Parent Advocacy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Parents have a key role to play in their children’s education, and – as a result of a combination of parent advocacy and educational research – policymakers have come to recognize the importance of parents’ role not only with their own children, but in the education system as a whole. Most schools now have some form of parent advisory body, many school boards have regional parent structures, and ministries of education recognize that it is vital to both communicate with and consult parents.

But parent advocacy is a complicated beast. And just as it is impossible to discuss “parents” as if they were a single, like-minded entity (despite people’s predilection for saying things such as “parents think…” or “parents want…”), it is impossible to talk about “parent advocacy” as if it fell neatly into a single category.

Parent advocates seem, for the most part, to be born from three distinct impetuses: a desire to fix something for their own child or children, often issues connected to special education; anger about a new policy being imposed, for example changes to a French Immersion program; or a collective drive to create a new service or program, which can include things like alternative or specialty schools. The greatest motivator of parent advocacy is always a “problem”. In my organization we joke that if you want to get parents active, just tell them you’re closing their school.

Just as it is impossible to relegate all parent advocacy into one category, it is important to remember that the capacity to advocate is not distributed equally among all parents.

And just as it is impossible to relegate all parent advocacy into one category, it is important to remember that the capacity to advocate is not distributed equally among all parents. Advocacy often requires a great deal of social capital along with an ability to know how to “work the system”. It’s easier for an English-speaking parent to advocate for his or her child in an English school, and it’s a great deal easier for an English-speaking, university educated, middle- or upper-middle-class parent who went to school in Canada to advocate. Doors open to those with the social capital to open them.

For these reasons it is essential that the education system maintain a balance – between truly listening to and supporting parents, and ensuring that underlying all decisions is a foundation of both equity and evidence.

There is an institutional-level conundrum about parents’ advocacy as well. On the one hand, education policy encourages parent involvement, and parents are asked to be partners in their children’s education by doing things like helping with homework, communicating with the teacher, and volunteering at school. But schools sometimes have a hard time with the sense of entitlement or strengthened capacity to advocate that comes from that parent involvement. Once parents are more involved in a school, they may want more “say” about what goes on – either for their own children or in the school as a whole. In this way, parents can be viewed as both a blessing and a curse.


But parent advocacy isn’t only a complex issue because it’s difficult to manage. Reforms instigated by parents can sometimes result in changes that entrench greater inequity in the system (it’s hard to keep equity in mind when you really want something for your own child), or in changes that are based more on political popularity than strong evidence (capping class sizes comes to mind).

Special education is perhaps the most common instigator of individual parent advocacy. Discovering one’s child may have special needs, or having a child start school who has already been identified through the health care system, can be the beginning of a long training ground in effective advocacy techniques. Many parents find themselves becoming experts in the complex world of exceptionalities, accommodations, and appropriate support. At the same time, parents can find themselves up against a system that may be patronizing in its reaction to parents’ concerns, dismissive of parents’ knowledge, or simply unable – because of financial constraints – to provide the requested program or support. This is where knowing how to “work the system” comes into play.

For parents who are persistent, who operate with that sense of entitlement that comes with social capital, and who speak the language of the education world – either literally in the case of English or French, or figuratively in the case of understanding the million and one acronyms that come with special education (i.e. “After your IPRC we might be able to provide you with an EA who may be able to deliver the support suggested in the IEP for your ASD child. If you’re not happy with that you could go to the SEAC, or even MACSE for more support or information.”[1]) – for parents adept in that “system language”, support for their child will come more easily. When parents phone the People for Education support line we warn them, gently, that once their child is in special education, they can never stop advocating. But we don’t tell them to fight; instead we tell them to politely, persistently, and sometimes politically, work toward solutions.

A recent study involving parents and principals in a suburban area just north of Toronto concluded that more needed to be done to make the special education process a more collaborative one, where the knowledge of both sides was respected, even though conflict would be a reality at times. The author of the study said that parent advocates want their knowledge about their children “treated as worthy and important contributions in the making of decisions about programs and placements in special education.” She suggested that it was time to “re-conceptualise parent involvement in the decision making processes.”[2]

But again, it is vital to remember that parent advocacy comes in many different shapes and sizes and many different levels of capacity. When People for Education compared school-by-school data from our annual surveys with demographic data from Ontario’s Ministry of Education School Information Finder, results showed that in schools with a high proportion of students living below the low-income cut-off (approximately $30,000 for a family of four), students are more likely to be on special education waiting lists and less likely to be receiving appropriate special education supports.[3] We think that these differences in access and support may be caused by differences in parents’ capacity to engage in the advocacy necessary to ensure students are getting the help they need. And we’re worried about what that means for their children.

Systematic recognition of the importance of parent advocacy in special education, and systematic support to assist the parent advocates who need it, would go a long way to making access to special education services more equitable.

While special education is often the impetus for individual advocacy, programs such as French Immersion are more likely to lead to some form of collective advocacy. Canadian Parents for French is an example of a highly effective parent advocacy organization that is focused on a single issue: the promotion and creation of French–second-language learning opportunities for Canadian children. The organization conducts research, has local provincial chapters, and has a very strong voice in provincial and school board policy decisions. Recent conflicts in New Brunswick and Ontario, both of which involved advocates for French Immersion, including Canadian Parents for French, showcase two sides of the parent advocacy coin.

In 2008, New Brunswick’s then-Minister of Education announced plans to scrap early French Immersion programs in favour of universal French programs and late immersion starting in Grade 5. These proposed changes were a reaction to low reading scores for New Brunswick 15-year-olds on OECD-administered tests, research showing that Early Immersion was leading to segregation along class lines, and statistics showing that a very small proportion of students from Early Immersion programs continued in the program through to Grade 12. Researchers and policymakers argued that part of the achievement problem in New Brunswick was the result of this early division of students along class lines. But parents of French Immersion students staged protests and eventually took the province to court. A compromise was reached, with some of the proposed changes rolled back and Immersion beginning in Grade 3 instead of Grade 5. Then in 2010, a new government was elected, in part based on a promise to re-examine the whole issue and, perhaps, move Early Immersion back to Grade 1. This is a perfect example of the strength parent advocates can have – particularly those who are identified as a group that votes and that has access to the media. It is also an example of how difficult it can be to balance the needs of the whole system against the needs or desires of individual groups.

Controversy over French Immersion and concerns over class divisions have also been part of a recent conflict in Oakville, Ontario. In this case the conflict is pitting parent advocacy groups against each other. One group has successfully advocated for more French Immersion programs in more schools, including single-track schools where only French Immersion is offered. The other group feels that students in the English-track – which includes more students with special needs, more English Language Learners, and more students from lower income families – are being squeezed out by the French Immersion programs. There have been many appeals to the local school board from both sides, and the fight is ongoing.

Advocacy of a different sort comes into play around specialty schools, schools of choice, or alternative schools. Many parents advocate for these schools, but evidence shows that in education systems where these choices exist, the parents who opt in are more likely to be from the middle- or upper-middle socio-economic bracket (except in the case of religious private schools). And according to a comprehensive study of Alberta schools, “School choice does not appear to enhance the educational achievement or experiences of all children; rather it appears to be limited to children of middle to upper middle-class families.”[4] But how can you tell parents who know that their children would thrive in an arts-focused school or a school that values independent learning that they won’t be allowed to make that choice because it may lead to inequities in the system? Again, it is very difficult, in the face of strong parent advocacy, to find a balance between the desires of individual parents or groups, and the evidence based on objective research and an overall need for equity in the education system.

It is very difficult, in the face of strong parent advocacy, to find a balance between the desires of individual parents or groups, and the evidence based on objective research and an overall need for equity in the education system.

It is particularly difficult when parents are advocating for specialty schools that are intended to overcome generations of discrimination and exclusion (e.g. Africentric Schools or Aboriginal Schools) or specialty schools for students who are failing in the regular system. If parents want arts schools and math schools, bilingual Mandarin and English schools, or schools for athletes, why shouldn’t they have them? Because, according to the Alberta study, only a distinct segment of the population advocates for and benefits from these schools.

Funding decisions bring up similar tensions. Across the country schools are closing because of declining enrolment. For parents, there is little as upsetting as facing the closure of their child’s school. And so parents fight. They lobby, they form advocacy groups, they hire demographers, and they protest. One of the most extreme cases of parents fighting a school closing came in the late ’90s in New Brunswick where a group of parents at a school slated for closing first boycotted the school and then erected log barricades across a provincial highway. There were fires, and the RCMP was called in. Tear gas was unleashed on parents and kids, and arrests were made. But, in the end, even after the parents had many meetings with the Minister, the school closed. It seems that budgets are the one intractable thing that can withstand the anger of parent advocates.

But budgets don’t exist in a vacuum. Funding decisions are also driven by changes in policy, which can lead to other forms of parent advocacy. Recently one Ontario school board decided to lay off the staff in all its school libraries and move the books from the libraries into classrooms. The board insisted it wasn’t closing the libraries, simply “re-purposing” them. Parents felt differently. They, along with many students, launched a loud and effective campaign and appealed to the Minister of Education to intervene. These particular parent advocates understood the importance of working with the media – which is often where advocacy efforts are won or lost. The story got play across the country, and the board eventually reversed its decision. In similar ways, parent advocates across the country have pushed back against cuts to what some view as frills in the system, for example music teachers, outdoor education programs, and support for community schools.

Sometimes the advocacy goes beyond fighting for one program or service. A number of states in the U.S. are contemplating “Parent Trigger” laws, which will give the majority of parents in any so-called failing school the right to make transformative decisions about the fate of the school. This can include anything from closing the school, firing the principal and half the staff, converting it to a charter school, or demanding extensive changes to programs. Former California State Senator Gloria Romero, co-author of California’s recently passed Parent Trigger law, says, “We want not just parental involvement, we want true power.”

Over the years, calls for more “parent power” have led to many positive changes in education, including funding for local school councils, schools with staff dedicated to working with the parent community and the inclusion of parents at many government policy tables. But parent power can also lead to problems, and what parents advocate for is not always backed up by evidence. For example, the current concept in the U.S. of a “failing” school is as much a part of a political movement as it is an educational one, and little or no evidence has been offered to prove that turning these schools into charter schools or firing the principal is going to help. Calls for class size caps raise similar issues. It instinctively seems like a good idea (I have been among those calling for caps in the past); but capping class sizes is very, very expensive, and last year’s study by the Canadian Education Association (CEA) showed that it is not the “magic bullet” some parents expect it to be.[5]

Perhaps the question we need to be asking now is how can we better balance parents’ knowledge and passion with the expertise of researchers and educators? And how can we build an inclusive system where the various players respectfully recognize what each other brings to the table? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we ensure that we are not listening only to those for whom advocacy comes easily?

There are those who say “education is too important to be left to the educators.” I couldn’t disagree more. I would argue instead that education is too important to be left to either popularity contests (often the case when education policy decisions are more about politics than evidence), or battles of will (sometimes the case when parents are arguing for services for their own children). As parents, we need to recognize that we may know our children well, but that we may not have the objective knowledge, backed by research and training, to make all of the big decisions in education. By the same token, those in the education system need to recognize that parents, while sometimes problematic in their “ardour”, have a great deal of knowledge and insight to offer to our schools and to the system as a whole.

Our public education systems desperately need advocates – you just have to look south of the border to see how much. Now it’s time for us to figure out how we can all advocate together.

EN BREF – La question des représentations de parents est complexe. Trois motifs distincts incitent généralement les parents à faire des représentations : le désir d’arranger quelque chose pour leur enfant ou leurs enfants, la colère soulevée par l’instauration d’une nouvelle politique ou une volonté collective de créer un nouveau programme ou service. Tout comme il est impossible de mettre tous les types de représentations de parents dans le même panier, il importe de savoir que tous les parents ne disposent pas de la même capacité d’en faire. En effet, il faut souvent beaucoup de capital social et il faut savoir comment « manipuler le système ». Il est donc essentiel que le système d’éducation maintienne l’équilibre entre assurer une écoute véritable et le soutien des parents d’une part, et faire en sorte que toutes les décisions soient prises de façon équitable et rationnelle d’autre part.


[1] IPRC – Identification, placement, and review committee; EA – educational assistant; IEP – Individual education plan; ASD – autism spectrum disorder; SEAC – special education advisory committee; MACSE – ministry advisory committee on special education.

[2] Lindy Zaretsky, “Principals and Parent Advocates as Partners in Learning: From Conflict to Collaboration,” Leading & Managing 9, no. 2 (2003).  

[3] “Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools 2011.” People for Education: Page 22-24 http://peopleforeducation.com/annualreport/school2011.pdf

[4] Lynn Bosetti, “Determinants of School Choice: Understanding How Parents Choose Elementary Schools in Alberta,” Journal of Education Policy 19, no. 4 (2004).

[5] Nina Bascia, Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know? (Toronto: Canadian Education Association, 2010). http://www.edcan.ca/wp-content/uploads/cea-2010-class-size_0.pdf

Meet the Expert(s)

Annie Kidder

Annie Kidder is Executive Director of People for Education, an Ontario-based organization founded in 1996 to support public education in Ontario’s English, Catholic, and French schools. www.peopleforeducation.com

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