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Dec 14, 201208:55 AMEducation Matters

Online Petitions Provide A New Voice for Parents

Dec 14, 2012 - 08:55 AM
Online Petitions Provide A New Voice for Parents

Oh, the power of the online petition.

It used to be that people would have to go door to door to collect actual pen-and-paper signatures, hoping they’d get a chance to make their pitch before said door slammed in their faces.

Technology—in particular the Internet and Facebook—has changed all that. Now, if you want to generate support for a cause, you need to do little more than create a petition online and spread the word via email, Twitter and Facebook.

That’s what parents are discovering as they create online petitions to push issues that they want addressed by Montgomery County Public Schools.

The most popular recent measure has been the campaign to get MCPS to change high-school start times to 8:15 a.m. or later—an issue that’s come up a number of times over the years. In a matter of weeks this fall, advocates supporters gathered more than 10,000 signatures supporting their cause.

And after the group presented those signatures to the Board of Education on Tuesday, MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr announced he would form a work group to study the issue.

Mandi Mader, the Garrett Park parent who created the online petition, says that the advocates’ success was a matter of good timing. The issue of sleep deprivation is a hot one around the country these days—even Fairfax public schools are looking into changing start times—and the topic has been publicized frequently in the media.

“We hit a nerve,” she said. “People were passionate about this. Plus, plenty of kids signed as well.”

The ease of publicizing the petition was a big factor, too, she said. With a couple of clicks, supporters could post the petition on Facebook or even send an email to friends directly from the petition website.

And therein lies the fundamental difference between online petitions and those whose signatures are gathered the old-fashioned way.  

“It changes the definition of what a petition is. It really does,” said MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig, who’s seen a big increase in the number of online petitions submitted to the school board. “It’s very different to get people to sign online than to go door to door. It’s much easier to gather thousands of names.”

Not that the ease of signing up online negates the value of the petition, but it does give one pause. “Is the meaning the same—does it give the full perspective of who these folks are?” Tofig said.

That may be why the school board doesn’t have a threshold for the number of signatures that must be gathered for a petition to be accepted. It accepts petitions with the understanding that they provide a viewpoint on a given issue, “but you can’t base a decision on a petition,” Tofig said.

For example, another petition presented at that same board meeting this week only contained about 1,400 signatures. Still it deals with another hot-button issue that’s generated ongoing concern among MCPS parents of elementary school students.

The “No Time to Waste” petition calls upon the school board to reform Curriculum 2.0, the new elementary school curriculum, to get rid of heterogeneous math classes and restore the former practice of grouping students by ability.

As for the parents pushing for later start times, their next move is to make sure that they are part of the research process and able to contribute the information they have gathered about the issue. Mader said the group sent a letter this week requesting a meeting with MCPS officials to see how they can “work with us.”

“Once the community gets wind of this, we want to get the information out there before the opposition gets real strong,” Mader said.

Tofig said there’s no information yet on who will be asked to join the work group.  “Certainly there’s a lot of passion behind this among a group of people,” he said.
Starr plans to look at the issue “holistically” and make sure all points of view are represented, he said.

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