Well-Connected Parents Take On School Boards

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

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.

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