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Beyond the Bake Sale: Parents Use Social Media to Oppose 'War on Public Education'

When you think of parents helping their schools, what do you think of? Bake sales? School fairs? Holiday parties? Or do you think Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube?

Facing massive school budget cuts, parents in Upper Darby School District, just outside of Philadelphia, PA, have gone beyond the bake sale and taken their efforts to social media to raise awareness and effect change in the “war on public education.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh8RNhMo4Ks[/youtube]

Sign the petition at Change.org.

Full disclosure: this is my district. My children face the possibility of losing separate art, music, physical education, and library classes from their elementary schools, and foreign language and technology from our middle schools. The long-term implications of this for every child in this district (not to mention our housing values) are horrendous.

After the Upper Darby Board of Education proposed a budget that would eliminate dozens of teacher jobs, parents joined together on Facebook. Within 48 hours, the group’s Facebook page had 5,000 “likes.” In under a week, there were over 11,000; currently there are over 12,000. The district educates just over 12, 700 students.

Like many school district across Pennsylvania and the nation, Upper Darby School District faces massive cuts in funding at the state and federal levels. Nearby Chester Upland School District recently ran out of funds and could no longer afford to make payroll. That district is currently suing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for lack of support to provide a “thorough and efficient public education” as required by the state’s constitution. On its website, Upper Darby School District said it is watching that lawsuit closely as a test case.

With the Facebook page creating a sense of unity among the district’s parents, the next logical step was to reach out to the larger community, news outlets, and famous alumni. A website and Twitter feed were created to reach out to news outlets, the community, and famous alumni. (The most famous graduate of Upper Darby’s renowned arts program, Tina Fey, is not on Twitter, however.) Soon after, a petition was started on Change.org, calling on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett to “restore the millions of dollars slashed from funding public schools.”

Of course, parents are using old-fashioned tactics to be heard, as well: in the longest school board meeting in the district’s recorded history, more than 80 townspeople took the opportunity to speak. The meeting, normally attended by about 20 to 30 people, was attended by an estimated 1,200 people. It began on a Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 2 a.m. the next morning.  Tomorrow evening, the district is holding a public hearing regarding the proposed budget and and what the school board calls the “curriculum realignment” that would result in the elimination of 64 positions. I can’t imagine how long this one’s going to go, but at least now I know to bring a thermos of coffee.

Similar Facebook groups of parents have popped up in Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, and California.

The social media hubbub in Upper Darby somewhat mirrors a similar effort by parents in Fairfax County, Virginia a couple of years ago, where parents utilized social media to band together. Fairfax County parents eventually filed a lawsuit against their school district in an attempt to keep one of their elementary schools from being closed. Residents said that the school board had violated Virginia Freedom of Information law by emailing each other privately, prior to having a public hearing about closing Clifton Elementary School. The lawsuit was struck down by a local court in 2011; in April 2012, Virginia’s Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal.

A major difference between Fairfax County, Va. and Upper Darby, PA? The median household income in Fairfax County is over $100,000. In Upper Darby, it’s $44,000, making it less likely that we can afford the kind of pricey law firm hired by the Fairfax County parents.

So, let’s see: Facebook? Check? A website, Twitter, Change.org? Check, check, and check. What else does every social media campaign need? A viral video. And yes, the Upper Darby group is on YouTube as well. Check it out the video above.

I know that school districts all across the country are facing massive cuts. What are schools doing in your town to make things work? What are parents doing? Leave a comment and let me know!

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)

Read more from Joslyn at her blog stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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