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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.

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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: 7/28/2021 10:42:15 PM

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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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