Parental involvement in schools is shifting rapidly from traditional parent-teacher organizations and associations that focus on community-involvement to a new landscape of parental involvement and activism, according to an analysis released by FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
The new parent organizations have "taken a much more aggressive stance toward their work than local PTAs typically did," the authors said, like rallying, drafting legislative language, and lobbying elected officials. The internet, social media, video conferencing, activist foundations backed by donors — among other things — have facilitated this shift, the report suggests.
Although some of the more political activist organizations might die down after the 2022 elections, "the broader surge of parent activism is likely to persist," added the paper, pushing districts to embrace parents' calls for change and get a better understanding of students' needs.
According to the analysis, activist groups have been organized by people of color to advance educational equity and also by conservative parents pushing back against what they perceive are "damaging cultural shifts."
"The pandemic supercharged the new parental activism, turning kitchen tables into classrooms and leaving parents frustrated with school closings and the quality of online learning," the report said. "The twin forces of technology and Covid have proven to be powerful catalysts for parental organizing."
Those parent groups are very different from the PTA, said Scott Davison, a former director of legislative affairs for the Parent Association, a bipartisan nonprofit that pushes parents to advocate for their children and work with district leadership. The PTA, Davison said, are traditionally aligned with school districts and teachers' unions. "Thus, parents upset over school closures didn't go to the PTA because the PTA had the same position as the unions and school districts," he said.
Oftentimes, advocating is viewed outside the purview of PTO or PTA leadership, said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union, in an email. The union is an organization of grassroots parent activists and groups.
COVID-19 spurred the launch of conservative groups opposing measures like mask mandates, vaccines, and districts' efforts to address racial, gender and sexuality issues. These "agendas that frequently have put them in direct opposition to parents pursuing educational equity and turned more than a few usually sedate school board meetings into community punch-ups," the FutureEd authors wrote.
"If schools want to avoid the growing number of incidents at school board meetings, they just need to listen," Davison said. "Most parents are angry because school boards and superintendents have become insulated and isolated from the public to the point that they believe they know best and don't want anyone's else's opinion."
The report pushes districts to engage in parents in a more meaningful way that builds trust rather than resentment and gives local education leaders a better understanding of student needs, especially from the perspectives of low-income parents and parents of color.
Rodrigues believes that some schools have been resistant to transparency, open lines of communication and rebuilding trust, even in wake of the pandemic. Meanwhile, parents and families want to influence change.
"They want to have the power to force systems, administrators and educators to address what they see as major problems impacting their children’s ability to achieve or access opportunity," Rodrigues said, adding that parents' input should "be more than a condescending soundbite."