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Biden administration appoints parent council for education

Critics say the council is unlikely to represent conservative viewpoints

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in Washington, D.C., on June 2 AFP via Getty Images/Photo by Olivier Douliery

Biden administration appoints parent council for education

The Biden administration earlier this month announced the formation of a parent and family council meant to provide input on Education Department policy. Some education advocates have applauded the move, but others are concerned that certain conservative voices will be left out of the conversation.

According to the Department of Education press release, 14 organizations are slated to make up the National Parents and Families Engagement Council. Among them are parent-focused groups such as Fathers Incorporated and Mocha Moms, as well as Latino groups such as UnidosUS and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Other groups include the United Parent Leaders Action Network and the Rev. Al Sharpton–founded National Action Network.

As schools first put in place virtual learning plans for the pandemic, then later debated when to reopen for in-person learning, parents across the country took more active roles in their children’s schooling. In some areas, passionate parents put pressure on local education officials with outbursts and, occasionally, threats. Tensions came to a head last fall after the National School Boards Association asked the Biden administration to mobilize federal authorities to respond to threats against school boards. When Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo asking the FBI to help local leaders handle the problem, it sparked a backlash of criticism from parents across the country.

The Department of Education said in a statement that the council would meet in the next few weeks and the department would conduct listening sessions with parents and school officials in the next few months. The statement also mentioned the goal of diversity within the council, saying its members would represent families whose children attend public, charter, and private schools, along with homeschools.

The Education Department did not fulfill an interview request last week. But in an emailed statement, a department spokesperson said, “The Council is not limited to the groups included at launch, and the Department welcomes the feedback of all parents.”

National Parents Union co-founder and president Keri Rodrigues told me her organization began asking for such a council about 20 months ago. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat who’s in office, a Republican, a Rainbow Party member, I don’t care,” she said. “If you’re sitting with that much power and control over the things that can happen to parents, families, and children across the nation, we need to be in conversation with you and you need the best information from the people who are directly impacted by the decisions you make.”

Rodrigues and other representatives of council member organizations I spoke to described the types of issues they advocate for and hope to bring to the table at the council meetings, slated to begin sometime in July.

For example, Rodrigues said the National Parents Union has called for reopening schools following pandemic shutdowns, opposed attempts to suspend statewide testing requirements, and advocated for funding for black and Latino families developing homeschools and micropods for education. She said the organization has nominated two representatives to the council: Lakisha Young from the Oakland REACH, a local parent advocacy group, and Ashara Baker of the New York Charter Schools Association.

While the National Parents Union has a homeschool advocate on staff, Rodrigues said the Education Department required the group’s representatives to be parents of a child in a public school.

Rodrigues said she hoped for a council conversation about what “parent and family engagement” really means. “Right now, it’s kind of subject to interpretation,” she said. “It can really mean anything from … throwing those fliers in a backpack or sending out a robocall to actually having folks participate in workgroups and policy committees and truly being engaged stakeholders.”

The National Military Family Association, another organization on the council, regularly communicates with the Department of Education over issues facing member families, according to government relations director Kelly Hruska. (She said the department also asked the organization to submit proof that its representative is a parent of a child in a public school district.) When asked what educational issues the association plans to bring before the council, Hruska said the group plans to ask its members what issues they would like to see addressed.

Denise Stile Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), said that while a majority of the group’s member families have children who attend public school, most “are in some level of dispute” with public schools over their child’s services. Some families eventually opt for private school or homeschool options.

While COPAA doesn’t have a position on types of schools, Marshall said the group is concerned about protecting students’ rights to have needed services follow them wherever they do attend school. She hopes the group can advocate against punitive discipline policies that push students with disabilities out of class.

Marshall said parents who decide to switch to a charter school often tell her they made their choice in order to have more involvement in their children’s educational decisions. “Parents as meaningful partners is always a key cornerstone [of education legislation],” she said. “I think education right now is in turmoil, and they really need to kind of settle down and figure out how to best serve students.”

Still, some organizations not on the council are skeptical that it will represent viewpoints not already reflected in the Biden administration.

“I think the idea of the council is not good. The federal government has no business in local education,” said Sheri Few, president and co-founder of U.S. Parents Involved in Education. Few said her organization, which is concerned about critical theories, sexualization of children, and how history is taught in classrooms, was not invited to the new council. She worried the Biden administration would use the council simply to “to try to defend what’s already happening in the classroom.”

The Washington Stand, a website of the Family Research Council, listed concerns that the council “represents a small segment of elitist, left-wing views.” The site pointed out that even groups such as Generations United, an organization that devotes much of its attention to grandparents raising their grandchildren, advocate for a liberal view of sexual orientation and gender identity. Other groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the United Parent Leaders Action Network also list sexual orientation on par with rights based on factors like age, disability, race, and religion. Girls Inc., a youth development organization, staunchly supports abortion availability and gender transitioning.

“[The council] is a rubber stamp for the Biden administration,” said Erika Sanzi, director of outreach for Parents Defending Education, a group that promotes free speech in school and opposes hypersexual classroom lessons and gender ideology. “My sense is if the goal is to convince parents that you are listening or convince parents that you heard them, and you’re really working to sort of quell their concerns, this parent council is definitely not going to do it.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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