When the White House announced its new policy on online petitions – making a commitment to respond to each one that received more than 25,000 signatures – several states around the country followed suit. Thus, parents who felt that they've long lacked a voice in the decisions about the education system were given a new, potentially powerful tool to make themselves heard.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is how effectively they've been able to make use of it. Recently, parents in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland launched a petition to push the start of classes in district high schools to 8:15am or later. The petition drew a lot of attention, and within weeks, 10,000 parents and other local residents signed on. After presenting the petition to the MCPS Board of Education, Superintendent Joshua Starr announced his intention to form a work group to look into 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."
Social media played a role as well. The website that hosted the petition made sharing it on networks like Twitter and Facebook very simple. The signatories themselves did most of the work getting it publicized.
This is one of the things that sets the new media apart from the old. While before, gathering signatures involved extensive door-to-door effort, gathering thousands of names now involves just a few mouse clicks. According to Dana Tofig, MCPS spokesman, the internet has substantially changed what launching a petition really means.
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.
Policy decisions aren't made based on petitions, according to Tofig — although the administration, education officials and lawmakers do look at them as representative of popular point of view, and the number of signatures does serve as a measure of popularity.
According to the Bethesda Magazine, another online petition was handed over at the same meeting – this one calling on the district to drop a new math policy that would have kids of all levels learning together rather than allow class groupings by ability. In contrast to the later-start-time one, however, this one boasted only about 1,400 signatures.