More activist parents aren’t going away. Here’s how to work with them.

What K-12 leaders need to know about a new generation of parents promoting both conservative and liberal causes.

“More interested in school district budgets and ballot boxes than bake sales.” That’s how a new analysis characterizes today’s increasingly energized parent activists who are seeking greater influence over their children’s education.

Anti-mask protests, restrictions on teaching LGTBQ topics, and other campaigns around conservative issues have drawn a lot of recent media attention. But parents on the other side of the spectrum have also mobilized behind liberal causes such as equity and teacher diversity, says “Leaning In: The New Power of Parents in Public Education,” by Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank.

“A new generation of far more activist parent organizations are springing up across the country, propelled by the internet, the rise of video conferencing, social media, and millions of dollars in backing from foundations seeking to bring the voices of underrepresented families and communities into the work of school improvement,” says the report, which also covers how educators and policymakers can work more productively with these groups.

First of all, PTAs and PTOs—the traditional parent engagement outlets—are in decline, in part because the groups have been viewed by some as catering mostly to white families who have been hesitant to take stands on controversial issues. This has given rise to organizations such as Atlanta Thrive, PAVE, The Memphis Lift, the National Parents Union, and Village of Wisdom, which advocate for parents of color and families living in poverty.

These equity-oriented groups are also receiving millions of dollars in support from powerful foundations and other philanthropic groups such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Walton Family Foundation. “Some of these local parent groups are fast expanding into national organizations with scores of local chapters—a sign that today’s heightened parental activism represents not just the latest skirmish in the nation’s culture wars but a more permanent change in the education policy landscape,” the report says.

This activism is also providing plenty of fuel for Republican state lawmakers, who have proposed dozens of bills that regulate how schools teach about race, sexual education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The conservative politicians, touting parents’ rights and curriculum transparency, have been joined by new parent-led organizations such as Moms for Liberty, which was a key backer of the controversial Parents Bill of Rights in Florida.

“The pandemic has intensified this new parent activism by turning kitchen tables into classrooms, stoking parents’ frustrations with school closings and online learning,” the report says. “And it has spawned new conservative parent organizations opposed to mask mandates, vaccines, and district attempts to confront issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools—agendas that at times put them in direct opposition to parents pursuing educational equity, and agendas that have turned more than a few school board meetings into civic punch-ups.”

Working with parents

While the report says these parent activists are here to say, education leaders can forge better working relationships by inviting them into the decision-making process. Administrators are advised to make a concerted effort to gain the trust of traditionally marginalized families, starting with holding meetings out in the community at places and times that parents find more convenient.

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Some districts have appointed a cabinet-level official who is responsible for community engagement and strongly encouraged teachers to work with families on learning plans for each student. For example, District of Columbia Public Schools’ Office of Family and Public Engagement has worked with the PAVE organization to spread information about various district programs, including its new school ratings system. “While external parent advocacy organizations will continue to put pressure on districts when they think it is necessary,” the report says, “smart district leaders are proactively reaching out to families to engage their views as they develop district policies and practices, a strategy that can help forge stronger parental backing for district policies at the front end, while ensuring policies are more responsive to students and their parents.”

The report also describes how the Burlington School District in Vermont invited students, families, community members, teachers, and administrators to play key roles in a “radically inclusive” strategic planning process in the summer of 2021. Among the priorities set by the group are establishing a sense of belonging for students and families, and setting school performance metrics that will be shared with the community.

‘While some of the more politically motivated parent activists—including conservatives who see education as a means to push back against what they view as damaging cultural shifts—might withdraw after the 2022 elections, the broader surge of parent activism is likely to persist,” the report concludes. “Social media has expanded communications dramatically and changed power dynamics, and parents have new, pandemic-sharpened expectations for their children’s learning.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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