The Education Department is creating a parent council to help them better engage in their children’s schools – a move that comes as Republicans tap into parents’ frustrations over a third year of pandemic schooling and threaten to unseat Democrats as the party of education ahead of the midterm elections.
“Parents are a child’s first teachers and there’s no one better equipped to work with schools and educators to identify what students need to recover,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
“The National Parents and Families Engagement Council will serve as an important link between families and caregivers, education advocates and their school communities,” he said. “The Council will help foster a collaborative environment where we can work together to serve the best interest of students and ensure they have the academic and mental health support they need to recover from the pandemic and thrive in the future.”
The council consists of 14 organizations that represent families, parents and caregivers of all backgrounds, including the more traditional umbrella groups, like the National Parent Teacher Association, as well as groups like Mocha Moms, Fathers Incorporated and the National Parents Union. The organizations will also represent parents and caregivers whose children are enrolled across the entire K-12 system, including in public schools, charter schools, private schools and homeschools.
The most pressing issue the council will focus on, according to department officials, is to outline how parents can better understand the rights they have in their children’s education as it relates to shaping how schools and districts use federal COVID-19 relief funds, including for summer learning.
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“Parents provide critical perspective, and they should always have a seat at the table whenever decisions are made that impact their children,” says Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association. “And this is more important than ever in the effort to help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Department officials said the first meeting would occur in the “coming weeks,” where representatives from the organizations will discuss how their children are recovering from the pandemic, the different ways schools are providing academic, mental health and social and emotional support, and how they can best engage with schools.
The Biden administration – and Cardona, in particular – has been making a point to elevate the role parents play in their children’s education in the wake of last year’s off-year elections, which exposed mounting frustrations among parents exasperated amid a third year of pandemic schooling and highlighted the inroads Republicans have made in branding themselves as trustworthy on an issue long considered a Democratic stronghold.
This fall, when parents swamped school board meetings, put in motion a record-setting number of school board recalls and made education the No. 1 issue in the Virginia governor’s race.
“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” Virginia’s former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe said during a debate against Republican Glen Younkin. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The unforced error, which many say cost McAuliffe the race, still haunts Democrats, who in the aftermath of the off-year election were quick to admit they needed to find a way to show parents that their input does matter.
“You cannot tell a group of people who have had, for 18 months or so, to have to home-school their children that their opinion about their children’s education doesn’t matter,” Rep. Donald McEachin, Virginia Democrat, said in the wake of McAuliffe’s loss.
National polls show trust in Democrats on education issues has shrunk from a 20-point advantage in the beginning of 2021, to a their 7-point advantage earlier this year. And a poll of Virginia voters conducted after November’s election by Democrats for Education Reform and Murmuration – the company that provided poll for the Biden-Harris ticket – showed that of voters who ranked education as a top issue, 70% voted for Youngkin. Pollsters said the findings represent “a concerning trend for Democrats – once the party of education – who have ceded ground to Republicans on the issue.”
With the 2022 midterms on the horizon, Republicans have latched on to what they consider a powerful and energizing issue, with conservatives in Congress introducing “Parents Bill of Rights” legislation that would allow parents to know exactly what their children are being taught, and GOP governors and Republican-controlled states legislators considering bills that would elevate the role of parents.
“We think the secretary really needs to hear directly from parents,” says Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union. “Really the pain, the struggle, the anxieties and some of the triumphs they are experiencing on the ground. We’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing for this.”
“We’ve tried to make sure that he’s not just hearing from the window dressing parents – the ones who are prepped to say the right thing and won’t make the superintendent look bad,” she says. “But the folks who do the real work in the community.”
Rodrigues, who says she’s tried to be intentional about including the voices of indigenous parents, foster parents, grandparents who are primary caregivers, parents who have were incarcerated and LGBTQ parents, says she talks or meets with department officials at least twice a month and that they’ve been “extremely active” in ensuring parents and families are included in major initiatives.
“It makes me really happy to see all these folks represented because typically you have that one group who is always called upon to be the voice of parents and it’s really not intersectional enough for this moment,” she says.
Yet Rodrigues says she plans on expressing to Cardona some hard truths and would like to see the department, among other things, establish a federal definition of “parent and family engagement” – something measurable that the department can hold districts and states accountable to.
“This is what I said to them when they invited us to join: We are excited to be joining the council, but don’t expect us to be dazzled by the conversation,” Rodrigues says. “We are going to come and have very truthful and very courageous conversations and say the things that need to be said at that table.”
“It’s what the department needs to hear, it’s what Secretary Cardona needs to hear and it’s what President Biden needs to hear in this moment.”