The massive 2014 protests in Albany led by the nonprofit Families for Excellent schools seemed, at the time, to strike like a bolt from the blue. Thousands of parents and students abruptly converged on the state capital in objection to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to curtail charter expansion, drawing sympathetic press coverage and even gaining the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo. But according to the American Enterprise Institute’s prolific Andrew P. Kelly, the rally bore less resemblance to lightning than electricity. His new paper, examining parental engagement in education reform and touching on public demonstrations in New York, Louisiana, and California, reveals some of the ways in which unfocused energy can be harnessed and channeled into effective, disciplined movements. It’s a critical area of study because public schools, their school boards, and their districts are democratic entities responsive to a gamut of competing constituencies. Social agitators from the time of the abolitionists have all had to learn to convert their missionary zeal into a force capable of mobilizing public support, and the relatively young undertaking of education reform will be no different. Vital groups like Stand for Children and Parents United for Public Schools, often led by educated whites for the primary benefit of disadvantaged minorities, are especially vulnerable to being cast as Astroturf outsiders rather than grassroots activists. To combat this easy delegitimization, successful education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) enlist natural leaders among communities of parents and emphasize depth of commitment over a shallow breadth of membership rolls. As Kelly demonstrates, the “human touch” of parental networking—door-to-door canvassing, neighborly phone calls, and religious attendance at PTA meetings—is matchless both for enticing committed volunteers and imposing social costs on apathy. It’s good to see reform intellectuals espousing the dearly purchased lessons of community organizing (this must surely be the first AEI publication making favorable reference to the works of Saul Alinsky); it’s also fitting that the paper doesn’t attempt to answer all the tactical questions of how best to effect change with direct action. It can be left to future movement leaders to learn, for instance, whether it is best to work outside of schools or to cultivate the backing of cooperative teachers and officials. For now, let’s just be grateful for the message that education reform can’t be all sparks and no circuitry.
SOURCE: Andrew P. Kelly, “Turning lightning into electricity: Organizing Parents for Education Reform,” American Enterprise Institute (December 2014).