Education reform from the grassroots: How and when parents can shape policy


by Michael Hartney | American Enterprise Institute


Key points:

  • Recent changes in the education politics landscape are challenging the old assumption that parents are destined to play a passive role in school politics. In particular, a number of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) are starting to organize parents to lobby policymakers on a host of school reforms.
  • Parent organizing can make a tangible difference in the policy process when combined with more sophisticated tactics ERAOs use, such as advanced media campaigns, research advocacy, and large financial campaign contributions to preferred candidates.  Parent organizing is unlikely to replace these elite tactics.
  • In local school politics, parent organizing can be used to identify and support new candidates to replace recalcitrant incumbents. Parent organizing might also help persuade incumbents in state- and national-level politics to change their positions to support ERAO-favored reforms.



A heavily state and local affair, education politics is a unique area of American civic life. Entrenched interest groups tend to have an outsized impact on mayoral races and school board elections, which endows them with substantial control over what happens in schools and classrooms. And these elections are often less competitive and suffer from low rates of voter turnout. For school reformers seeking to improve the status quo by promoting standards and accountability, teacher effectiveness, or school choice policies, these political dynamics paint a bleak picture: powerful interests dominate local elections, and local elections dictate the direction of school policy.

Education reformers have long recognized these structural obstacles to change and have made real progress in building the political power necessary to persuade incumbents and to elect education reform champions at all levels of government. However, the movement has traditionally lacked significant grassroots support in the communities those grassroots organizations seek to help, leaving the organizations vulnerable to familiar charges of elitism and corporate reform.

But a new set of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) is working to level the grassroots playing field by leveraging the unique position of an oft-marginalized constituency: public school parents. Over the past few years, these groups have burst onto the scene by credibly organizing and mobilizing parents to fight for reforms such as school choice, standards and accountability, and teacher tenure reform. The roster of ERAOs includes groups with national reach—such as Stand for Children (STAND), the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50-CAN)—and many others with local focus.

Despite the growing import of ERAOs, to date, not much is known about their strategies, successes, challenges, or the lessons they are learning about mobilizing parents in search of policy change. AEI Education has been at the forefront of efforts to better understand this new phenomenon.

Two years ago I, along with Drew University political scientist Patrick McGuinn, released one of the first in-depth looks at parent organizing for education reform in Parent Power: Grass-Roots Activism and K–12 Education Reform. We found, among other things, that while parents who sent their children to schools of choice were ripe for mobilization, the mere act of choosing a school did not by itself make parents activists. Rather, ERAOs had to work to equip parents with the necessary tools and training to effectively lobby policymakers. We also found that many of the most prominent ERAOs were relatively young and had limited resources, begging questions of sustainability.

But ours was just the first look. To continue learning more about ERAOs and parent power, AEI Education will be releasing a slate of new research distilling lessons about what makes for effective recruitment, how groups train and mobilize parents, and how effective those groups are at sustaining parent engagement over time. In this first paper, Michael Hartney, professor of political science at Lake Forest College, starts with the most fundamental question regarding parent organizing: when and in what contexts can parent organizing successfully influence public policy?

Hartney first summarizes what existing political science literature on interest groups and advocacy might suggest about the potential avenues of influence parent organizing groups might have—for example, direct lobbying, grassroots organizing, and electioneering—and the conditions under which each approach may assist ERAO reform efforts the most. Using new data from a survey of school board members, Hartney then assesses how responsive local school board members are to parent demands. The study goes on to zero in on STAND, 50-CAN, and DFER and examines several real-world examples of ERAO advocacy to provide evidence of parent power. Among his findings:

  • In both local and national politics, parent organizing can help guard ERAOs against criticisms of “Astroturf” lobbying (as opposed to more genuine grassroots efforts).
  • School board members are less responsive to parent preferences than they are to the preferences of professional educators, suggesting a need for the kind of organizing that can unite parents and amplify their voices.
  • However, parent organizing can help drive policy change when combined with elite-level tactics such as campaign donations to preferred candidates, direct lobbying, and mass media campaigns.
  • In local school politics, parent organizing can be used to identify and support new candidates who will run against unsympathetic incumbents, often in low-turnout primary elections.

Hartney concludes that the rise of ERAOs and organized parent advocacy suggests that “school politics are increasingly operating like the politics that characterize other policy domains.” As ERAOs continue to grow and adapt in this new political environment, such research will be necessary to track their successes and learn from their struggles.

For more information, please contact Hartney ( or myself ( For additional information on AEI’s education policy studies program, please visit or contact Daniel Lautzenheiser at

— Andrew P. Kelly
Resident Scholar, Education Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

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