Reflections of a parent organizer

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Regardless of issue or geographic location, parents often are the best advocates for their children’s educational options.

Florida frequently is viewed as a model for the school choice movement, especially when it comes to parent advocacy. So why is it so hard for other states to replicate the Sunshine State’s methods?

This is the question I’m pondering as I reflect on a recent parent organizer training in Milwaukee hosted by EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to advance a K-12 education system where all families are free to choose the most appropriate learning environment for their children.

Specifically, I’m wondering: How do we work through all the politics and enact change? What type of messaging do we need to share with parents who feel entitled to have educational options but don’t feel compelled to fight for it?

These are tough questions that don’t have easy answers. But in my opinion, one of the givens is that you need to have some skin in the game.

Anyone who has ever mobilized groups of people will tell you it’s not easy. One strategy that has worked in Florida for Step Up For Students, a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer five scholarships, has been building and maintaining a solid grassroots effort. A tactic connected to that strategy was the creation of a database of parent contacts that can activate parents – on as as-needed basis – in certain geographic areas.

How do we identify those parents and convince them to work with us? That’s a recurring question for many organizers, and one that comes up at almost every organizer training I attend.

I suppose there’s no right or wrong way. It may be best to just reach out to a school and offer to host a presentation during a parent meeting. Hand out fliers during a school sporting event. Partner with other organizations who have a connection to the school to amplify your message.

Sometimes obstacles turn out to be opportunities in disguise when it comes to organizing parents.

Say something negative appears in the media about a school’s academic performance. This can be a chance to rally parents by encouraging them to respond to the story, whether in print or online, by writing letters to the editor or even penning an opinion piece.

It’s amazing the lengths parents will go to when offered a little encouragement and some clear direction.

Clear direction is key when working in the political arena. While a bill working its way through committee can be intimidating to families who are unfamiliar with that arena, those individuals often are perfectly suited to lead a grassroots groundswell. Parents are essential because they are real people with real experiences. They are directly impacted by what is being proposed, and they often are the most passionate speakers in the room when a bill comes to the floor.

Consider arranging for the parents in your network to meet with their local lawmakers and teach them how to speak up – person – during the session. A well-spoken, flesh-and-blood constituent can change hearts and minds. Remember that attending one meeting or committee hearing is not enough. Make it a point to bring your grassroots delegation to as many legislative events as possible. And if a parent is unwilling or unable to speak, at least have that individual in the room to show support.

Our recent experience demonstrates that his or her presence can make a difference.

This past legislative session, much was at stake for nearly 14,000 families on the waitlist for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Dozens of those waitlist families, and dozens more who have been scholarship recipients, traveled to the state capitol to testify. Others attended delegation meetings, and some met one on one with their senators and representatives – those opposed as well as in favor of creating a new scholarship program to ease the waitlist.

Their efforts were not in vain. After a lengthy and contentious hearing that spanned two days, the Florida House sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis a bill creating the Family Empowerment Scholarship, a new state-funded K-12 scholarship for low-income and working-class students.

The victory for these Florida families exemplifies how having skin in the game is essential for grassroots efforts.