very nice combination of coordination, discussion, and coming together around core ideas. At the same time, there is plenty of independence--use of different strategies, local energy, and effort--and I think this is how it should be. There isn't a homogenous model of 'here is what needs to be done and here is how to do it,' but there is enough discussion so that when there are ideas that make sense, there is good back and forth on how to do it well and how to think strategically about making progress. So, to my mind, this mix is incredibly beneficial.

Nonetheless, despite the increasing communication among ERAOs, it appears to be too early to speak of them as forming a coordinated movement--and given some of their challenges and divisions, they may never become one. Indeed, Kubach explained that, at least for the PIE Network, centralized coordination has never been the goal: "There's a pretty clear understanding across the sector that states are where most of reform policy is made and that local actors concerned about their schools are the most credible voices to lead that change. Our goal is to strengthen those local voices--not to overshadow them with a single-minded, nationally orchestrated campaign."

ERAO Influence and Impact. One important point to consider is the ways in which ERAOs' efforts to mobilize parents are profoundly influenced by--and, in turn, influence--the broader political environment around school reform. Political scientists often talk about the importance of agenda setting, priming, and framing with regards to public opinion, emphasizing that the media and political leaders have the ability to elevate policy issues on the public agenda to prime citizens to be more attentive and receptive to certain kinds of policy proposals. (28) State and federal policymakers who support the ERAO reform agenda should think strategically about how they can create conditions on the ground in communities that will make it easier for ERAOs to engage parents.

The ERAO leaders I spoke with, for example, praised the Obama administration's Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive grant program for creating unprecedented clarity and momentum around reform at the state level. Michelle Rhee, former D.C. Schools superintendent and founder of StudentsFirst, said, "RTTT was a brilliant idea. It really helped us build bipartisan coalitions. Right now, Republicans are being more aggressive on education reform than Democrats at the state level, but being able to say that a Democratic president and education secretary were supportive really helped to convince Democrats to do more courageous things." As Steven Brill noted in Class Warfare, school reform advocates seized the momentum created by RTTT to mobilize and collaborate in advancing their agenda in state legislatures. (29) PIE Network director Kubach observed that the initiative "created urgency, a moment of real comparability across states, and pressure to change." ERAOs helped to facilitate state-to-state comparisons and develop legislative agendas by assessing existing state policies against the RTTT criteria. They then lobbied state policymakers and created grass-roots campaigns to mobilize support.

It is difficult to precisely gauge the impact of ERAO parent organizing efforts, but it is clear that they are having a large--and increasing--influence on debates at the state and national levels and that their efforts have contributed significantly to the passage of important legislation. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels recently remarked that he has seen a "tectonic shift" on education in states and that "more legislators are free from the iron grip of the education establishment." (30) Hari Sevugan, communications director at StudentsFirst, noted, "What we've lacked and what those fighting for the status quo had was an organized effort that decision makers had in the back of their mind as they put together education policy. That equation was highly imbalanced, but is now changing." StudentsFirst claims to have signed up a million members in its first year and to have helped change fifty different state education policies. The recent wave of teacher quality reforms offers perhaps the best evidence of ERAO impact, as no area of education reform has been more strongly resisted by the unions. Nearly two-thirds of states have changed their teacher evaluation, tenure, and dismissal policies in the past two years: twenty-three states now require that standardized test results be factored into teacher evaluations, and fourteen allow districts to use these data to dismiss ineffective teachers. In 2009, no state required student performance to be central to the awarding of tenure, but today eight states do. (31) ERAOs have been hailed for playing a pivotal role in the passage of these new laws, with Stand for Children leading a coalition of groups behind the effort in Colorado and Illinois.

Key Lessons and Challenges

How can parents be more effectively engaged in the school reform movement, and how can this engagement be sustained over time? What are the key challenges to doing this kind of work, and how can they be overcome? What are the key questions around parent organizing for school reform that remain in need of further research? This analysis of ERAO activities offers some key lessons.

The Engagement Continuum. It is clear that there are different kinds of parent engagement in education and that different groups seek to organize parents for different purposes. Three distinct models or approaches seem to have emerged--voluntarism, advocacy, and empowerment--and researchers (and the groups themselves) need to be clear about which approach is being utilized and the trade-offs involved. Although an ERAO could employ all three approaches simultaneously, one approach may be more or less appropriate for certain venues or issues than others. Voluntarism focuses on getting parents involved in the life of schools to support the work of students and teachers. This kind of engagement--most prominently through groups like PTAs and PTOs--involves activities like volunteering in classrooms and fundraising, and while it can have a major impact on student and school performance, it does not seek to fundamentally challenge or reform existing school practices or policies. (32)

Parent advocacy of the sort facilitated by ERAOs, on the other hand, involves mobilizing parents for political action in support of demands for policy reform. If parent engagement is about supporting the status quo in schools, parent advocacy is about challenging the status quo. In this sense, the ERAO approach--even as it may partner with PTAs or borrow some of the tactics of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and earlier parent organizing efforts--differs from them in fundamental ways. As Warren notes, the IAF approach believes that "it cannot be the job of community organizers and parents directly to transform instruction--that remains the province of professional educators." (33) ERAOs generally seem unwilling to embrace such a hands-off approach to reform because of a deep skepticism about the willingness or ability of professional educators to bring about transformative change and improved outcomes. As Arnold Fege notes, a difference exists between "volunteerism, supporting individual children, and conducting fundraisers" on the one hand and work that "organizes and mobilizes the community; knows how to collect and evaluate school performance information; builds collaborations between school and community; votes for education-oriented candidates; and pressures the school board and decision-makers" on the other. (34)

Both the voluntarism approach of PTAs and PTOs and the advocacy approach of ERAOs tend to view parents as a constituency to be mobilized in support of an agenda created by others--in the case of PTAs and PTOs, the agenda of the school or district leadership and in the case of ERAOs, the agenda articulated by reform group leadership. A third model of parent engagement in education, however, centers on empowerment--giving parents the power to create their own agenda for improving schools. (35) Although the empowerment approach to parent organizing is generally seen as most authentic, it can also take a much longer time to deliver impact and result in a less coherent and systematic approach to reform than the other approaches. ERAOs also need to be very cognizant of the "public engagement paradox" as described by Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso: "Everyone wants changes, as long as it doesn't affect them in any way." (36) Even those parents who are aware of and concerned about the poor performance of the public schools will often resist change, particularly when major changes are being pushed rapidly. There can be a real tension, however, between the need to build a constituency for reform in the community (which takes time) and reformers' desire to press forward quickly.

Much of ERAOs' parent organizing to date appears to be limited in two important ways. First, with the notable exception of Stand for Children, most of these efforts have been of the astroturf variety--centered on documenting and communicating parent support for the reform agenda to policymakers at the state level. Though this can be a successful tactic, it is unlikely to result in the creation of broad and deep parent movement for school reform. As Stand's Megan Irwin remarked:

I think it's tempting sometimes to find a really smart, savvy, well-spoken parent or two and build a great media campaign around them to achieve that legislation. What we've learned is that you can do that, but when the campaign ends, if you haven't built a real organization of many parents who are connected to each other, connected to the issue, connected to the organization, then you're sort of in a place of perpetually searching for advocates instead of developing and growing them in a way that is more permanent. Especially at the district level where parents have both the influence and voice, it's important to build out that real permanent network of parent advocates and then when it makes sense, to occasionally filter them up to bigger campaigns at the state level. But there's kind of no shortcut around doing the organizing work, if you want to have a permanent base of parents so they're there to support you.

Another issue is that even where genuine, grass-roots parent organizing around education has occurred, it seems to be largely confined to schools. As the Center for Education Organizing has noted, however, "Often the parents who have had the worst experiences with schools--both as students and parents--are the least connected to formal school events or organizations." (37) They note that parent outreach should be expanded to neighborhood organizations, after-school and child care programs, religious congregations, and door knocking. The rise of pro-reform "parent unions" in a number of cities and states also offers a potentially promising partner for ERAOs in their organizing work, though the parent unions remain small and have varied and often school-based agendas. (38) StudentsFirst and 50CAN, for example, recently joined forces with the Connecticut Parents Union to advocate on behalf of reforms in that state.

Data Dissemination and Parent Education.

One of the things that has distinguished contemporary parent organizing from earlier periods--and enhanced its effectiveness--is the increased availability and transparency of student and school performance data. Ross Danis (Newark Trust for Education) noted that "parents tend to get most of their information from teachers" and that this limits their awareness of the problems and possible reforms. Heather Weiss, Elena Lopez, and Heidi Rosenberg argue that "families' abilities to understand and use data on school performance can help focus their advocacy efforts, and for those parents who might not be aware of the school's conditions of the need for change, community organizations and advocates can act as intermediaries to both inform and empower parents to demand excellence from their children's schools." (39) ERAOs have played a crucial role in disseminating this information to parents and using it to highlight the need for school improvement. Jeremiah Kittredge of Families for Excellent Schools spoke of the need to help parents "become literate about school performance." And as US Education Secretary Arne Duncan has observed, the continued development of common standards and assessments and the shift to value-added measures that parents can more easily understand and use to compare teacher, school, and district performance across their state and the country is extremely important. (40)

Supporting the collection and release of this data--and teaching parents how to make sense of it--has been a priority of ERAOs and should remain so. Universities can also be important partners in this area (as they have been in Chicago and New York), as they can assist in data collection, analysis and dissemination and add credibility with parents and policymakers. DFER's Kathleen Nugent observed, however, that "the reform movement does not do a good job of disseminating data strategically." It is thus important for ERAOs not only to document failure but also to show what is possible with examples of success that highlight schools or reforms in the community (and elsewhere) that have been effective in generating improvement for disadvantaged students. Kittredge argued that it is imperative to "create a vision, a narrative, of what change would look like because empathy alone does not get it done." He admits, however, that reform groups "have not done a good job with this" and that the messaging effort has often been "like rolling a rock uphill."

It is important for ERAOs to recognize that a serious countermobilization effort is underway, in which groups that oppose the ERAO reform agenda, such as Save Our Schools, are actively creating their own parent grass-roots campaigns. The result is a lot of competition for parents' attention and a lot of competing claims about school system performance and the efficacy of reform; therefore, it is imperative that ERAOs articulate and communicate a clear and powerful message to parents. Speaking from the reform perspective, Newark (N.J.) School Board member Shavar Jeffries observed, "We're not doing the work in Newark, but lots of other folks are out in the communities spreading the traditional education message from the union perspective." DFER's Nugent observed:
   We need to combat the other side because
   their fear mongering is really effective. It is a
   lot more effective to elicit a response from
   people when you go out and say, 'Outsiders are
   coming in and they're taking your money,
   they are taking your schools, and they are privatizing
   public education. These outsiders are
   taking advantage of you.' That resonates real
   well, as opposed to 'We're selling an idea, what
   we're doing is new and we don't have the complete
   plan yet, but there is fierce urgency to
   work together toward getting your child the
   best education possible, as soon as possible.'
   School turnarounds and replicating successes
   are hard and it may take a while, but this is
   the way that we are going to bring about real
   change and high-quality opportunities for all
   children. It is really hard to say, 'Your kids are
   failing.' That is a terrible message. That makes
   people feel bad, and rightfully so. It is
   absolutely not the children who are failing, but
   the adults who can do something to improve
   the schools. We need to sell more of the promise
   of what's next as opposed to saying, 'You're
   trapped right now; sorry, but we're going to
   give it our best shot.'

ERAOs have tremendous opportunities to take advantage of emerging new social media for data dissemination and parent mobilization. Victoria Carty argues that "new emerging information communication technologies and the Internet in particular ... can revitalize communicative action in the public sphere and thus enhance participatory democracy." (41) 50CAN has done a particularly good job of using data microtargeting capabilities to identify potential supporters and social media like Twitter and Facebook to regularly inform and mobilize them for advocacy. However, even as access to computers, smartphones, and the Internet has become much more widespread in recent years, it remains unclear how many parents in urban communities possess such technology or can use it skillfully. There is also a "supplement, not supplant" issue with technology, as some in the movement fear that too great a reliance on it will create the false impression that it can substitute for the essential--but labor-intensive and time-consuming--work of face-to-face community organizing.

Social media should not replace old-fashioned opportunities for social interaction; as Rosenstone and Hansen observe, social networks often provide the crucial foundation for political participation. Such interaction can itself serve as a kind of side payment or selective incentive for parents to engage with school reform. Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education for Kids, for example, spoke of the need to make education reform "cool" and to "leverage the social" to "drive positive brand associations." He cited his organization's "Old School for School Choice" hip-hop concert and family day in Newark in 2010, which included a number of celebrities and attracted more than two thousand people, as a successful example of this approach. DFER held a school uniform fashion show and back-to-school jamboree in Newark, where they distributed free school supplies to more than one thousand parents and used the events to hand out information about school reform and collect parent contact information. Many ERAOs have also held viewing parties for parents that featured documentaries about school reform such as Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and The Cartel.

Race, Class, and Authentic Organizing. Many of the ERAO leaders I interviewed mentioned the skepticism of "outsiders" and the importance of "authentic" leadership in urban communities. As I discussed at the beginning of this paper, tensions around race and class further exacerbate this challenge. Newark Public Schools observers, in particular, noted that there is tremendous suspicion of many of the individuals and organizations advocating for reforms in the city. Some have suggested that superintendent Cami Anderson's race (white) and lack of previous ties to the city have made it difficult for her to gain community support for her school closure plan, despite the fact that the district is one of the worst performing in the country. She was shouted down by community members when she attempted to announce her reform plan at a public forum in February 2012. (42) Jeffries referenced the outsider problem as well, noting,
   Too often, reform groups focus on state lobbying
   over the grass-roots [efforts] and rely on a
   franchise model, but we need to be sensitive to
   the local context. Too often, the impulse is to
   find three or four national people and import
   them and have them spread the message of
   reform, but we need to find local folks. If we
   don't figure out a way to empower local communities
   and this looks like a colonial sort of
   thing, where there's a regime of folks who drop
   out of the sky with this self-righteous belief
   that they know what is better for these kids
   than their own communities, then we'll fail.

Despite the importance placed on "authentic" parent leadership, however, it is clear that these groups are still figuring out how to approach parents in urban communities that are often unable or unwilling to devote a lot of time to their cause. Kenya Bradshaw (Stand Tennessee), for example, observed, "We have had to revise what we can expect from parent volunteers because the explicit time commitment we were asking for was too much and was scaring interested parents away." However, the parents that do take on the work, she noted, often become so engaged with it that they exceed the number of hours they originally committed to. She said that passion often matters more than numbers and that "a small group of committed parents--around twenty-five-can bring about major change even without large numbers." Megan Irwin (Stand) added, "What we've learned is that you can't think of things as a means to an end or just one tactic as part of a strategy. It kind of needs to be a strategy in and of itself because parents can tell if they're a means to an end, and so you lose that authentic engagement.... You have to be willing to take the time to invest and learn, and I think that is something that Stand's learned over the last couple of years as we've grown. And some places tried to take shortcuts and then just realized there really aren't shortcuts; you have to authentically do that education and empowerment work if you want to really build an army that's going to be able to stand up for the right policies for kids and understand why they are standing up for those policies." Other groups, such as Families for Excellent Schools, use side payments--financial stipends of $250-$1,000 per year--to give parents an incentive to participate in mobilization and advocacy efforts.

Given all of the various class and race issues that swirl around education reform, staffing and training issues are extremely important for ERAOs. Bradshaw emphasized that "hiring the right people is crucial" in parent organizing and that they look for candidates who have leadership skills, a focus on social justice, and experience doing community work (even if not necessarily in education). The ERAO leaders I spoke with repeatedly highlighted the importance of building relationships and earning the trust of parents. Luis Avila (Stand Arizona) noted that "we have to be social workers as well as parent organizers." Bradshaw remarked that "relationships are critical--you have to value them and take the time to educate parents and give them a voice and respect."

Building trust is crucial but often difficult given the hostility of many urban parents toward perceived outsiders. Just as ERAOs need to be very sensitive to issues of race and class in their outreach to parents, it is also crucial that they appreciate the emotional attachment that many parents have to their local public school and its staff, even when the school is performing poorly. Danis noted that in Newark, every school has a full-time paid parent liaison but that these people are generally underutilized and ineffective, in part because they are used as patronage positions. Realizing the potential of these parent liaisons could really help with the effort to engage parents in schools.

In addition, ERAOs should seek to partner with established community organizations. This is a clear lesson to be learned from earlier mass movements such as those around civil rights and environmental issues. Stand's Tennessee chapter, for example, works with groups that assist low-income families. Building relationships and partnerships with organizations such as churches can enable ERAOs to both tap into existing communication networks and piggyback on the legitimacy and trust that these long-standing organizations have in the community. This is particularly important, given the traditional suspicion and hostility of many urban residents to outsiders.

Need for Increased Coordination. Even as individual ERAOs expand their capacity, one key question for them going forward is whether and how to coordinate their efforts. Currently their efforts are fragmented geographically as well as organizationally, as many ERAOs have a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4), and a political action committee. How to coordinate the efforts of a varied and diverse set of groups with different organizational structures within and across different states is a large task. Groups tend either to set up shop where no other ERAO is present or where one is, operate largely independently. As these groups expand their activities and geographic reach, however, it will become more important for them to think strategically about how they can differentiate and coordinate their parent organizing work. Irwin noted, "We are in such a strong place to work together and build a strategy around collaboration because I don't think that the movement moves forward without a clear plan for how the organizations that are out there can effectively leverage our different strengths. There's got to be a strategy for how we work together, or how we divide and conquer, whatever the ultimate goal would be."

Irwin went on to say that "50CAN does a wonderful job doing broad community engagement and microtargeting education advocates around campaigns, but what they don't do is focus at the school district level and do the kind of permanent base building that we do at the school district level. It is neat when you think about the opportunities if we ever do wind up in the same state to have one group go crazy at the state level and one go crazy at the school district level, and the way that we could filter up and down with each other is kind of cool to think about." Stand and 50CAN do not currently overlap their operations in any state, but they recently completed an agreement that outlined their future collaboration. This agreement--and the work of PIE Network--is promising, but it is clear that the groups have only just begun to think about how and where to coordinate their efforts and that the foundations that fund their work need to push them to accelerate their efforts to do so. Close attention to the comparative advantages that different groups-and different kinds of groups--bring to the table on behalf of school reform should be an important part of this conversation. Robin Steans (Advance Illinois) observed, for example:
   It is really tough for national organizations.
   They can put out as many hard-hitting reports
   as they want, but if there isn't somebody at the
   state to pick up and run with it, it will not have
   much impact.... It's been enormously helpful
   to our organization to have access to the
   wealth of information supplied by national
   organizations, and at the same time, it is also
   helpful to the national organizations to have a
   local counterpart that has the credibility at the
   local level to put that information to good use.
   And that's what we are trying to do.


Bottom Up or Top Down? One of the great challenges of parent organizing centers on the extent to which the agendas of local community or parent groups can be left to emerge organically or need to be set or refined by the state or national organization. How (or how much) should ERAOs ensure fidelity to their policy agenda? How much alignment should ERAOs expect--or require--of their parents and local chapters? Because Stand chapters grow organically and are led by parents, for example, it can be a challenge to get them on the same page with one another and with the state organization.

A related but slightly different challenge revolves around the amount of time and energy that local parent groups devote to school-based issues (such as those around discipline, fundraising, facilities, and extracurricular activities) instead of broader systemic reform issues. Stand, for example, establishes state- and national-level policy agendas but allows local chapters to vote on their own agendas. Irwin (Stand) noted that this approach "builds a level of trust between parents and the organization, and getting something concrete right in front of them that they can see makes it so much easier to connect them to the bigger, more systemic issues that we also need them to help us address. So those kind of small wins that come up organically are really worth investing in if it's something that builds trust and actually helps kids in the school."

Although this approach clearly reinforces the democratic and grass-roots nature of their effort, it may make it more difficult to harness and direct parent energies toward systemic reform issues. A profound tension can be at work here because centrally mandated agendas may undermine the authenticity or legitimacy of a local group (and affect its ability to attract and retain parent support) while agendas that emerge organically may stray from or even oppose the stated policy goals of the ERAO. Danis (Newark Trust for Education) observed, "You have to engage people early in the process--need ownership with genuine and sincere involvement, not just buy-in at the end of the process." However, ERAOs face a real dilemma between creating ownership and empowerment at the grass-roots level and providing state- and national-level leadership and direction. It is also crucial--but difficult--to move beyond "random acts of family involvement" (43) and connect school-level parent organizing with mobilization for state-level policy advocacy. As DFER's Kathleen Nugent observed:
   None of this is sustainable if we do not have a
   base of support from our parents. None of it
   is. Administrations change, leadership goes
   away, resources disappear, the national spotlight
   moves on. The only way that this works
   is if we mobilize parents and create powerful
   platforms in a strong and strategic way. I think
   what you're going to see is more investments
   in the community organizing, hopefully more
   media coverage of it, too. The real wins will
   come from within the community, among the
   community's voices. A supportive op-ed or
   Commissioner Chris Cerf easing a regulation
   to release some of the burden on our schools
   may alter the statewide dialogue or how
   schools operate internally, and that is a part of
   the effort. But whether or not this is ultimately
   sustainable is going to be, in my opinion,
   determined by the dialogue in the community
   and the ability to mobilize parents desperately
   seeking a better education for their children.

A related issue centers on the involvement of school and district leadership in ERAO parent engagement efforts. These leaders are crucial gatekeepers to parents--both because they have the parent contact information that ERAOs need for their outreach efforts and because they are often trusted and influential members of the community. As a result, the support-or the opposition--of principals and superintendents to ERAO parent mobilization efforts can have an enormous effect on their success or failure. In fact, many of the organizations I spoke with will not enter a district or school without supportive leadership. There is a big difference between collaboration and confrontation, however, and working with school leaders and teachers may require ERAOs to adopt a more incremental agenda that does not threaten long-established practices instead of introducing rapid transformative change. How to balance working with school and district leadership while pushing that leadership to undertake more radical reforms than they might otherwise embrace is a difficult challenge for ERAOs. The emergence of new pro-reform principal groups like New Leaders for New Schools and new proreform teacher groups like Educators 4 Excellence and Teach Plus is a promising development in this regard, but it does not appear that ERAOs have developed a strategy for capitalizing on it as of yet.

Exit or Voice? Another important issue in need of further examination by ERAOs (and further research by scholars) is how the array of options available to parents with children in failing schools influences their behavior and, in particular, their willingness to advocate on behalf of systemic school reform. The parent organizers I spoke with indicated that they often use charter school parent lists (and charter wait lists) to identify and recruit parents on behalf of reform activism. But as Andrew Kelly notes in his paper, it is not altogether clear whether the ongoing expansion of school choice across the country will ultimately result in more or less parent engagement in reform advocacy. One of the ironies of the school choice movement is that increasing the ability of parents to exit failing schools may make it less likely that such schools will ever improve by removing the most attentive, vocal, and perhaps able parents. Danis observed, "This is a real problem.

With so many options available (and growing), there are fewer kids in the district schools, and parents are mobilizing to exit to charters rather than push reform." Nugent (DFER) added that "it is hard to get charter parents engaged in the struggle of the school reform, to fight for other people, because their child is already getting a good education."

Absent school choices, such parents might instead have to direct their energies toward reforming their child's original school. A separate but related challenge is how to get parents to move from school-based action to systemic reform--to get parents to look beyond the improvement of their particular child's school (or educational opportunities) and engage in a broader effort to reform the education system at the district, state, or federal level. It will be interesting to see, for example, how the increasing number of "parent trigger" laws in California (see Kelly's paper following this one) and other states will affect ERAO parent mobilization efforts around reforms for district schools.

Another dimension to the exit or voice dilemma centers on the need for ERAOs to be attuned to the ways in which parents' perceptions of self-interest and community interest affect the incentives for engagement. Andrew Kelly's paper (p. 27) highlights the important role that self-interest can play as a motivating force for parents, but efforts to build a long-term mass movement may well hinge more on appeals to parents' loyalty to and concern for their broader community. Political scientists such as Gregory Markus have long recognized that citizens are significantly influenced by what they think is best for the community or the nation as a whole, in addition to what is best for their immediate personal well-being. (44) Such attitudes are especially prevalent when voters are thinking about policies that resonate with their conceptions of a just society or impact vulnerable and sympathetic populations, as with education. It will be crucial for ERAOs to devote considerable care and attention to crafting a message that can appeal not only to parents' simple self-interest, but also to cultural conceptions of American values and ideals and, in particular, to the nation's commitment to educational opportunity.

Partisan Politics. Partisan politics may complicate ERAOs' efforts to mobilize parents because parents often are partisan. Although the ERAOs emphasize bipartisanship so that they can work effectively with parents and policymakers on both sides of the aisle, the groups confront several very different challenges related to partisan politics. One of the most important and unresolved issues is how the ERAO groups will navigate their complicated relationship with civil rights organizations and teachers unions-groups that have their own strong and long-standing ties to parents. Teachers unions are a crucial part of the Democratic Party's base and yet have long resisted the kinds of reforms the ERAOs are advocating on issues such as school choice, test-based accountability, and teacher quality. Recently, for example,, a progressive petition-based advocacy organization with ties to the labor movement, dropped StudentsFirst and Stand for Children as clients over claims that the groups take an "antiunion" stance. The break was precipitated by a petition drafted by the Illinois chapter of Stand for Children that called upon the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public School system to stop the "political posturing" around contract negotiations. (45) But nationally, the unions themselves are also in flux. Harvard University's Susan Moore Johnson has noted the rise of "reform unionism": support for reform is increasing inside the unions, particularly in the American Federation of Teachers and among younger teachers. (46) This trend has spawned such pro-reform teacher organizations as Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence.

Collectively, civil rights groups have assumed an ambiguous and fluid position in the school reform debates, though with major groups at times supportive of elements of the ERAO agenda. As Jesse Rhodes observes in a 2011 article in Perspectives on Politics, a number of civil rights groups have "played a central role in developing and promoting standards, testing, accountability, and limited school choice policies in order to achieve what they view as fundamentally egalitarian purposes." (47) Yet these groups have historically been closely politically aligned with teachers unions and continue to find common ground given the large number of minority teachers, particularly in urban areas. This helps explain why the NAACP sided with the unions against school closures and charter school expansion in New York City and Newark, for example, even as the group supported the ERAOs' call for closing achievement gaps. There is also a major generational and racial gap between the leaders of groups like the NAACP and ERAO leaders, who are often young, elite-schooled, and white and as such are often viewed skeptically by people of color. Figuring out how to create state-level alliances with civil rights groups and mobilize urban communities--which are disproportionately minority and poor--remains an ongoing challenge.

The second challenge is preserving over time the fairly broad bipartisan consensus on the ERAO agenda, both among parents and policymakers. As DFER's Williams observed, "There are times where we agree with Republicans on reform, but also plenty of times where we disagree--especially at the federal level and about funding." Although ERAOs generally support an active role for the federal government in promoting school reform and accountability, the rise of the Tea Party has highlighted that many conservatives continue to oppose such activism. And though ERAOs have led the charge to reform teacher evaluation and tenure policies, they have generally opposed more fundamental changes to collective bargaining pushed by Republican governors in states like Wisconsin. Similarly, although many Democrats (as well as many ERAOs) support the expansion of charter schools and school choice, other proposals like those around school vouchers that Republicans are pushing in many states are met with much greater ambivalence. And as noted above, there appears to be a growing tension between parents who want to focus resources on reforming district schools and those who want to divert more public dollars to charter schools or vouchers.

Measuring and Sustaining Success. Any effective organization needs to regularly assess its performance, but ERAOs have struggled to develop direct measures of their impact. A study by Public Impact found, "Interviewees admitted that they did not capture many metrics that allowed them to accurately measure the success of their engagement efforts. They have focused more on the results of the change effort itself (school results, dropout rate reduction, etc.)." (48) This is not surprising, as one study noted: "For a number of reasons, the work of community organizing for school reform is often invisible.... It is an ongoing process seeking to transform relationships and institutions. These kind of structural changes occur over many years of work and hence there is no neat beginning, middle, and end." (49) As a result, ERAOs tend to rely on more indirect proxies of influence, such as dollars raised or parent "touches," or to highlight policy victories in which their precise contribution cannot be disaggregated from those of a wide variety of other actors.

Stand Tennessee, for example, cites as evidence of their success that they have enlisted more than 1,000 parent members and more than 250 teachers and have had 15,000 people attend their meetings. On the policy side, they highlight the state's passage of legislation in support of its RTTT application, a petition drive to document stakeholder support for the reform plan contained in the application, the push to secure additional funding for schools, and the passage of teacher effectiveness legislation. ERAOs--and the foundations that support them--need to devote more attention to developing metrics to use to assess the effectiveness of their organizing efforts, even as they recognize that any such metrics will be imperfect and fail to fully capture the totality of ERAO impact. (50) It is also important that successes--especially early wins--be communicated to parents and that their role in bringing them about be highlighted to combat hopelessness and develop a sense of efficacy around reform efforts.

Another challenge for ERAOs involves sustaining parental engagement in school reform over time. Over the past two years, ERAOs have shown that they can mobilize parents quickly and effectively on behalf of reform. But as FEE's Patricia Levesque warns, education reform is a long-term endeavor where "success is incremental" and "progress can be torn down quickly if momentum is stopped." The recent struggles of the Race to the Top grantees have demonstrated that ensuring that policy reforms are implemented effectively on the ground and sustained over time is crucial, though less "sexy" than winning legislative victories. Major policy victories can quickly be undone by a new governor or legislature or undermined during the rule-making process, what Levesque called "death by a thousand cuts." Battles over implementation occur in different venues (state boards, task forces, and education agencies), are more technical and less visible (especially to parents), and demand different tactics than legislative fights. ERAOs' roles must include technical assistance, reporting, and playing watchdog vis-a-vis state education agencies, but it may be harder to communicate this kind of work to parents. But Pickens from DC School Reform Now noted that this can lead reform groups to spend a lot of time "playing defense" and that these additional tasks may reduce the resources that ERAOs can devote to lobbying and grass-roots mobilization. ERAOs have to think carefully about strategies for playing both offense and defense around school reform and how to effectively balance the two.

Building Capacity and Scaling Up. Despite the recent proliferation of ERAO groups and activities, it is important to remember that these are, for the most part, new groups with limited resources and reach. Warren argues that community organizing groups "need the financial resources to pay a sufficient number of professional organizers, expert knowledge to engage in policy development and a broad enough reach to affect district policy." (51) A major future issue for ERAOs related to parent organizing thus centers on expanding their capacity and coverage. Currently, most ERAOs remain quite understaffed and underresourced, particularly compared to groups like the teachers unions that are working to mobilize parents against the reform agenda. Hari Sevugan (StudentsFirst) remarked that despite ambitious goals, his group is essentially a "start-up" and "trying to fly the plane while [they] build it." Even in Newark, a place widely seen as a major hub of school reform, Jeffries reported, "There has been no cultivation of an education reform constituency among parents. We are getting hit in the mouth daily and not fighting back enough. For every ten people or mailers that the unions have, we have half of one. There is no mechanism or infrastructure in place to rebut the claims of the reform opposition."

To date, ERAOs have focused on large urban districts and states they consider hospitable to their efforts. However, this approach leaves the vast majority of the nation's 14,000 school districts, as well as many entire states, unserved; twenty-seven states, for example, are not represented on the PIE Network's membership list. Indeed, focusing on receptive districts and states may actually ensure that areas most in need of reform advocacy and parent mobilizing (and perhaps with the worst-performing school systems) will be ignored. The hope among ERAOs is that laggard states will feel pressure to follow reform-oriented states, but no one can guarantee that this will happen. The PIE Network's Kubach observed:
   A huge next piece of this puzzle is helping
   people that are leading this effort stop fighting
   over the ten or twelve states where everybody
   is excited to invest money and figure out how
   do we bring the rest of the country along.
   That's the next challenge for us all: the foundations
   who care about this, the reform communities
   who care about this, what are our
   strategies for tapping into those states where
   we don't have all the leading factors that you
   need to do this, to bring them along so we're
   actually moving the country and not just a
   collection of states.

Clearly, to be successful over the long haul, ERAOs will need to better coordinate their efforts within and across states. Michelle Rhee (StudentsFirst) is optimistic on this front, noting, "More critical masses of reform-oriented folks are being built up, and I'm seeing more leaders of education reform organizations saying, 'We need to figure out how we can align our efforts in a more effective and efficient way than in the past.' It's not going to happen overnight, but I'm very hopeful that it will happen in the next two to three years."

The scale issue has several different dimensions, as the ERAOs seek to expand the number of states, districts, and schools that they operate in as well as increase the number of parents involved. One of the most interesting questions for these groups going forward is how much they want to be all-purpose organizations that do everything from grass-roots organizing to state and national lobbying, or whether they want to specialize on a certain piece of the work and then partner with other groups that can complement their particular focus. A related question concerns the issue of subcontracting and whether efficiencies can be harnessed by relying on third-party vendors to provide certain support services rather than providing them in house. Instead of developing their own parent training programs from scratch, for example, some ERAOs are beginning to bring in consultants to do the work for them. Many ERAOs in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region, for example, are relying on Families for Excellent Schools--to train parent leaders and give them the skills necessary to become reform leaders in their local communities.


The concerted effort by ERAOs to inform and engage parents behind school reform is a crucial, if understudied, component of the contemporary education reform movement. It is important to recognize, however, that this nascent effort has really only just begun and these groups face many challenges as they seek to enlist parents as allies in this fight. Much of the initial wave of parent organizing has revolved around the isolated, intermittent mobilization of charter school parents behind temporary campaigns in support of legislative change. But this approach has several limitations. First, as Andrew Kelly observes in his companion paper, parents who apply to charter schools are often disinclined to engage in school reform either because of apathy once their child has secured a spot in a good school or because of anger once their child has been denied. Second, even though the number of parents with children in charter schools has grown dramatically in the past decade, they still comprise a small minority of parents overall, limiting their potential political impact. Third, the school reform agenda of ERAOs is much broader than expanding choice and today encompasses a number of proposals--such as teacher evaluation and tenure reform--that are largely irrelevant to charter parents.

ERAOs are increasingly realizing that the successful enactment, implementation, and protection of the education policy reforms on their agenda--and public perception of the agenda's legitimacy-necessitates the development of a new, more active approach to parental engagement. This new approach will need to build a permanent, coordinated, nationwide network of organizations operating at the school, district, state, and national levels that is committed to the kind of grass-roots parent organizing that can create a genuine social movement behind school reform and convert parent power into political power. As Shavar Jeffries, the president of the Newark School Board, noted, much of the reform focus to date has been at the state and national level. But, he says, "All politics is local and all community organizing is local. It's harder and more time-consuming work, but there is a big payoff.... I have full confidence that we will win if we do the work." As this paper highlights, however, ERAOs have really only scratched the surface of parent power as a potential force in education reform, and the large and diverse array of organizations working in this space--and the foundations that fund them--will need to develop a coherent long-term strategy that can better leverage and connect the particular capacities and comparative advantages that different ERAOs bring to the table.


Interviews Conducted for This Paper

Luis Avila, Organizing Director, Arizona Chapter of Stand for Children, April 19,2012

Derrell Bradford, Executive Director, Better Education for Kids, May 30,2011

Kenya Bradshaw, Executive Director, Tennessee Chapter of Stand for Children, May 11, 2012

Ross Danis, President and CEO, Newark Trust for Education, May 17,2012

Megan Irwin, National Expansion and Program Director, Stand for Children, April 3, 2012

Shavar Jeffries, Founder and Chair, iReform, and Member, Newark School Advisory Board, May 23, 2012

Jeremiah Kittredge, Founder and Executive Director, Families for Excellent Schools, May 16, 2012

Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, Executive Director, Policy Innovators in Education Network, January 24, 2012

Patricia Levesque, Executive Director, Florida Foundation for Excellence in Education, January 27, 2012

Marc Porter Magee, President and Founder, 50CAN, January 20, 2012

Kathleen Nugent, New Jersey State Director, Democrats for Education Reform, April 26, 2012

David Pickens, Executive Director, DC School Reform Now, May 16, 2011

Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO, StudentsFirst, January 31, 2012

Hari Sevugan, Vice President of Communications, StudentsFirst, January 30, 2012

Robin Steans, Executive Director, Advance Illinois, January 23, 2012

Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform, January 19, 2012

Ellen Winn, Executive Vice President, 50CAN, and Former Executive Director, Education Equality Project, January 20, 2012


An earlier treatment of some of the material in this paper was published as "Fight Club: Are Advocacy Organizations Changing the Politics of Education?" in the Summer 2012 issue of Education Next. That article provided a brief overview of the advocacy organization landscape and the groups' activities and impact. This paper addresses these issues in more depth--and with additional research and interviews--and focuses much more on the parent engagement efforts of these organizations.

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(2.) Mark Warren, "Building a Political Constituency for Urban School Reform," Urban Education 46, no. 3 (2010): 484.

(3.) Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from personal interviews with the author. See the appendix for a full list of interviewees.

(4.) Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

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(7.) See Robert Putnam, "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century," Scandinavian Political Studies 30, no. 2 (2007): 137-74.

(8.) Rufus Browning et al., ed., Racial Politics in American Cities (New York: Longman Publishers, 1997), 4.

(9.) Jeffrey Henig, et al., The Color Of School Reform (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 276.

(10.) Marion Orr, Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, 1986-1998 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999).

(11.) Paul T. Hill and Mary Beth Celio, Fixing Urban Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 35.

(12.) Julian Bond, NAACP chairman, interview with author, March 29, 2001.

(13.) Jean Johnson, What's Trust Got to Do with It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools (New York: Public Agenda, 2011), 9.

(14.) Some recent research challenges the idea that urban parents cannot accurately assess the performance of their children's' schools. See Nathan Favero and Kenneth J. Meier, "Evaluating Urban Public Schools: Parents, Teachers and State Assessments," American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, /abstract=1901010 (accessed July 9, 2012).

(15.) Johnson, What's Trust Got to Do with It?, 7.

(16.) See, for example, Heather Weiss, M. Elena Lopez, and Heidi Rosenberg, Beyond Random Acts: Family, School, and Community Engagement as an Integral Part of Education Reform (Washington, DC: National Policy Forum for Family, School, and Community Engagement, December 2010), 2.

(17.) For a case study or parent engagement efforts at the Microsoft School of the Future in West Philadelphia, see Patrick McGuinn, "Parent and Community Engagement: The School of the Future Meets the Urban District of Today," in What Next? Educational Innovation and Philadelphia's School of the Future, Frederick Hess and Mary Cullinane, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010).

(18.) Stephen Rosenstone and John Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1993), 145.

(19.) For a collection of community organizing case studies, see Marion Orr, ed., Transforming the City: Community Organizing and the Challenge of Political Change (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).

(20.) Jack Rothman, "The Interweaving of Community Intervention Approaches," Journal of Community Practice 3, nos. 3 and 4 (1996): 69-99.

(21.) Kristina Smock, Democracy in Action: Community Organizing and Urban Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 257.

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(23.) Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Getting Started in Education Organizing, January 2012, 2, startededucation-organizing-resources-and-strategies (accessed July 9, 2012).

(24.) Bruno V. Manno, "NOT Your Mother's PTA," Education Next 12, no. 1 (Winter 2012), http://educationnext .org/not-your-mothers-pta/ (accessed June 28, 2012).

(25.) For more on astroturf lobbying, see J. C. Stauber and S. Rampton, "Astroturf Lobbying Replaces Grassroots Organizing," Business and Society Review, no. 95 (1995). See also John McNutt and Katherine Boland, "AstroTurf, Technology and the Future of Community Mobilization: Implications for Nonprofit Theory," Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 34, no. 3 (2007): 165-79.

(26.) Correspondence between the author and Jonah Edelman from July 7, 2012.

(27.) "Seizing the Opportunity: How Education Advocacy Groups and State Policy Makers Work Together to Advance Reform, PIE Network, January 2012, -31d4-4c63-8d0b-64117d5a1733&groupId=10457 (accessed July 9, 2012).

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(29.) Steven Brill, Class Warfare (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).

(30.) Sean Cavanagh, "Mitch Daniels Sees 'Tectonic Shift' on Education in the States," State Ed Watch blog, Education Week, February 27, 2012, /edweek/state_edwatch/2012/02/mitch_daniels_sees_tectonic _shift_on_education_in_states.html (accessed July 9, 2012).

(31.) Associated Press, "States Weaken Tenure Rights for Teachers," January 25, 2012.

(32.) For more on the historically close relationship between PTAs and teachers, see William Cutler, Parents and Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

(33.) Warren, "Building a Political Constituency," 506.

(34.) Arnold Fege, "Getting Ruby a Quality Public Education: Forty-Two Years of Building the Demand for Quality Public Schools through Parental and Public Involvement," Harvard Education Review 76, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 571-72.

(35.) For detailed case studies of community organizing with an empowerment focus, see Dennis Shirley, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).

(36.) Lucy Steiner and Dana Brinson, Fixing Failing Schools: Building Family and Community Demand for Dramatic Change (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact, May 2011), 7.

(37.) "Getting Started in Education Organizing," 5.

(38.) Sean Cavanagh, "Parent Unions Seek to Join Policy Debates," Education Week, March 6, 2012, (accessed July 9, 2012).

(39.) Weiss, Lopez, and Rosenberg, Beyond Random Acts, 13.

(40.) Arne Duncan, "Unleashing the Power of Data for School Reform" (remarks, STATS DC 2010 Data Conference, Washington, DC, July 28, 2010), /speeches/unleashing-power-data-school-reform-secretaryarne- duncans-remarks-stats-dc-2010-data(accessed June 28, 2012).

(41.) Victoria Carty, "New Information Communication Technologies and Grassroots Mobilization," Information, Communication, and Society 13, no. 2 (2010): 155-73.

(42.) "Unruly Crowd Forces Newark Superintendent to End Presentation on School Closings Early," New Jersey Star Ledger, February 3, 2012.

(43.) Weiss, Lopez, and Rosenberg, Beyond Random Acts, 3.

(44.) G. Markus, "The Impact of Personal and National Economic Conditions on the Presidential Vote," American Journal of Political Science 32 (1988): 137-54.

(45.) Ryan Grim, " Drops Michelle Rhee Group under Pressure from Progressives," Huffington Post, June 19, 2012, /19/changeorg-michelle-rhee_n_1610760.html (accessed June 28, 2012).

(46.) Susan Moore Johnson, "Paralysis or Possibility: What Do Teachers Unions and Collective Bargaining Bring?" in Ronald D. Henderson, Wayne J. Urban, Paul Wolman, ed., Teacher Unions and Education Policy: Retrenchment or Reform? (Bradford, UK: Emerald Publishing Group, 2004).

(47.) Jesse Rhodes, "Progressive Policy Making in a Conservative Age? Civil Rights and the Politics of Federal Education Standards, Testing, and Accountability," Perspectives on Politics 9(3): 519-44.

(48.) Steiner and Brinson, Fixing Failing Schools, 51.

(49.) Eva Gold, Elaine Simon, and Chris Brown, Strong Neighborhoods, Strong Schools: The Education Organizing Indicators Framework: A User's Guide (Philadelphia, PA: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, March 2002), 40, (accessed July 9, 2012).

(50.) For one attempt to develop such metrics, see ibid.

(51.) Warren, "Building a Political Constituency," 504.
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Author:McGuinn, Patrick
Publication:AEI Paper & Studies
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Date:Jul 1, 2012
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