Web-Savvy Activists Push For Educational Change
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009; A01
For a new generation of well-wired activists in the Washington region, it's not enough to speak at Parent-Teacher Association or late-night school board meetings. They are going head-to-head with superintendents through e-mail blitzes, social networking Web sites, online petitions, partnerships with business and student groups, and research that mines a mountain of electronic data on school performance.
These parent insurgents are gaining influence -- and getting things changed.
In recent weeks, parent-led campaigns helped bring down a long-established grading policy in Fairfax County and scale back the unpopular practice of charging fees for courses in Montgomery County. They have also stoked debates over math education in Frederick and Prince William counties.
In Loudoun County, parents are gearing up to topple a grading scale similar to the one overturned in Fairfax. Another Fairfax group is making headway in a drive to push back high school start times.
What binds them is impatience with the school establishment and an aptitude for harnessing the power of the Internet to push for change.
"We are not our moms, who were just involved in the PTA," said Catherine Lorenze, a McLean mother who helped organize Fairgrade, the parent-led campaign to change the Fairfax grading scale by lowering the bar for an A from 94 to 90 percent.
"We worked for a number of years before we had kids," she said. "We know how to research and find information and connect the dots. To expect us to show up and just make photos or write checks does not sit well with this generation. If you are going to invite parents in the door . . . it should be more of a partnership."
School officials say they welcome the heightened interest in public education, because parent involvement often leads to student success. But they also warn that the wildfire Web-based campaigns can spread rumors quickly and tend to benefit affluent, well-connected parents. They can also distract school officials from budget deficits or other pressing issues.
Sometimes such parent groups, whose agendas tend to be limited to helping their own children, fail to carry the day against administrators, who must balance the needs of huge and diverse school systems. Thousands of Fairfax parents last year mounted a sophisticated, costly fight against a county plan to redraw high school boundaries to help fill an under-enrolled school that had higher rates of poor and minority students. Despite their protests, the School Board approved the change.
Still, school officials acknowledge the growing challenge to their authority.
"It used to be that the superintendent and the School Board made decisions and said, 'This is how it's going to be,' and the community would accept that," said Barbara Hunter, assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach for the 169,000-student Fairfax school system.
No longer. Many of today's parents are more skeptical of government and have new ways to engage with schools besides showing up for night meetings. They can make political statements by forwarding e-mails or signing petitions, all possible to do on a BlackBerry while idling on Interstate 66.
The No Child Left Behind law also has given parents more ways to challenge the official line. Since 2002, it has required schools to publish more information than ever about student performance, teacher quality and school safety. Parents back up their positions with bar charts and extensive analyses.
Former Fairfax superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said outspoken, savvy parents can be crucial allies in the fight for school funding. "The other side of the coin, of course, is you have to produce, because they are going to hold your feet to the fire," he said.
Officials caution that the new technology has turned up the volume for select parent voices. It can be especially apparent in parts of Fairfax or Montgomery where well-educated parents are not afraid to throw their weight around and register complaints with a phone call to the superintendent or the media. Blast e-mails and Web sites give these parents even more of an edge, compared with others who lack time or resources, some observers say.
Schools need to be more concerned about the digital divide than ever before, Hunter said. "We don't want to create two levels of power, those with access to information and those without it," she said.
Administrators across the region are looking for new ways to encourage traditionally silent parents to work with schools. In the District, efforts are underway to encourage parents to organize their thoughts into a short speech for the school board or to approach their children's teachers if they are concerned about a grade or a problem.
In Montgomery, the five-year-old Parent Coalition manages an e-mail list with more than 300 members in which parents raise concerns about high school exit exams, school board contracts and other issues in the 139,300-student system. It also maintains a Web site stocked with public documents.
The coalition has claimed two victories in recent weeks. It successfully lobbied the school board to eliminate hundreds of course fees, and its concerns about loose credit-card spending practices among school staff were validated by a state audit.
Brian Edwards, chief of staff for Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, said the coalition is run by a "small cadre" of parents who have been longtime critics of the system. In the past, he said, their complaints would have been registered through phone calls or e-mails. Now, organized on the Web, they attract more media and public attention.
Other Montgomery parents are organizing online around issues such as gifted or special education, and they keep close tabs on pending program changes.
Sharon W. Cox, who served on the Montgomery school board from 2000 to 2008, said parents often get news out to the community before the school system does. Sometimes she learned of controversies first from parents. School officials "are always in the position of having to be defensive and to correct misinformation because they are not proactive," she said.
Kitty Porterfield, a former communications director for Fairfax schools and author of the book "Why School Communication Matters," said many school systems "are still responding to 21st-century parents with 20th-century approaches."
A strategic communications team in Fairfax monitors the blogosphere and online message boards for misinformation or rumors, seeking to update the school system Web site and drive traffic there. The school system also is trying out new ways to include parents in important or controversial decisions from the earliest stages.
Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, whose recommendation to keep the 94-point benchmark for an A was reversed by the School Board after parent lobbying, said it is a challenge to stay on top of the daily avalanche of electronic communication from parents.
But he is trying to meet it. "That is what they expect from us," he said.