Why Did They Protest? Stability and Change in the Opt-Out Movement, 2016-2018

Pizmony-Levy, Oren; Green Saraisky, Nancy

One of the most prominent educational social movements in the United States during the past two decades has been the opt-out movement, in which parents and caregivers refuse to have their school-aged children sit for federally mandated tests. Although early responses by government officials framed the movement in terms of race, class, and gender, in truth we know little about the actual motivations that drive opt-out activists. In this study, we build on social movements theories to examine who participate in the opt-out movement, as well as whether these partici-pants or their motivations changed over time. By doing so, we seek to build upon the existing literature by synthesizing the two primary theoretical perspectives on social movements and ac-tivism – uniting the focus on the social psychological determinants of individual activism with the focus on the role of external factors. Our analysis is based on data from two waves of the Na-tional Survey on Opting Out (2016: n=1,611; 2018: n=1,298). Our analysis show both stability and change in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018. Although the data reveal certain sociodemographic changes in the composition of the movement, these changes in demographics do not fully account for shifts in activist motivations over time. We also find that much of the variation in motivation across key social categories (e.g., political ideology, teachers/non-teachers, and parents/non-parents) holds over time. In contrast to common perceptions of the opt-out movement, which often portray parental concerns over their child’s achievement as the pre-dominant motivation for participation, our study reveals that activists in the movement indicate they are motivated by political and ethical ideas. Participants in the opt-out movement are more concerned with collective problems, such as the well-being of teachers, broad curriculum, and privatization of public education, than with individual challenges. Given the massive changes that took place in the political and policy spheres during our period of study, the degree to which activist motivation stayed constant is notable – suggesting that many of these motivations are insulated from politics.


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