Education Activism in a New Era: Where Does Opt Out Go from Here?

The article, “Education Activism in the Trump-DeVos Era: Opt Out Florida’s Leaders Respond to the 2016 Election,” appears in the January-March issue of The Educational Forum. It is available for free in March here.

Stephanie Schroeder is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the Pennsylvania State University where she teaches courses in elementary social studies methods, civic engagement, and democratic education. Her research interests center on the teaching and learning of civic and professional agency.

On January 7, 2021, former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos resigned her position, citing her disdain for the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. For many, the resignation was welcome, if not long overdue. A month later, as hearings begin for a new Secretary of Education under a new presidential administration, one wonders what changes to education policy might be on the horizon. Following a year in which intersecting political, social, and public health crises have laid bare the vast systemic racial and economic disparities in the United States, what can a new presidential administration do to promote educational equity? And how might education activists respond to a self-proclaimed teacher-friendly Biden-Harris administration?

Our article in the latest issue of The Educational Forum looks back to the 2016 election to see how one group of education activists—the Opt Out Florida Network—responded to a changing presidential administration. As part of the larger Opt Out Movement, a nationwide effort to reject high-stakes testing and resist school privatization, the Opt Out Florida Network supports parents and teachers through dozens of Facebook groups throughout the state of Florida. We began formal research with the Florida network after the 2015 testing season, when opting out reached its zenith. It was the year nearly 20 percent of New York State students opted out and, notably, smack in the midst of the Obama presidency.

By 2017, when we conducted the research presented in our article, it felt like we had entered into a new world. Trump had won the 2016 election, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school privatization, had been confirmed as Secretary of Education, and the country’s left wing seemed poised for a new protest or march at every turn. We wondered how these national changes would impact a social movement focused on education, a facet of American society and policy-making controlled primarily at the local level. Somewhat predictably, the leaders of Opt Out Florida believed the presidential election in and of itself had no impact on their movement: Democrats and Republicans alike had created the problem of high-stakes testing and school privatization, so a Republican in office would be more of the same. Yet, the spirit of protest that Trump’s win inspired led them to rethink their messaging, encouraging them to refocus opting out on the larger mission of promoting democracy and social justice in public schools.

Four years later, what can education activists learn from the way the Opt Out Florida Network responded to a changing presidential administration and shifting national mood in 2016? Identifying a clear and compelling message that speaks to the ever-changing political and social context of schooling is a good first lesson. Perhaps, too, activists today might take note as to how Opt Out Florida sought to ride the wave of post-election protest and consider how the cancellation of high-stakes testing in 2020 might be a useful jumping-off point for future messaging efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic brings with it new challenges as well, and demands that teachers, unions, and other education activists shift their focus to more elemental needs: safe school reopening and teacher vaccinations. With lives hanging in the balance, there is hope that a new presidential administration brings with it a desire to listen to activists and work with states to promote the welfare and equity students and teachers deserve.