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Sound and Fury Signifying Something: The Political Consequences of the Opt Out Movement

by David Casalaspi - 2021

Background and Context: Grassroots activism is on the rise in American education, leading some scholars to announce the arrival of a “New Politics of Education” in which political elites and grassroots actors clash over foundational questions of policy and power. However, little research has examined just how consequential grassroots education activism might actually be in this new era. This study takes up this area of inquiry by examining the political consequences of the opt-out movement, arguably the largest and most high-profile grassroots education movement in recent history.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to examine the political consequences of the opt-out movement in four New York school districts. Specifically, this study addresses the following research questions: What impact has the opt-out movement had on local education politics and policies, and do these effects vary across communities with different levels of opt-out activism?

Research Design: This study takes the form of a mixed methods, comparative case study analysis of the opt-out movement in four New York school districts purposefully sampled to exploit variation in district opt-out rates and racial demographics. Within each district, five sources of original data were collected, including a survey of Grade 3–8 parents, focus groups with opt-out parents and non-opt-out parents, interviews with district elites, interviews with key activists, and documentary sources. Data analysis was both quantitative (descriptive statistics) and qualitative (inductive simultaneous pattern coding).

Findings: Results suggest that while the opt-out movement has not yet produced many substantive changes in state or local test-based accountability policies, it has significantly increased and transformed parent engagement with education politics in the four case districts. These engagement effects were particularly pronounced in the high-opt-out districts.

Conclusions and Recommendations: This study concludes by offering a tempered view of the opt-out movement’s impact on education policymaking while simultaneously indicating potentially significant changes in the way parents participate in education politics. In doing so, it produces implications for the study of education politics, policy, and activism more broadly. Principal among these are the importance for grassroots movements to build alliances with institutional actors in order to effect meaningful policy change, and the value of considering alternative definitions of movement “success” in future research on education politics and activism.

[The opt-out movement] still hasn't changed anything. It's still every year the test comes out and kids aren't taking it. & Theyre still not listening.

New York Opt Out Parent (2017)

[We must] entertain the possibility that the major effects of social movements will have little or nothing to do with the public claims their leaders make. (Tilly, 1999, p. 270)


While neoliberal reform ideas like test-based accountability and school choice remain some of the most salient and entrenched features of todays education policy environment (Apple, 2006), this agenda has recently become the target of grassroots education protest. From student walkouts and teacher strikes to occupations and rallies, recent years have witnessed a surge of grassroots activism so unprecedented that some scholars have declared the arrival of a New Politics of Educationone characterized by a heated debate between political elites and grassroots actors over the foundational questions of who makes education policy, in whose interests, and for what purposes (Ferman, 2017). Indeed, the growing salience of grassroots activism suggests that in the years ahead, the development of American education is unlikely to proceed through unrestrained top-down imposition by governmental or economic elites, but rather emergejust as in previous periods of profound educational changefrom a dialectical process of contention between powerful elites and grassroots actors (Reese, 2002).

In this era of New Politics, perhaps no grassroots education movement has achieved greater salience or mobilized more people than the opt-out movement, in which parents have protested standardized testing by keeping their children at home on test day. Originating in 2012 as a small protest in New York State, the opt-out movement exploded over the next several years, engaging millions of parents across dozens of states. The epicenter of the opt-out movement has always remained New York, though, where 22% of students did not take their standardized tests during the movements peak in 2016 and some districts experienced opt-out rates as high as 89% (NYSED, 2016). Despite the explosive growth of the opt-out movement and prolific media coverage of its activities, very little research has systematically examined this phenomenon (Mitra et al., 2016; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016; Wang, 2017), and a ground-level analysis of the movements composition, motivations, and political impact has been almost entirely neglected. Such an examination of the opt-out movement is important not only for its own sake, but also for what it can reveal about the opportunities and challenges of grassroots education activism generally in todays era of national reform and institutional centralization.

The research articles in this special issue represent an important step in advancing our knowledge in this area, and this present article aims specifically at examining just how consequential opt-out activism has been from a political perspective. While the proliferation of grassroots activism in education is in itself an exciting development for those who favor robust public engagement in politics, the allure of grassroots educational activism lies not just in its dramaturgy, but in the potential changes it portends for future politics and policymaking (Anyon, 2005). In their classic book on American political participation, Verba and Nie (1972) conceptualized the study of political participation as embracing three distinct dimensions: the process of politicization (i.e., the antecedents of political participation); the participation input (i.e., who participates, how much, and through what means); and the consequences of participation. Grassroots education activism, as one species of political participation, deserves study along each of these three lines of inquiry. The other articles in this special issue have focused on the first two dimensionsexamining important issues of opt-out movement composition, mobilization, and activities in various settings. In contrast, this article examines the opt-out movement with an eye toward uncovering the political consequences of the opt-out movement for the communities and individuals involved. Specifically, it takes up the following research questions: What impact has the opt-out movement had on local education politics and policies? And do these effects vary across communities with different levels of opt-out activism?


In studying grassroots activism through the opt-out movement, this research is informed by and contributes to Orr and Rogers (2011, p. 3) theoretical concept of public engagement for public education, which is defined as when parents, community members, and youth identify common educational problems and work together to address them. In their text, Orr and Rogers identify five streams of public engagement with education that have been historically important to American education but severely understudied, and they call for more research into the antecedents and consequences of each of them: coproduction, democratic governance, community organizing, alliances, and social movements. This research focuses on the last of these, social movements, and in doing so, it draws on a small but growing body of sociological literature examining the political consequences of social movements (e.g., Amenta et al., 2010; della Porta & Diani, 2007; Giugni 1998; Giugni et al., 1999).

While social movements have been a popular topic of scholarly inquiry since the mid-twentieth century, much of the most salient work in this domain has examined characteristics of social movement mobilizationthat is, which factors appear to promote the emergence, growth, and maintenance of social movements over time. In contrast, much less work has examined the question of just how politically consequential social movements actually are. This oversight can be attributed to a few main causes, including the empirical challenge of examining social movement impact amid so many confounding environmental variables as well as the challenge of defining social movement success. Additionally, early scholars embraced the assumption that social movement mobilization would be naturally and positively correlated with social movement impact, so that by studying social movement mobilization, one would simultaneously uncover insights about social movement impact. Recent research, however, has questioned this assumption and suggested that while mobilization is necessary for a movement to gain political influence, mobilization alone does not guarantee political consequence or movement impact (Amenta et al., 2010; Giugni, 2007; McAdam & Boudet, 2012). Indeed, the jury is still out in terms of how much influence social movements can actually have on politics, as some scholars (e.g., Baumgartner & Mahoney, 2005; Berry, 1999; Piven, 2006) argue that social movements are highly powerful and consequential political forces, while others (e.g., Burstein & Sausner, 2005; Giugni, 2007; Skocpol, 2013) argue that social movements are rarely influential compared to other political actors, institutions, and processes.

Because theories of mobilization have long dominated social movement studies, much of the earliest research in the area of social movement impact has examined the relationship between various social movement characteristics (i.e., organizational forms, action frames, and tactics, among others) and social movement impact. Principal among these early scholars was William Gamson (1990), who conceptualized social movement success as comprising two main possibilities: 1) the obtaining of new advantages and benefits for the social movement organization and its members; and 2) the earning of recognition, legitimacy, or acceptance for the social movement as a collectivity with valid concerns. In his review of the empirical evidence, Gamson then identified four organizational factors that appeared positively associated with social movement impact: 1) The use of single-issue demands rather than multiple-issue demands; 2) The use of selective incentives in the mobilization process; 3) The use of violence and other disruptive protest tactics; and 4) The adoption of a bureaucratized and centralized organizational structure.

While Gamsons work represented an important advancement in the field of social movement studies, more recent work has attempted to move beyond Gamsons narrow conceptualization of social movement impact, highlighting a number of different political consequences that social movements could potentially achieve. Recent reviews by Amenta and Caren (2004), Amenta et al. (2010), and della Porta and Diani (2007), for example, have identified additional types of potential political impacts, including changes to the structure or procedures of the polity (e.g., granting the protesting group new or continuing voice in political discussions or institutions), changes to public conceptions of democracy, changes to public engagement patterns in politics, and changes to public policy (e.g., new laws or regulations). Among these, changes to public policy has been the dominant focus of recent scholarship (e.g., Bullard & Johnson, 2000; Burstein et al., 1995; Skrentny, 2006), but even here, some scholars have argued that policy impacts themselves can be multifarious and variegated, reflecting the complex nature of policymaking. In this way, scholars like Amenta and Young (1999), Andrews and Edwards (2004), Baumgartner and Mahoney (2005), and Schumaker (1975) suggest that social movements could affect stages of policymaking like agenda setting, legislative content, enactment, and implementation, and they contend that by focusing exclusively on policy outputs (i.e., enacted legislation), we are missing potentially important impacts of social movements.

Beyond the impact of social movements on political society, a more limited body of work has also examined the impact of social movements on the lives and political behaviors of the individual participants themselves, finding that participation can transforms activists subsequent biographies and identities even after the movement ends (e.g., Fendrich, 1993; McAdam, 1988; Polletta & Jasper, 2001). Reviewing research on 1960s activists in the New Left, Giugni (2004, p. 492) reports that there was a strong and durable impact [of participation] on the personal lives of activists. Among these impacts were an increased likelihood of espousing leftist political ideals later into life, a greater commitment to remaining politically active, and a greater likelihood of pursuing careers in the helping professions. Thus, social movements, in addition to impacting the political process, can also influence the nature of political and social engagement at both the individual and community levels.


To address the research questions above, this paper draws on data collected as part of a much larger mixed methods multiple case study analysis of the opt-out movement in four school districts in New York (Yin, 2014).


The four districts included in this study were purposefully sampled using the matrix below to exploit variation in opt-out participation rates (high-opt-out and low-opt-out) and district demographic contexts (high-diversity and low-diversity) as reported by the New York State Education Department during the 20152016 school year. In the sampling matrix below, high opt out (HOO) districts were defined as districts where the opt-out rate was 41% or higher (75th percentile or above statewide), and low opt out (LOO) districts were those where the opt-out rate was less than 15% (25th percentile or below). High racial diversity districts were those where the percentage of nonwhite student enrollment was 28%+ of total enrollment (75th percentile or above) and low racial diversity districts were those in which nonwhite student enrollment was less than 5% of total enrollment (25th percentile or below statewide).

Data from NYSED revealed that each cell of the matrix contained between 29 and 70 districts to sample from (202 total), although these totals were reduced significantly (to 115 total) after removing undesirable districts (e.g., extremely large districts, extremely small districts, high-school-only districts, etc.). I then ranked the districts within each cell based on their desirability as a study site, attending to such concerns as district size, urbanicity, opt-out rates, and demographicsincluding race, poverty as measured by the population receiving free and reduced-price lunch (FRL), and language status as measured by the percentage of students who are English Language Learners (ELL)so that my final four districts would be large enough to yield an adequate pool of potential parent participants and simultaneously control on characteristics other than the two sampling variables. Figure 1 below reports the characteristics of the final four districts ultimately included for participation in this study.

Figure 1. Sampling matrix and four selected districts


Low Opt Out

High Opt Out

Low Racial Diversity



Opt-out rate: 9%

Enrollment: 1,042

Opt-out rate: 89%

Enrollment: 899

Nonwhite: 4%

ELL: 0%

Nonwhite: 1%

ELL: 0%

Type: Town

FRL: 32%

Type: Rural

FRL: 63%

High Racial Diversity



Opt-out rate: 14%

Enrollment: 1,879

Opt-out rate: 84%

Enrollment: 3,819

Nonwhite: 57%

ELL: 15%

Nonwhite: 34%

ELL: 6%

Type: Suburb

FRL: 40%

Type: Suburb

FRL: 32%

 Note. District names are pseudonyms. Data is from 20152016 school year.


Within each of these districts, I collected five sources of original data during summer and fall 2017. These sources included: 1) an online survey of all Grade 38 parents, 2) in-depth interviews with local opt-out activists, 3) semistructured interviews with district superintendents and school board members, 4) parent focus groups, and 5) documentary artifacts (e.g., news reports, school board minutes, social media posts, etc.). In addition, I compiled a statewide quantitative dataset of district opt-out rates and demographic characteristics which provided a global overview of the factors associated with opt-out activism across New York. The data for this present research are derived primarily from the survey, parent focus groups, district elite interviews, and artifacts.

Parent survey. In summer 2017, I conducted an online (Qualtrics) survey of all Grade 38 parents in each district that asked parents about a variety of opt-out topics, including their opt-out behaviors and motivations, perceptions of the opt-out movement and its impacts, views on various education issues, political attitudes (e.g., trust, interest, efficacy, and estrangement), political participation habits, perceptions of district context, and demographics. The survey was developed and refined through an iterative process that included examination of relevant literature, examination of opt-out artifacts, consultation with survey development experts, and extensive piloting. The final survey that was administered to parents was 61 items long and required an average of 18 minutes to complete. All respondents were entered into district-wide raffles to win Amazon gift cards.

Within each district, parents were recruited to complete the survey through extensive district-wide communications campaigns. Parents were contacted using district-wide email and text message listservs, robocalls, postings on the district homepages and social media outlets, and letters home with students. In total, I received a total of 570 usable survey responses, with district completion rates for the four districts ranging from 10% (Commonwealth) to 28% (Danville). N sizes ranged from 83 (Danville) to 190 (Easton). For the most part, the pool of survey respondents was aligned with the demographic composition of the districts, although the samples were heavily skewed toward females (mothers), and it tended to overrepresent wealthier and more highly educated parents across all four districts. Therefore, in an effort to generalize from a particular district sample to its district population, I weighted the sample using iterative proportional survey weights. Importantly, virtually every parent (97.7%) indicated on the survey that they were aware of the opt-out movement prior to taking the survey.

Focus groups. To obtain greater insight into my research questions, I also conducted eight one-hour, in-person parent focus groups (two in each district) in September 2017. Within each district, the first focus group consisted solely of five to eight opt-out parents (OOPs) and the second consisted solely of five to eight non-opt-out parents (NOOPs). This followed the advice of focus group methodologists, who recommend assembling focus groups to be homogeneous along the main variable of interest (in this case, participation or nonparticipation in the opt-out movement) so as to capitalize on the participants shared experiences and also promote an environment of trust and comfort among participants as they spoke about this charged political topic (Krueger & Casey, 2015). Parents were recruited for the focus groups through the initial parent survey, which ended by asking parents if they would be interested in participating in a focus group for which they would receive a $50 cash incentive. Each focus group lasted one hour, during which I posed nine open-ended questions probing the motivations participants had for opting out or not opting out as well as their perceptions of how the opt-out movement had impacted them and their community.

District elite interviews. In addition to obtaining the perspective of parents, I also sought to learn about the experiences of district leaders who have dealt with the opt-out movement in their professional practice and could potentially provide countervailing perspectives on the issue. On this front, I conducted in each district phone interviews with the superintendent and four school board members (for a total of 20 interviews) which were audio recorded and later transcribed (Creswell, 2013). Officials were asked about their perceptions of opt-out activism in their district, the motivations parents had for opting out (or not opting out). features of their local community that seemed to promote or hinder opt-out activism, and the effects the movement has had on their work and local education politics. The superintendent interviews lasted an average of 45 minutes and the school board interviews lasted an average of 35 minutes, with officials in high-opt-out districts generally having longer interviews. The protocols used in these interviews were standardized so that I could identify the degree of consensus that emerged among officials within and across districts.


After being collected, all of the data were analyzed comprehensively in a triangulating fashion to produce a complex, multidimensional, and multivocal view on each of my research questions (Yin, 2014). The survey data were analyzed quantitatively, including the use of descriptive statistics, data visualizations, and parametric tests (t-tests) examining differences in response patterns across districts and respondent groups. The focus group, interview, and documentary data were uploaded to Dedoose qualitative analysis software and analyzed using inductive simultaneous pattern coding to identify key linkages and themes within and across sources as well as within and across respondent groups. Coding followed a ground up analytic strategy (Creswell, 2013; Saldaña, 2009) and codes were developed through a multistage content exploration of the qualitative data that involved the assistance of an external individual to ensure code reliability. After the coding was complete, I identified key linkages and themes in the data using Dedooses data analysis tools as well as Microsoft Excel (Erickson, 1986). In Dedoose, the data were examined visually in the form of code clouds, crosstabulations, and charts showing the frequency with which codes occurred as well as the presence or absence of codes in and across the sources. In Excel, additional data displays in the form of frequency tables, bar graphs, and pie charts for the various codes applications were generated. This visual analysis enabled me to confidently highlight the strongest themes and participant voices in the data as well as identify any disconfirming evidence.


Analyses of the data reveal that while the opt-out movement has not yet produced many substantive changes in state or local test-based accountability (TBA) policies, it has significantly increased and transformed parent engagement with education politics in the four districts. However, the magnitude of these effects appears to vary by district context, with more substantial engagement effects occurring in HOO districts than in LOO districts. These results thus offer a tempered view of the opt-out movements impact on education policymaking while simultaneously indicating potentially significant changes in the way parents participate in education politics.


The most significant consequence of the opt-out movement in my data is the expansion and transformation of parent engagement with education politics. Table 1 below reports the response patterns of parents when they were asked on the survey how the opt-out movement had impacted education politics in their local community.

Table 1. Perceived Effects of the Opt-Out Movement (Survey)

Effect category

Response item(s)

% of respondents (all districts)

% of respondents (HOO districts)

% of respondents (LOO districts)


Engagement effects

It has raised awareness of education issues





It has brought new voices into education conversations





It has mobilized parents as a political force





Testing policies

It has changed policies about testing





It has led to less focus on test preparation in schools





It has led to less testing






It has made district leaders more responsive to parents





Negative effects

It has harmed our ability to know how schools are performing





It has hampered the progress of important education reforms





It has caused a distraction for teachers





It has divided the community





Null effects

It has changed very little about education in my district




Note. Parents were asked the following question: Some people say that opt-out activities have changed education in [district name], sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in negative ways. In your opinion, what effects (if any) have opt-out activities had in your district? Please choose up to 5 options below. Parents were required to select at least one response option. Parents could also select the option Other and elaborate using a textbox. Response options were randomized.

Across all four districts, approximately 54% of parents indicated that the movement had raised awareness of education issues in their district, 34% felt that it had brought new voices into discussions about education reforms, and 23% felt that it had mobilized parents as a political force. A smaller percentage of parents (14%) reported that the opt-out movement had led to changes in local testing policies, and approximately a quarter of parents (23%) felt that the opt-out movement had not produced many changes in their district at all. 54% of OOPs further agreed that the opt-out movement had made them personally more engaged in politics in general.

Perceptions of these effects did not appear to be evenly distributed across districts, however, and the magnitude of the opt-out movements perceived impact on a district appeared positively correlated with the level of activism in that district. Parents in HOO districts were more likely than parents in LOO districts to indicate that the movement had raised awareness of education issues (69% v. 40%), brought new voices into the discussion about education reforms (48% v. 21%), and mobilized parents as a political force (36% v. 11%). Parents in HOO districts were also more likely than parents in LOO districts to perceive a reduction in testing (14% v. 3%), and they were less likely to report that the movement had had little impact on their community (13% v. 32%).

The qualitative data from interviews and focus groups likewise confirmed that the most significant impact of the opt-out movement appears to have been the increased engagement of parents in education politics. In Danville, the superintendent and three of four school board members interviewed confirmed that their community appeared more politically engaged in education policy issues as a result of the opt-out movement, and the superintendent even noted that this political engagement had spread to other local issues not directly related to standardized testing, such as school budgeting and prekindergarten programming. This sentiment was echoed in the parent focus groups, with one parent saying:

I think [the opt-out movement] has just made me a little more involved in the school district, of really seeing what goes on in my children's classrooms. & I come to the board meetings and kinda see what's going on now.

In Commonwealth, the superintendent and all four school board members confirmed that their community had become more engaged in education policy issues as a result of the opt-out movement. As one board member noted:

We definitely saw an increase in people who wanted to be involved in the district overallpeople who will participate in committees, budget and financing, legislative advocacy, all of those things. So there's definitely been an increase in community members and parents who wanna be involved.

In the two LOO districts, however, a less univocal narrative was presented, as perceptions of engagement appeared mostly confined to parents and not district leaders. In focus groups, both OOPs and NOOPs indicated that the opt-out movement had gotten people more aware and involved in local and state education. However, the superintendents and board members generally felt that the movement had not significantly altered the publics degree of engagement with education politicssuggesting that much of the new parent engagement reported in those districts may have remained out of sight among district elites.

Table 2. Indicated Changes in Parent Engagement, Qualitative Data by District


Danville (HOO)

Commonwealth (HOO)

Greenville (LOO)

Easton (LOO)


Increased parent engagement with education politics







# of board members





OOP focus group





NOOP focus group






Increased parent knowledge







# of board members





OOP focus group





NOOP focus group






Increased parent skepticism and questioning of authority







# of board members





OOP focus group





NOOP focus group





Not only did the opt-out movement appear to increase the amount of parent engagement, but it also appeared to transform it in three important ways. The first transformation was a fresh willingness among parents to challenge and critically question state and district leaders about the merits of reform proposals. One Danville board member remarked that whereas parents had once pliantly accepted new education policies handed down by state or district leadership, after the emergence of the opt-out movement parents appeared more skeptical and adversarial when it came to education policymaking. As one board member said in describing recent conversations with parents about district testing policies:

They will keep saying to us, How is this going to benefit my child? They want to know how [the policy] is going to benefit their child in terms of academic performance or academic programming. & Thats what we hear, time and time again.

This new spirit of public skepticism was more pronounced in the HOO districts, where it was noted by both superintendents and half of the board members, but it was also reported by parents in the LOO districts as well as by the Easton superintendent.

In addition, the opt-out movement was reported to have made parents more informed and knowledgeable about education issues. 83% of OOPs in HOO districts and 44% of OOPs in LOO districts indicated on the survey that they personally felt more knowledgeable about education issues as a result of their participation in the opt-out movement. As one OOP said in a focus group:

It has made me go search out more information regarding policy. It has made me attend board meetings or read articles to get educated. I want to make sure that I have some information to offer others. I find that many people ask me about what is going on and I want to make sure that I have some information to offer.

The Danville superintendent likewise confirmed that the opt-out movement had elevated the discussion of local education issues and that the leaders of the opt-out movement in her district her had been extremely well-informed in their personal conversations with her:

When they started the whole thing off, they came to me with a list of questions [about testing] that they'd really researched. They wanted to talk with me about all these different things and make sure that the way that they were reading things was correct, or the research was correct, because they didn't wanna give any information out that was not correct. They were thoughtful about it, very thoughtful.

Even in LOO districts where levels of opt-out activity were low, a minority of officials and a majority of parents asserted that parents in their district appeared to be more knowledgeable about education issues. For example, several NOOPs in Easton remarked that the OOPs in their community appeared highly informed, perhaps even more than they themselves were. One NOOP said:

I did feel they [OOPs] were well-informed and well-researched. & I was not well-informed and well-researched and I am not still, because I just don't have an issue with it. I've read other people's perspectives and viewpoints, but I think the people who were pushing for it, yes, they backed it up with statistics and articles that I thought were from valid sources.

Still, others remained more skeptical, with one NOOP in Greenville pointing out that while there was greater thirst for information among parents, the opt-out movement was sometimes driven by online hearsay:

If they don't know [something], they [OOPs] might look it up on their own, whether from a reliable source or an unreliable source, and then take that information and make a decision. But I think people do research information a little bit more than maybe 15 years ago or 20 years ago.

Furthermore, the gains in knowledge about education issues did not appear confined to OOPs; rather, there appeared to be some spillover effects in the form of increased knowledge among NOOPs too. Across all four districts, 25% of NOOPs reported personal knowledge gains as a result of opt-out activities in their district, with similar response patterns emerging in each district (ranging from 19% to 33%). As one Commonwealth NOOP recalled, the pressure to engage with his neighbors on this issue spurred him to get educated: I think that the opt-out movement has made me more knowledgeable about education issues. In the past I would just pass articles by while reading the paper. Now I stop to absorb what's going on.

A final characteristic of this new engagement was the theme of personal empowerment, with OOPs reporting that the opt-out movement had generally left them feeling more politically efficacious and assertive in pursuit of what they felt was best for their child. In Easton, one OOP illustrated how the opt-out movement had empowered her to be a stronger advocate for her own child when it came to testing:

Once I found out you could opt out, it empowered me. & It empowered me because [when] my daughter didn't wanna take it, she'd get really upset, and she'd get really worried. & She was freaking out the first year she took it. I don't wanna take it, I don't wanna take it! And I couldn't do anything. I was like, I'm just following the rules. I don't want you to break the rules, so you have to do it. [But] the second I found out she didn't have to take it, I ran up [and said], You don't have to take it this year, don't worry about it, no stress. It's all gone! & It allowed me to make a decision for my own child.

In another district, a board member pointed out how his wife had experienced an activist awakening through her involvement with the opt-out movement:

You have people like my wife. & I wouldn't have necessarily considered my wife a political activist. If you had to pick somebody out of the crowd who would be attending rallies and holding signs, it wouldnt be her. But she even spoke at a rally, and that is totally out of the norm for my wife. She does not speak in front of large crowds. She is definitely a person who I think this started to draw more of the activism out of her. We definitely have people [like her], who it's the first time they're doing something district-wide.

Two Commonwealth school board members even indicated that their participation in the opt-out movement had inspired them to launch their political careers and seek election to the school board.


Despite engendering a transformation of parent engagement with education politics, the opt-out movement does not appear to have yet yielded much by way of change in local or state TBA policies. Mirroring the survey results, district leaders and parents in the interviews reported virtually no changes in testing policies aside from the establishment of a few narrowly tailored administrative rituals, such as the creation of district protocols to accommodate parents wishing to opt out their children. For example, in Commonwealth, the district leadership now mails opt-out letters to all parents early in the school year so that parents can indicate their decision on the matter. Danville, Easton, and Greenville have likewise established channels through which parents can inform their building principal of their decision to opt out so that administrators have ample time to identify alternative activities and classroom space for those students.

Aside from these new protocols, however, few changes have been made to core policies around curricula, testing, or accountability. The districts all still teach the Common Core, prepare students for the annual tests, administer the tests, and report the results just as they have always done. In no district were test scores used heavily in teacher evaluation programs prior to the emergence of the opt-out movement, so no district reported any changes in that domain either. This lack of substantive policy change, while perhaps surprising given the high profile of the opt-out movement, appears to be attributable to two facts. The first is the reality that most testing and accountability policies are set at higher levels of government and there is little that local officials can do to alter those policies without violating state or federal regulations. Indeed, officials in both HOO districts highlighted moments when they wished they could have done more to appease the concerns of their parents. Said one official:

I wish that we could say that we don't have to give the state exams and that our kids don't have to take Regents exams. I wish that there were alternative assessments available or that we could use assessments that were created by our teachers in those classrooms. That would be my goal but we can't do that, we have to administer the exams, we have to offer the exams to everybody three through eight and the Regents exams.

Nevertheless, officials in one district (Commonwealth) appeared to be trying their best to accommodate the anti-testing outlook of their parents. One board member noted that the district has been working with its representative on the Board of Regents to locate an alternative to the Regents exams that could be administered to its project-based learning pilot school. Additionally, the school board at one point considered discussing a proposal to refuse to administer the Grade 38 tests in the district, but it withdrew the idea when state officials threatened to remove the superintendent and all seven board members if they proceeded with the discussion.

The second reason local policy changes appeared to be limited was the belief among district elites that opt-out activism was not directed at them, but at officials in Albany. Consequently, some local officials felt there was little need to do much of anything other than let their constituents express themselves. As one Danville board member said:

I think [our board] know[s] that it's a New York State problem, not really a local problem. & Sort of an anti-New York sentiment really. & Till it changes in Albany, it's not gonna make much difference what we do here.

In general, OOPs in all four districts readily acknowledged that local officials hands were tied by state and federal mandates, and they almost never expressed frustration with the inability of their local leaders to deliver change on this issue. One Danville OOP summed up the attitude of the parents in her focus group, saying, When it comes to Danville, theyve done phenomenal. But Danville can't make policy changes to state law. It's not like we can just say, No, we're not gonna do that. It's just not the way it works. Another OOP in Easton noted:

They [district leaders] have all these state mandates that the state brings down to schools that they have to adhere to. & I'm on a parent decision-making board for the high school, and a lot of the staff or the principal, they have ideas, but it's just difficult to do because they have to also follow certain guidelines.

While opt-out-related policy change appears to have been muted at the local level, parents and district leaders were nevertheless quick to credit opt-out activism for recent efforts by policymakers to tap the brakes on testing and accountability at the state level. They pointed out that in 2015 and 2016the peak of opt-out activismthe state did implement some minor changes to its TBA regime, the most significant of which was a five-year moratorium on using student test scores in teacher evaluations. Additionally, the exams themselves were shortened (from three days to two days) and students were permitted to take the tests without the pressure of time limits. At the request of a task force convened by Governor Cuomo, the state also carried out a review and revision of the Common Core to ensure that, among other things, the material was developmentally appropriate for students. During this period, Merryl Tisch, the pro-testing Board of Regents Chancellor, also stepped down and was replaced by Betty Rosa, who was much more sympathetic to the opt-out movement. To many parents, these changes in policy and personnel were a step in the right direction, but some opt-out activists argued that these changes were merely symbolicdesigned to take the wind out of the sails of the movement so that the underlying neoliberal agenda could remain untouched. Whatever policymakers true intentions, the universal attribution of these changes to opt-out activism suggests that the movement may have had some policy impact insofar as it pressured lawmakers to halt the progression of TBA policies at least temporarily. However, there are few signs that more substantive policy repeals and alterations are on the horizon.



Taken together, these findings produce two implications for education policy and politics moving forward. The first deals with the challenges grassroots activists face in producing substantive policy change. Simply put, the experiences of the opt-out movement underscore an important conclusion of recent social movement scholarship: mobilization, while a necessary condition for political influence, does not in itself guarantee policy responsiveness (Amenta et al., 2010; della Porta & Diani, 2007). Today, scholars suggest that social movements are most likely to exert political influence when they not only mobilize, but also 1) posit valid alternatives (Burstein & Hirsh 2007; Cress & Snow, 2000), 2) embed themselves in institutional politics through sponsorship and alliance-building (Ruzza, 2004), and 3) threaten policymakers electorally (Amenta, 2006; McAdam & Su, 2002)none of which currently characterize the opt-out movement in my data.

With regard to the first criterion, the opt-out movements policy influence appears constrained by the fact that it is easier to identify what the movement is against (TBA policies) than what it is for. In conversations, local activists struggled to consistently articulate an alterative vision of education which they would support, although the most active and networked parents did emphasize the efforts they were currently taking to turn the movement toward a more positive message. However, this task is expected to be extremely difficult due to the political heterogeneity of the movements membership and the hyperpartisanship of todays national political climate, as any positive agenda that appears to favor one segment of the movement (e.g., liberals) risks alienating another segment of the movement (e.g., conservatives) and diminishing its numerical strength.

Next, the mismatch between local grassroots activism and state- and federal-level policymaking suggests that even if the opt-out movement were to settle on a positive agenda, it will be critically important for the movement to embed itself in institutional politics by locating political sponsors and forging alliances with extant interests who can advance its agenda in Albany and Washington. As education governance has been swept up into higher-level, general-purpose institutions, activists can no longer expect policy change through exclusively local organizing and protesting. Instead, they will have to reimagine their activism in ways that allow it to simultaneously span different levels of government (e.g., district, state, federal), thrive in a multiplicity of political venues (e.g., the grassroots, legislatures, courts, bureaucracies), and employ a variety of tactics specific to each of those venues (e.g., media campaigns, lobbying, litigating, electioneering, protesting). This multitiered, multimodal activism will inherently require new material, cultural, and organizational resources that may not be readily available to novice grassroots activists but could potentially be coproduced with or borrowed from experienced political sponsors and institutional allies.

Indeed, some of the most politically impactful grassroots movements of the past decade owe their success to their ability to attract political sponsors and form institutional alliances. A primary example of this can be found in the experiences of the Tea Party Movement of 20092012 (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). The Tea Party achieved the tremendous political influence it did not only because it effectively mobilized grassroots grievance, but because it simultaneously attracted the support of powerful sponsors in the form of right-wing media pundits (e.g., Fox News anchors), advocacy organizations (e.g., the Club for Growth), and billionaire donors (e.g., the Koch Brothers) who lent vital resources (media coverage, access, and money) to the movement. Additionally, the Tea Party was naturally co-opted by the Republican Party, as almost all Tea Partiers were motivated by conservative beliefs on key policy issues like healthcare, welfare, taxes, and business regulations. In contrast, the opt-out movement appears challenged on each of these fronts. Today, there are few advocacy organizations pushing alternatives to the neoliberal education agenda, there are no billionaire elites who have lent support to the movement, and the ideological diversity of the movement makes it an unwieldy candidate for partisan co-optation.

This does not mean that the opt-out movement must stand alone, however, and there are several natural allies which opt-out activists would be well-equipped to work with, including teachers unions, PTAs, civic organizations, sympathetic journalists, and locally elected officials. Indeed, Danley and Rubin (2017) explain the success Newark activists had in wresting district control back from the Chris Christie administration by highlighting the way that local activists formed coalitions with powerful community organizations. Furthermore, in my own data, I found evidence that local education officials are in some ways already using their positions to bring the concerns of their parents to different political venues and levels of government. In the Commonwealth school district, the superintendent has been a regular speaker at rallies and forums not just in his own district, but in neighboring districts as well, hoping to organize parents regionally so they will have a greater voice in the education policymaking process. With less flash but similar diligence, the superintendent in Danville also reported that she had written numerous advocacy papers for state policymakers on issues of concern to her district. In these ways, local leaders seemed to be leveraging local governance to promote the views of their parents more widely, proving to be potentially valuable political allies in the process.

The third thing grassroots activists must do to achieve greater policy influence is to make their movement electorally threatening to political elitessomething once again demonstrated by the Tea Party (Amenta, 2006; Almeida & Stearns, 1998; Amenta et al., 2010; Kane, 2003; McAdam & Su, 2002). Throughout its entire life course, the Tea Party remained intensely focused on electoral organizingmobilizing voters to throw out incumbents at all levels of government and then pressure newly elected officials to maintain hardline policy stances once they were in office (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). To date, the opt-out movement has not demonstrated the same level of electoral organization, although in some districts it has emerged as an influential force in local school board elections where education is the single issue on the ballot and elections are nonpartisan (Tyrrell, 2015). Nevertheless, if the opt-out movement hopes to change the direction of education policymaking in Albany and Washington, it will be critical for grassroots activists to embrace the challenges of electoral organizing, as there is currently scant evidence that elected officials at the state and federal levels feel much political incentive to help these activists, especially as they remain insulated by the structural protections of incumbency and the multi-issue nature of voting.


A second major implication of these findings is the importance of considering alternative forms of success for education grassroots activists. Social movement scholars who have grappled with the question of social movement consequences have generally defined social movement success along two dimensions: policy process outcomes (e.g., changes in political agendas, the enactment of new policies, or changes to institutional structures or personnel) and acceptance outcomes (e.g., the affirmation of the movement as a legitimate organization; e.g., Burstein et al., 1995; Gamson, 1990; Kitschelt, 1986). While the opt-out movement has not yet produced much by way of policy outcomes, my research suggests that it has been much more successful in securing recognition and transforming the political landscape. Far from a nonaccomplishment, these changes may prove to be both highly significant and enduring in the long run.

As described above, the opt-out movement appears to have increased and transformed parent engagement with education politics insofar as parents in my four case districts now appear more involved, informed, inquisitive, and critical than before. This represents a significant (and surprisingly rapid) shift in the political environment that policymakers will have to contend with in future rounds of policymaking. As parents have entrenched themselves as the primary stakeholders in education, policymakers can no longer expect that future policies and policy narratives will be met with uncritical acceptance. Rather, parents will expect to be granted a greater voice in decision-making, and policymakers may be forced to include parents more intimately in the formulation, enactment, and implementation of future policies to ensure their legitimacy, perhaps by establishing new institutional venues (such as standing committees or task forces) which guarantee the representation of parent concerns.

The opt-out movement has also reshaped the political landscape is by establishing a new political right for parents: the right to opt out. Seven years ago, the right of parents to block their children from taking federally mandated tests was unimaginable, but now it is widely recognized and accepted by most parents and education officials, even if they personally do not support opting out. Recent polling in New York suggests that 50% of parents statewide now support the right to opt out and 44% oppose it (Harding, 2015; for similar national results, see PDK International, 2015). In my own survey, I found that 71% of parents in the four districts (including 52% of NOOPs) agreed that parents have the right to opt out, and only 10% disagreed. Furthermore, every local official I spoke to acknowledged that parents have the right to opt out, although some of them, particularly in LOO districts, expressed displeasure about the parents who do so.

Thus, in estimating the political consequences of the opt-out movement, it may be necessary to take a long view of this phenomenon, recognizing that the true dividends of the movement may only appear down the road as this newly transformed political environment begins to mold and manipulate the policymaking process. Furthermore, even if the opt-out movement fades, this political environment will likely continue to evolve and exert influence.1 In their study of education activism in Philadelphia, Simon et al. (2017) observe that recent activism in that city is actually built upon a culture and infrastructure of activism that was laid during the 1990s. From this perspective, then, the opt-out movement may serve as a foundation for even wider and more politically consequential activism in the coming years and decades as earlier rounds of education activism generate organizational infrastructures, social networks, and human, material, and cultural resources that activists can draw upon in later skirmishes with policy elites. The opt-out movements most enduring political impact may thud be the way it has organized a corps of activist reservists prepared to mobilize, influence, and resist if policy elites again stray too far from popular demands.


Grassroots movements are often characterized by periods of activism and latency in which they dissipate with shifting political attention but then reappear when their issue becomes a salient political topic again (Etzioni, 1975; Melucci, 1984). As such, permanent and stable organizational structures are not necessarily a requirement for movement impact or long-term success.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23679, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 4:34:21 AM

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About the Author
  • David Casalaspi
    Teach For America
    E-mail Author
    DAVID CASALASPI, Ph.D., is senior managing director of research and systems change at Teach For America. He is a former professor of education policy at Colby College and former policy advisor at the National Governors Association. His previous and ongoing research explores how education policymaking shapes, and is shaped by, democratic practice. This article is adapted from a chapter in a larger monograph titled National Reform, Grassroots Resistance, and the “New Politics of Education”: The Opt Out Movement in New York, which was produced with generous support from the Michigan State University Education Policy Center. Dr. Casalaspi has a Ph.D. from Michigan State University and a BA from the University of Virginia.
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