Mobilizing Rhetoric for Policy Change: How Context Influences an Advocacy Group's Success


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Development Grant

Funding Amount:


Is fundraising in schools a great way to engage parents and provide students with arts enrichment and field trips? Or does fundraising create inequities between schools and communities, and ultimately, a two-tiered system of public education?

Debates over what policies mean, such as the debate over the meaning of fundraising in schools, are a central concern of this proposed research. Specifically, the proposed study will examine how People for Education (P4E), an education advocacy group in Ontario, Canada, has tried to influence policy processes by challenging and redefining the meaning of two policies: fundraising in schools and special education testing. Grounded in a critical understanding of policy, the study also aims to understand how the two policies’ social, economic, cultural, and political contexts influenced the success of P4E’s persuasive strategies. The research questions are:

  • What were the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of P4E’s campaigns to influence fundraising and special education testing policies?
  • What rhetorical strategies did P4E use in its campaigns to influence fundraising and special education testing policies?
  • How and in what ways did political, economic, social, and cultural contexts influence the success of P4E’s campaigns to change fundraising and special education testing policies?

While the number of groups vying to influence education policy has increased over recent decades, understanding of their activities and impact is limited. Existing knowledge is based on studies of US groups in extraordinary circumstances. Using a comparative case study approach, this project will address research and knowledge gaps in the field of education policy by examining the efforts of a Canadian advocacy group to influence two longstanding low-profile policies in Ontario. An historical narrative of the social, cultural, economic, and political contexts of education policies in Ontario since 1995 will be constructed with particular attention given to the histories of fundraising and special education testing policies. Rhetorical analysis will be used to identify the strategies used by P4E in each campaign; data will be gathered from documents and interviews with P4E staff, journalists, policy activists, and provincial government officials. The findings of the rhetorical analysis for each case will then be examined in light of the historical narrative in order to understand how the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts influenced the success of each campaign. Findings from the cases will then be compared to understand how the policies’ contexts differed and how they influenced the success of P4E’s two campaigns.

The findings will contribute much-needed understanding of the ways context mediates advocacy groups’ efforts to influence policy. By focusing on rhetoric, the proposed study extends previous research that examines how groups strategically mobilize discourses to influence policy. The study will contribute new theoretical understanding of advocacy group influence on public policy processes to fields beyond education (e.g., health, social services, political science, development studies).

The findings will also help advocacy groups and citizens understand the conditions under which various strategies are influential in groups’ efforts to challenge and change the meanings of policy. This knowledge will help groups and individuals make strategic decisions about which strategies to mobilize and improve their ability to influence policy processes. Citizens’ participation in policy processes is essential to democracy.