How to Make a Difference in Educational Issues: A Primer for Parents

Before you can make a difference, you have to know the issues. Learn about the hot issues in Arizona education.
With increased attention on student performance and budget issues, education is a hot topic for parents and elected officials. Here are ways parents can get involved and make a difference at all levels – from your child’s school to the state legislature.

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">By Natalie Walker Whitlock

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">An impressive body of research shows that children benefit when parents are involved in education issues. In fact, a recent report from The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory synthesizing a decade of research on parent involvement concluded, "When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more."

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

tyle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">But for many parents, getting involved is a daunting challenge. It’s hard to know how or where to start. Today's parents often work long hours, juggle child-rearing and household duties, and handle numerous responsibilities that demand their attention. Few feel they can find time to pen a letter or place a telephone call – let alone attend state legislative hearings on school spending. What’s more, the complexity of the issues and the process can be intimidating. Too often, involvement in educational issues is relegated to the back burner.

0in 0pt"> 

0in 0pt">Yet the case for involvement is compelling. Despite progress in areas such as test scores and classroom behavior, as reported by The National Education Association in Good News About Public Schools in Arizona, Arizona still ranks near the very bottom – 48th out of 50 states – in per-pupil spending on public education according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card on Reading and Math, November 2003, reported that Arizona students place in the bottom third of the nation in reading and mathematics. And Arizona also has lower than average teacher salaries and is 48th of 50 in its student/teacher ratios (NEA).

0in 0pt"> 

0in 0pt">Arizona schools and teachers are under increased pressure to demonstrate student achievement at higher levels at a time when the state continues to battle budget woes. Now, more than ever before, it is critical that parents step forward and get involved in the issues they care about. 

0in 0pt"> 

0in 0pt">“There is no stronger constituency for improving education than parents,” says Arizona Education Association Vice President John Wright. “Once you get parents involved and speaking up about school issues, people have to pay attention.”

0in 0pt"> 

0in 0pt">Getting Started

0in 0pt">A good starting place for parents to get involved in issues effecting education is at the local level – within individual schools and school districts.


“First and foremost, get involved in your child’s school,” urges Mesa School Board President Suzanne Davis. Volunteer in whatever capacity is needed and stay current on school policies, procedures and plans.


“Parents should familiarize themselves with their school’s overall philosophy,” continues Davis. Look for this information published as a mission statement or in the school’s policy handbook. Then, says Davis, when issues arise, you will better understand how the school will handle them. 


Davis suggests parents ask about opportunities to participate in developing school policies, such as volunteering or running for the school’s Parent Advisory Council or School Site Council (or similar group – all public schools have one). It is here that many decisions affecting your individual school are made, from dress code to text books, as well as recommending actions to the local school board.


Another avenue for involvement is within the school’s parent-teacher organization. “As a parent, the first thing I’d do is join my school’s existing parent organization – whatever’s there,” says Wright, a long-time Arizona teacher. Then, he advises contacting the Arizona Parent Teacher Association, “Even if there’s not a PTA group at your school.”


style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Today’s PTA is an influential nationwide organization, lobbying local and the national legislatures on educational issues. Many school PTAs have a legislative coordinator who alerts the school community about issues or particular bills concerning education. Sometimes they organize group letter-writing campaigns or arrange meetings with law makers to lobby on specific issues. “It’s a great place for information and opportunities for learning and personal growth as a new parent-activist,” Wright adds.

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Other schools have elected to create independent parent organizations. At Eagle’s Aerie K-12 in Gilbert, the group is known as the Parent Service Organization. “Our focus is on getting parents involved,” says Eagle’s Aerie high school teacher David Whitlock. “We help give parents the opportunity to serve the kids, the school and the community.”

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">As parents find success and community in school parent organizations, word spreads and participation increases. “We had only a handful of parents attend last year,” Whitlock says of the fledgling organization. “At our most recent meeting, there were over 100 parents.”

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Additionally, one of the most important actions you can take as a concerned parent is to educate yourself on the issues and vote in each election (not just general elections). Find out where candidates stand on education issues and study ballot measures affecting schools. Read local newspapers and attend voter forums before the election to learn about the candidates. Many organizations publish “report cards” comparing candidates’ views and voting records.

style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> 

Tips for Communicating with Elected Officials
*On the Phone
*In Writing
*In Person

Become an Advocate

Ready to take on something bigger than voting or joining the PTA? According to Arizona State Representative Andy Biggs, parents looking to make a difference on a larger scale should turn their attention to the state legislature. “On state issues,” Biggs says, “your representative should be your first stop.”


Biggs, who represents District 22, suggests people learn who their state legislators are and contact them, so that when issues come up, they have already established a rapport. “We tend to pay attention to people whose names we recognize,” he says.


When communicating with elected officials, personal letters often have the greatest impact, but faxes and phone calls are also good ways to voice your opinions. Sending an e-mail is fine as well, “but personalized notes carry more weight than form letters generated by special interest groups,” Biggs says.


Legislators are also impressed when an individual or group of people takes the time to meet with them in person. Biggs suggests parents prepare for an in-person visit with their legislator by reading about the issues and focusing their arguments. “Try the Arizona Legislature Web site or the Sunday newspaper section entitled Capitol Times to learn about what’s going on,” he suggests. Biggs also advises parents “be willing to see both sides of the issues so you can make fair, effective arguments.”


But does the input of a few concerned parents really make a difference? Biggs answers, “Yes.” “I may adjust my argument or even re-consider a bill because of something I hear from a constituent. It’s important to know what the public is thinking.”


According to Wright, parent involvement can have a tremendous impact in political decisions. “Yesterday, I was at a hearing at the State Board of Education. A dozen educators, lobbyists and community leaders spoke – and one parent. It was that parent’s comments that got all the attention, not the so-called ‘experts.’”


Yet for all the weight they carry, many parents have yet to get involved. “I see several factors that inhibit involvement,” Wright says. “There’s the intimidation factor. In some schools and organizations, there is an established ‘in group’ in place that already knows the ropes. To parents new to the group, it can be daunting.”


Since he began his term in office, Representative Biggs has been surprised by how few citizens contact him with their concerns. “Parents generally don’t think they have the time to follow the issues,” he says. “But I think the desire is there.”


Biggs says people should remember that their state legislators represent them and want to hear from them. “Everyone here (at the capitol) is very willing to talk. Legislators are surprisingly accessible,” he says.


Parent Power

Even if you don’t feel comfortable meeting with legislators one-on-one, there are still plenty of things you can do to get involved:


ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">Write a Letter to the Editor of a local publication addressing an issue.

ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">Volunteer on a campaign for someone who shares your stance on education issues.

ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">Organize a letter-writing campaign to lobby for an upcoming bill.

ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">Attend community meetings, school board sessions and special days at the legislature.

ZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt">Subscribe to the e-mail lists, newsletters or “action alert” of organizations you agree with.

Attend a workshop educating people new to the political process.

Join a family-friendly advocacy organization whose views match your own.

Invite your legislator or other elected official to address your school group or hold an informal meeting in your home and invite like-minded friends and neighbors.


The bottom line is, just do something. “Your power rests in your participation and in your willingness to let your voice be heard,” Wright urges.


Even the most modest of parents can become an advocate for change, according to Wright. “One of the most exciting things to witness is when a parent who has never before been active finds their voice,” he says. “Something will just click with them and they will speak up, often for the first time. They will share something personal and powerful, and then you can see others in the audience shaking their head because they are thinking the same thing.


“And suddenly, you have a movement.


“When parents realize that they owe it to themselves, that they owe it to their children, to do something – that’s pretty powerful,” says Wright.




Arizona Education Association



Arizona Interfaith Network


Arizona Parent and Educational Resource Center


Arizona PTA 


Arizona State Legislature


Association of American Educators


Center for Education Reform



Focus on Education


National Coalition for Parental Involvement in Education


National School Boards Association 


Parents for Public Schools


The Rodel Charitable Foundation


Read More:

Tips for Communicating with Elected Officials

What's Hot? The issues in Arizona education.

Natalie Walker Whitlock is a Chandler-based writer, mother of seven children and wife of a school teacher.