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Taking Action Into Their Own Hands: People for Education as an Exemplar of Community-Led Advocacy



I Introduction



Annie Kidder, one of the founding members of People for Education, presented on "Community-Led Advocacy" at the 2003 Ontario Health Promotion Summer School's Community Mobilization stream. Her session was a refreshingly tangible example of how a small community group with strong beliefs in a fully-funded, quality, public education system quickly grew into an Ontario-wide organization by using a variety of advocacy tactics and strategies.



People for Education receives financial support from individuals and through grants from the Walter and Duncan Gordon, Laidlaw, and Atkinson foundations. The organization believes that their wide-spread support is partially attributable to the principles they set from the beginning: maintaining a broad focus on serving children and students' right to a quality public education system, rather than narrowing their focus on specific educational issues. They also gain support by maintaining their independence through their non-partisan status and their policy of refusing money from political parties or unions.



They have earned much acclaim for their value to their local and provincial community. For example, People for Education was awarded a "Laurel" in a 2002 year-end editorial in the Toronto Star, for being "the only source of credible information on what's happening in our schools."

II First Steps



It all began in the fall of 1995 when a group of parents at a Home and School Association meeting in Toronto became concerned about funding cuts to their children's school. When the principal wanted them to raise money for math books their initial reaction was to just "do what they could" to raise funds. But they decided to also voice their concerns about cuts to publicly funded education and formed a social-action committee to give them a mechanism for speaking out about funding issues and cuts to public education. Reflecting on how they got started, Annie says that initially they worked on an ad-hoc basis, protesting cuts to education, but they always knew that they wanted to "arm other parents and the public with facts" about the impact of the funding cuts.



People for Education made some very important decisions from the outset. First, they developed a position statement: "Working Together to Defend Fully Publicly Funded Education in Ontario" evolved over the years to become "Working together to support fully publicly funded education in Ontario in English, French and Catholic schools." Second, they sought advice from other activist groups, and even politicians, about how to build upon their position statement and make it resonate with decision makers within education.



People for Education also made a strong commitment to taking action, which is possibly one of the most courageous and inspiring aspects of the organization. The members associate their stance on taking action with the views of Dr. Ursula Franklin who spoke at their first education forum in 1996: "We can roll out all the things that are horrible, engage ourselves in 'awfulizing'--but then there comes the moment when you say, 'After you've taken a dim view what do you do?'" These words fuel People for Education and keep them "doing" things that empower them as citizens and parents.



A key component in People for Educations' success is their Tracking Studies project, which contributes directly to three strategies: Information (conducting their own research for documenting changes), Communication (taking the information and making it clear and accessible to the public), and Action (engaging people to become actively involved in education issues in their own community).



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III The Tracking Studies



People for Education has been surveying elementary schools across Ontario since 1997 and secondary schools since 2000 to keep track of the effects of changes in funding and policy on the education system. These surveys, or Tracking Studies, ask parents and school staff to count things in their school such as class sizes, portables, parent fundraising, computers, educational assistants, and gym teachers. Since this is done every school year, People for Education has been able to see and document changes over time. It has also given them the ability to produce reports on elementary and secondary schools in general, as well as reports on special topics such as the status of urban schools, the state of school libraries, English as a Second Language (ESL) programming, Physical Education programming, and Special Education. All of these reports can be found on their website, http://www.peopleforeducation.com.



According to Annie, "the Tracking Studies have become the bedrock of the organization" and allow them to speak knowledgeably to the public and approach government about the impact of cuts to public education.



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IV Information



The process of tracking and documenting school changes in a usable and understandable way has given People for Education credibility because it produces data as opposed to general opinions. The organization analyzes the data itself but has the results audited by the research firm POLLARA. The Tracking Reports are released every March and a summary of the results is sent to every participating school.



Unique to the Tracking Study data-collection process is parent involvement. The process acts as a tool for parent engagement in their children's schools. The survey is sent to every school council in the province, with a copy to the principal, and parents themselves do all the "on the ground" research. Parents in the People for Education network work in their regions to ensure high response rates by encouraging schools to complete the survey.



It is emphasized to parents that when research in one school is added to research in 1,000 other schools, a more factual picture of the health of the public education system can be revealed.



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V Communication



People for Education provides clear, accessible information on education issues to the general public and communicates with parents and the public in language they understand Armed with facts, parents then have the credibility and are encouraged to participate in discussions about education and public policy with other parents, communities, organizations, and even members in parliament.



People for Education also uses various medium in order to get their message out:

* The group publishes five newsletters per year and distributes them to every school in the province, their listserv, and supporters on their mailing list. The newsletters include articles ranging from practical advice for school councils on issues such as fundraising and parent involvement to articles on current education research and new education policy.

* The group also reaches out to the public through a speakers bureau and by speaking at at least four meetings per month--ranging from school council meetings to provincial and municipal policy meetings.

* People for Education's website is a practical resource for parents and the public to find out about changes to education funding and policy in Ontario and learn about current education research. The group also sends regular listserv bulletins to advise subscribers about current issues in education and about opportunities to participate in public discourse on those issues.

* The group's communication strategy includes extensive outreach to the media. Every report they produce is sent to columnists across the province, information on education issues is released to the media at least twice per month, and they assist the media in finding parent contacts across the province and across the country. (See OHPE 357.2 for more information on NewsLink, a website with links to newspapers in Ontario and Canada).



Information from the group reaches well over 60,000 people per year directly through their newsletter, website, and listserv. Many of subscribers circulate information from People for Education throughout their communities, to parents in their schools, and to their own email lists, so the organization's actual reach is multiplied many times over.



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VI Taking Action



People for Education encourages parents and interested citizens to take action in a number of ways. They want people to understand that not only does government policy eventually have a measurable effect on local programs and resources but also that ordinary citizens can "affect it back." To this end, they encourage people to write letters to elected officials and newspapers and to tell stories about their experiences in their children's schools and they organize an annual Education Day, where parents visit MPPs across the province to talk to them about issues in education.



On the website, their "Take Action!" section provides concrete ways for parents and citizens to get involved in People for Education's work, as well as how to get their message heard. For example, they provide a step-by-step action plan for people who want to contact their local MPP about education issues and provide a template for writing a press release (http://www.peopleforeducation.com/takeaction/advocacy.html).



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VII Challenges



Even though People for Education is now an established advocacy group and has definitely made an impact in the Ontario education sector, they are not resting on their laurels. They recognize the challenges that lie ahead in order for them to continue their campaign and make a difference in public education in Ontario. Annie Kidder mentioned a few of their most pertinent challenges in her summers school session:



A. Sustainability



While People for Education has come along way since 1996, they continue to think about how to maintain and sustain their organization because they are essentially still "in business" due to individual donations and grants from several organizations (not to mention their tremendous hard work, persistence, and courage to take action). To deal with this challenge, they are applying for charitable status in Ontario so they can have secure, ongoing funding to continue to pursue their mission.



B. Research



Annie says that another thing that they are continuously working on is their research methodology. Now that they have more help and assistance with their Tracking Studies, they are continuously improving the means by which they collect and document their research. This is an important concern because ultimately they want to connect with other communities, such as the academic community, since they have a lot in common and a lot to offer one another. Annie says that there remains a gap between the academic community and the public, and they want to help bridge this gap so that parents and the average citizen can interpret and understand research. At the same time, People for Education is working hard to make their research credible in the eyes of academics and researchers.



But one important point Annie made about their research was that the original "goal" of the Tracking Studies is, first and foremost, to get parents involved in their child's education. Once parents get involved in a tracking study, they gain a lot of knowledge and understanding, which often gets them more enthusiastic about the cause. This is a very different goal from research scientists and academics, whose number one concern is to ensure their research is precise, generalizable, and reproducible.



C. Mobilizing Hard-to-Reach Parent Communities



Another major challenge that People for Education is working to overcome is extending and diversifying their parent network. They recognize that when they first started out, they were a fairly homogenous group of Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, "stay-at home moms" who had the time and capacity to get involved in and ask questions about their child's education.



Now, it is extremely important for People for Education that they reach out to others, such as those in rural communities, minority communities, and parents who are new immigrants to Canada. They provide material and training to these groups understand the education system and practical advice about how to voice their concerns. They are constantly promoting the need to acknowledge the needs of traditionally marginalized groups by producing special reports on topics such as English as a Second Language and Regional Ontario reports.



For more information on getting visible-minority and immigrant parents involved in the education system, an excellent organization to look into is the Maytree Foundation, which recently ran a two-year program called Making Our Voices Count. This training and support program for newcomer and visible minority parents was offered to diverse communities across the Greater Toronto Area. The project is delivered in partnership with the Toronto District School Board's School and Community Relations department, community-based organizations, and parent and citizen groups. For more information about this project go to http://www.maytree.com.



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VIII Conclusion



In conclusion, from an outsider's perspective, the number one thing that seems to have made People for Education so strong as an advocacy group is perseverance. It was an inspiring experience to learn more about what this advocacy group has done in such a relatively short period of time. I thank Annie Kidder for taking the time to share her thoughts and experiences with me for this article. I felt it was an important session to report on from last years Summer School because the work that People for Education does is a current example of community-led advocacy. Hopefully some of their strategies and lessons learned may be useful to other advocacy groups.