Archives for category: Parent Groups

Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist who recently retired from the University of Massachusetts. He recently published Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

When he learned that the U.S. Department of Education had included the National Parents Union on its list of parent organizations advising the Department, he wrote the following letter to Secretary Cardona:

June 28, 2022

Secretary Miguel Cardona
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona,

The Department of Education has made a significant error in including the National Parents Union among the groups invited to participate in the National Parents and Families Engagement Council. NPU does not represent parents and has few if any parent organizations as members. It is a front operation for the policy preferences of wealthy individuals who wish to transform American education to meet their ideological preferences, political goals, to keep their own taxes low, and to profit off what Rupert Murdoch has termed a $500 billion market.

I am very familiar with National Parents Union. As a recently retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) I have been researching groups like NPU since 2015 and continue to do so.

Since NPU is related to a group I was already following named Massachusetts Parents United (the leader of both groups is Keri Rodrigues) I took note when a concept paper for the new group surfaced in April 2019, appealing to the Walton Family Foundation for funding (WFF is the primary sponsor of MPU, over $2.2 million from 2017 through 2020). The concept paper listed three goals. First, to impact the 2020 Democratic Party nominating process. Second, to support “dozens of organizations (that) are building strong pockets of parent power.” Third, “to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

National Parents Union does not now and never has published a list of its member parent organizations. However I researched this question for my book based upon organizations NPU was claiming as participants to its January 2020 founding convention, primarily in claims made on Twitter and other social media. On its website NPU was claiming to be “a network of highly effective parent organizations and grassroots activists.” I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I created categories for different types of organizations and was able to categorize 64 of the 70 organizations. Only four of them even purported to represent parents. There were 15 charter school organizations and nine charter school trade organizations. There were another 15organizations I categorized as education options/choice, groups which present as helping navigate among different schools but which are designed to funnel students to charter schools. That makes 39 organizations tied in to the charter schools industry. There are nineteen organizations I identified as “civic” and some I could further identify, for instance civic/Latinx, civic/civil rights, civic/autism, etc. Within the civic groups that could be identified, there were four I categorized as civic/parents.

I was able to locate primary state locations for 53 of the 70 organizations. Of those I could place in states, there are 22 states represented plus the District of Columbia. The Massachusetts parent organization was MPU, the Walton operation. The Minnesota parent organization incorporated about the same time as NPU did. The other two parent organizations were also doubtful.

NPU’s arrival was announced in a January 2020 story in U.S. News and World Report, heralding “Two Latina mothers from opposite sides of the country” starting a parents group to “disrupt” education. One founder, Alma Marquez of California, disappeared from the organization about 8 months later. Ms. Rodrigues, known in her days as a radio host in the heavily Portuguese city of Fall River as the “pint-sized Portuguese pundit” remains.

Even with Ms. Marquez gone it is difficult to sort out NPU’s real leadership. At the January 2020 meeting Ms. Marquez was elected to a three year term as secretary-treasurer. She was a director in filings with the Massachusetts Secretary of State but left by March 2021. In March 2021 the National Parents Union website listed three board members: Peter Cunningham, Bibb Hubbard, and Dan Weisberg. But NPU registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation with the Secretary of State in Massachusetts where its annual report filed November 1, 2020 showed two directors: Keri Rodrigues and Tim Langan. The Secretary filings listed Ms. Rodrigues as president and clerk and Tim Langan as treasurer (he was chief operating officer on the website). In January 2020 Gerard Robinson was also listed as a founding director, but he left a year later. Ms. Hubbard is also gone and filings with the Secretary have been updated but still do not match the website.

Of the founding directors and officers, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Hubbard, Mr. Weisberg, Ms. Marquez, and Ms. Rodrigues all were communications professionals or had significant experience in public relations. Ms. Rodrigues, always billed as a parent activist, has been a communications professional for nearly a quarter of a century, since commencing her career with CBS Radio in 1998 while completing her 2000 BS in Broadcast, Telecommunications, and Media Management from Temple University. Since 2014 she has been executive vice president – strategy and communications for Democrats for EducationReform in Boston, state director of Families for Excellent Schools, president of the IRC 501(c)(4) Massachusetts Parent Action and 501(c)(3) Massachusetts Parents United, and president of IRC 501(c)(3) National Parents Union. Corporate records indicate that she and Mr. Langan (to whom she is engaged) are the principals of the Estrella Group LLC, a political consultant firm. Across the two state and one national organizations they paid themselves over $626,000 in 2020—an atypical income for working parents.

NPU has a page where one can “find your delegate.” Delegate suggests that someone has been chosen by others to represent them. But I cannot find where NPU explains what their delegates do and it appears that delegates are not chosen by parents (or the mostly non-existent parent organizations) but from the top down, by NPU itself. For example in Massachusetts—the corporate headquarters of NPU and MPU—when NPU wanted to find a state “delegate” it advertised for someone to become “an official Massachusetts delegate” on Twitter!* (* indicates material in Addendum).

No, National Parents Union is not about parents at all.

To understand NPU, follow the money. The Walton Family Foundation funneled $400,000 to NPU in 2020 through MPU.The Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, invested $700,000.The CEO of Vela is an oil and gas executive from Koch’s corporate holdings. Other donors include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The City Fund, which receives funding from the Waltons, the Hastings Fund, and the Arnold Foundation. Reed Hastings has called for the abolition of school boards. John Arnold is most well-known for his campaign to gut workers’ pension plans.

Most parents have taken tickets at the high school football game or baked goods to be sold at intermission of the school play. Not many have started a little parents’ organization that collected $1,481,110 in its first year. NPU paid out $400,461 in grants and had a payroll of $634,273. In October 2021 the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a grant of $1,500,000 to support NPU—an organization that had not existed less than two years before. Also in 2021 the Silicon Valley Community Foundation donated $1,500,000 to NPU. SVCF is a donor advised fund, a pass through that protects the identity of the ultimate check writer. It’s deep dark money—the true source of the $1,500,000 will never be known. But it isn’t parents.

Small wonder then that since its inception NPU has retained the services of top conservative and Walton Family pollster Echelon Insights and the international communications firm Mercury LLC. Just like any other infant parents group.

NPU affects a different posture than recently founded “parents” operations that have attacked Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ youth. NPU purports to speak up for people of color (as did Families for Excellent Schools, which was driven by the Waltons and wealthy Wall Streeters). Scratch the surface though and NPU’s billionaire-driven agenda appears. NPU has been happy to surf on the turmoil created by right wing attack groups with its own “Disrupt the Status Quo—School Board Edition” campaign, and after the victory of Glenn Youngkin in Virginiaoffered by tweet to work with Leader Kevin McCarthy and the House Republicans on a Parents Bill of Rights. Ms. Rodrigueshas appeared at a forum organized by Betsy Devos’s American Federation for Children and just recently on a panel with Governor Youngkin’s Secretary of Education. In a Twitter exchange with a friendly journalist who was doubting the level of “School Board Chaos” being created by right wing groups, she responded “Depends on the type of chaos we are talking about.”*

That remark may help illuminate a paradox of the recently contrived “parents” movement: why is Charles Koch funding both the “progressive” NPU and the white backlash Parents Defending Education? And the answer is that both groups are designed to create chaos in the public education system. Chaos is the product.

As a “parent” group NPU is mostly distinguished by a lack of parents. It will produce polling information but as you understand interest group polling is going to show what the interest group wants you to see. NPU has had substantial media success—with the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, and Fox—but it’s worth asking yourself: how do two moms on opposite coasts afford Mercury LLC to run communications?

DOE should be working with real parents, not billionaire directed right wing fronts masquerading as parents. If the department wishes to hear the viewpoints of the Waltons, Gates, Koch et al., heavens knows they have access to key policy makers. DOE should not permit them to sneak in the door masquerading as parents.

Sincerely,

 

Maurice T. Cunningham

 

 

Maurice Cunningham is a specialist on dark money and its infiltration into education debates. As he watched the response to the Uvalde massacre of babies, he noticed the missing voices of the “mama bears.”

He writes:

Right Wing “Mama Bears” Hibernate on Uvalde

They’re fearless on Fox News—Tiffany Justice of Moms for Liberty, Erika Sanzi or Nicole Neily of Parents Defending Education, Keri Rodrigues of National Parents Union—self-proclaimed “mama bears” fiercely protecting their cubs from a public school education. But murder and traumatization in our schools caused by assault weapons? The mama bears hibernate. And there’s reason.

Parents for Education has had nothing to say about Uvalde but it has sent out four email blasts from Neily and Sanzi since the massacre in Texas—fundraising letters! They playact rage about a legal theory not taught in K-12 and promote terror of innocentLGBTQ teens. But on real terror, silence. This is defending education?

Moms for Liberty mustered a quick Facebook reaction of the ‘thoughts and prayers’ genre then went back to its specialties: demonizing vulnerable transgender children, book banning, and putting bounties on teachers’ heads.

Right wing papa bears are absent fathers on gun violence. Take Ian Prior of the Virginia privatization operation Fight for Schools. He plays an outraged parent on Fox News but this Republican communications pro isn’t touching any fight for schools that might involve making them safe for educators and children.

None of these individuals nor their phony parent groups can diveinto the fight to keep guns out of our schools for a simple reason: they are dependent on far right funding including the Koch network and the extremist Council for National Policy. Among the CNP’s members are Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association.

No, there will be no criticism of the NRA from these “parents’ and “moms.” That would not only be condemning an ally, it would be spitting in the faces of the money givers.

National Parents Union, Koch and Walton funded, has a separate problem. NPU depicts itself as representing people of color, an approach that masks its corporate nature. So NPU president Keri Rodrigues produced a public letter to President Biden, laying much of the blame for inaction on Biden himself—a curious position for a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee. As to denouncing Republican intransigence to any action on gun safety? Speechless.

NPU, a charter and privatization front, is fighting the Biden administration on regulation of charter schools. Privatization schemes are almost wholly dependent on Republican votes.

Real mama bears fight for kids, not oligarchs.

These groups aren’t speaking out because they can’t. They’re part of the problem. Follow the money.

Maurice T. Cunningham is author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.”

I am tired of rightwing politicians distorting our language to suit their bigoted ideology.

They have the nerve, for example, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 and said he hoped for the day when his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Dr. King was projecting a vision of a world without racism, when people would see each other as friends, neighbors, and fellow human beings.

But rightwing politicians twist his words to insist that we should ignore racism right now, stop teaching about it, and pretend it does not exist. They use his words to justify prohibitions on teaching about or discussing the racism in the here and now. They use his appeal for an unrealized future to blind us to a cruel present.

I propose that we make a conscientious effort to reclaim the plain meaning of words.

One of the hot-button words that has been appropriated by rightwing politicians is “woke.” They are trying to turn it into a shameful word. I looked up the definition of WOKE. It means being aware of injustice and inequality, specifically when referring to racism. I strive to be aware of injustice and inequality and racial discrimination and to do whatever I can to change things for the better. Shouldn’t we all do that?

My acronym for WOKE is “Wide Open to Knowledge and Enlightenment.”

What would you say about someone who is not WOKE? They are “asleep,” “unconscious,” “indifferent.” They are “Mind Closed, Mouth Open.”

Yes, I am WOKE. I want Dr. King’s dream someday to be true. It is not true now.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida believes it is terrible to be woke. He demeans those he says are woke. He claims that the woke are politically correct and are intimidated by organized efforts to reduce racism in schools and the workplace. He thinks that being woke is so dreadful that it must be made illegal.

He urged the Florida legislature to pass “anti-woke” legislation in March. And they did. The so-called STOP WOKE” Act means “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act.”

This legislation is intended specifically to silence discussions and study of racism. It bans the teaching of critical race theory in schools and colleges and bans diversity training in the workplace.

Governor DeSantis doesn’t want people to be opposed to injustice and inequality. He doesn’t want them to be opposed to racism. Such awareness makes some people feel uncomfortable, he says. We should teach nothing that makes anyone uncomfortable.

Who is uncomfortable when racism is discussed? In my experience, the people who don’t want any discussion of racism are either racist or are embarrassed by their acts of racism in the past.

To protect the tender sensibilities of white people, we must avoid any discussion that makes them or their children uncomfortable. We must not take the risk that they or their children might feel uncomfortable for terrible things that happened long ago. So don’t talk about them. Don’t read books that discuss slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, or segregation. Don’t mention the distant past or the wrongs of the present. Don’t dare to talk about discrimination against black people, or the passage of laws that impair their right to vote, or the persistence of racially segregated schools.

Not only is it wrong to be woke, in the eyes of those who prefer to stifle all recognition of racial discrimination, it is absolutely forbidden for teachers or professors to examine the causes of racism and its persistence today in our laws and policies. Making a conscientious effort to understand the causes of racism and to seek remedies is called “critical race theory” (CRT).

The attacks on critical race theory are intended to intimidate teachers and to prevent students from learning about racism, past or present.

In states that have banned the teaching of critical race theory, the legislators can’t define CRT, so they make it illegal to teach “divisive concepts” or anything that makes some students “uncomfortable.”

When a white supremacist massacred ten Black people in Buffalo, New York, teachers in anti-CRT states were not sure if they were allowed to teach about what happened. Would they lose their jobs if they taught the truth?

The states that prohibit the teaching of critical race theory are banning the teaching of honest history, for fear that someone might be uncomfortable when they learn the facts about what was done to Black people in our history. Some states have explicitly banned Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” because it might make some white people uncomfortable. I may be wrong, but I can’t recall a state that ever passed a law censoring a single book. This book is obviously very powerful and very frightening to those who feel the need to ban it. It cannot be refuted by the DeSantis faction so it must be banned.

The same states that want to ban honest teaching about racism are also banning books about gender identity and sexuality. The legislatures in Republican states think that the schools are filled with pedophiles. The rightwing zealots claim that teachers are “grooming” their students to become gay or transgender. They pass laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans teaching about gender identity and sexuality in grades K-3 (where gender identity and sexuality are not taught) and tolerate only “age-appropriate” discussion of gender identity and sexuality in other grades.

Like the STOP WOKE law, the “Don’t Say Gay” law is vague, which makes teachers fearful of teaching anything related to gender or sexuality. If schools can’t teach about gender identity, then they cannot teach about married couples of any gender. If you take them literally, you should not refer to Moms and Dads, men and women. Dare we teach young children about heterosexuality? Apparently not, if you follow the letter of the law.

The groups that are behind these attacks are familiar to us. They are Moms for Liberty, Moms for America, Parents Defending Freedom, and a bevy of other groups funded by rightwing billionaires.

Not coincidentally, these are the same groups that are fighting to pass funding for charter schools and vouchers.

What is their motive? They want to destroy not only freedom of thought but public schools.

Recently, I watched the far-right provocateur Chris Rufo give a speech at Hillsdale College. He called on his audience to act in a speech titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” (Please watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8Hh0GqoJcE). Rufo claims credit for making CRT a national issue. He boasts that a few years ago, CRT had virtually no public recognition. Thanks to his lies and distortions, most people have heard of it and some think it is a radical, Marxist plot to destroy America by turning race against race. Because he says so.

This is absurd.

For the past four decades, CRT was known as a law school study of the origins of systemic racism and the extent to which it is embedded in our laws and institutions. Its founder was Derrick Bell of Harvard Law School. He was a friend of mine. He was not a Marxist or a radical. He was a great American who wanted America to live up to its promises. Unlike Rufo, he didn’t believe in gag orders and bans. He believed in study, scholarship, debate and discussion.

Chris Rufo offers one solution to all the problems he sees: school choice.

To him, the public school is the most dangerous of all institutions, because it teaches equality, justice, and critical thinking. It teaches students to respect others. It teaches them to abhor racism and other forms of bigotry. It teaches students about American history without censoring the unpleasant and horrifying parts. The laws passed to ban CRT and to gag teachers have one purpose: Teach lies, not honest history.

Here is what I suggest.

Fight censorship.

Fight privatization of our public assets.

Read without fear.

Read “The 1619 Project,” which will open your minds. Read critiques of “The 1619 Project” by reputable scholars, not by rightwing ideologues.

Think about it. Discuss and debate the issues.

Say gay.

Stand up to the craven politicians who attack your freedoms.

Vote against them when you have the chance.

Fearlessly defend the freedom to read, the freedom to teach, and the freedom to learn.

Work towards the day when we treat each other with respect.

Wake up.

Parents have pressed the New York Legislature for years to mandate smaller class sizes. They are close to achieving their goal.

State lawmakers have struck an agreement on bills that would extend mayoral control of the New York City school system for two years and mandate reductions in public school class size.

State Sen. John Liu of Queens, who chairs his chamber’s New York City education committee, and Assembly Education Chair Michael Benedetto confirmed the deal Tuesday morning.

“As you can imagine, there were many parties to the negotiation,” Liu said in an interview with Gothamist. “At the end of the day – or I should say at the end of the night – the Senate and Assembly concurred with this pair of bills.”

Legislative leaders reached the agreement late Monday, introducing a pair of bills that will be ready for a vote Thursday – the last day of the Legislature’s annual session in Albany. The two-year timeframe is less than what Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul were lobbying for and is designed to give parents more control over school governance

Class Size

If passed, the class size bill could dramatically shrink classes, a move many parents and educators say is the key to improving public school students’ academic and social growth.

The new bill would cap kindergarten through third grade classes at 20 students; fourth through eighth grade classes at 23 students; and high school classes at 25 students.

That’s compared to current caps for kindergarten at 25 students; first through sixth grade at 32 students; middle school classes at 30 (for Title I schools) or 33 students (for non-Title I schools); and high school classes at 34 students.

The reduction would be phased in starting this fall, and would have to be complete by 2027. If the city does not comply, money will be withheld.

“If enacted I think it will be a sea change for New York City students and their ability to learn,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. “These are really, really big class size changes, but they’re within our grasp.”

Haimson has been advocating for Class size reduction for many years. She has led countless rallies and organized parent actions. This act is a tribute to the power of parents.

The same bill will renew mayoral control for two years. Mayor Eric Adams had hoped for more. After two decades off mayoral control, it has lost its luster.

At the Network for Public Education conference in Philadelphia on May 1, I moderated a panel to discuss attacks on public schools and the groups behind those attacks. Peter Greene identified a long list of groups that claim to be protecting “parents rights.” Peter described groups such as “Moms for America,” “Moms for Liberty,” “For Kids and Country,” “Parents Defending Education,” and the “National Parents Union,” which seem to be led by women with close ties to Trumpism and funded by the usual rightwing crowd. They asserted ”parent rights” to oppose teaching about race and sex. They insisted that parents have the right to control their children.

They say they are fighting for parental rights, yet they have said nothing about the legislation in several states that sever the rights of the parents of transgender youth.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a conservative Republican, vetoed a bill in his state that eliminates parental rights to seek medical care for their transgender children. The legislature overrode his veto.

“The Republican Party that I grew up with believed in a restrained government that did not jump in the middle of every issue.”

He said transgender health care of young people should be limited to the patient, parents and physicians. “And we ought to yield to that decision making unless there’s a compelling state reason.”

In an attempt to provide context for the trend by Republicans in passing anti-transgender legislation across the country, Hutchinson said there is an overwhelming sense among party members that “there’s undue influence” on young people to reconsider their gender.

But he said, “This was one step way too far and I couldn’t abide by it.”

The “parent rights” groups are silent. They have nothing to say to states that take away the rights of parents of transgender children.

Medical decisions involving children should be made by parents and doctors, not politicians.

Medical decisions affecting adult women should be made by them and their doctors, not by politicians.

Medical decisions affecting adult men should be made by them and their doctors, not politicians.

Peter Greene discovered an email blast from the radical rightwing group that calls itself “Moms for Liberty.” The “Moms” are outraged by a letter supposedly written by a teacher in Florida who promised to follow the letter of the “Don’t Say Gay” law and eliminate all references to gender identity from his/her/their classroom.

The teacher noted that the new law bans all references to gender identity or sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.

To be in full compliance with the law, the teacher wrote, he/she/they will make the classroom gender-free.

Furthermore, I will be removing all books or instruction which refer to a person being a “mother” “father” “husband” or “wife” as these are gender identities that also may allude to sexual orientation. Needless to say, all books which refer to a character as “he” or “she” will also be removed from the classroom. If you have any
concerns about this policy, please feel free to contact your local congressperson.

To be in accordance with this policy, I will no longer be referring to your student with gendered pronouns. All students will be referred to as “they” or “them.” I will no longer use a gendered title such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or make any references to my husband/wife in the classroom. From now on I will be using the non-gendered title “Mx.”

In an earlier post, Greene had predicted that the first victim of the new law would be gendered bathrooms. If it is illegal to discuss gender identity, then schools should remove all references to gender.

Dana Goldstein, writing in the New York Times, suggested that the law would lead to the removal of any books that refer to gay men or women, in literature or history.

The language is vague and subject to interpretation. The preamble of the bill further muddles matters. It prohibits not only “instruction” around gender identity and sexual orientation, but also “classroom discussion” of these topics.

“Classroom instruction” could mean eliminating books in the classroom with L.G.B.T.Q. characters or historical figures. No “classroom discussion” is a broad phrase, and could mean that teachers with a student with gay parents should not talk about those families with the entire class.

And while the language of the bill highlights the youngest students, all grades are affected by the provision requiring gender and sexuality to be discussed in ways that are “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Again, those terms are highly subjective. Parents, school staff and students are likely to clash over what this means.

Peter Greene reports here on the battle plans of the radical rightwing “Moms for Liberty,” as revealed by its leader Tiffany Justice on the Steve Bannon show. In short, take over all the school boards, fire everybody, and replace then with conservatives who share the hateful views of Tiffany Justice.

Greene writes, and adds his comments:

BANNON: Are we going to start taking over the school boards?


JUSTICE: Absolutely. We’re going to take over the school boards, but that’s not enough. Once we replace the school boards, what we need to do is we need to have search firms, that are conservative search firms, that help us to find new educational leaders, because parents are going to get in there and they’re going to want to fire everyone. What else needs to happen? We need good school board training. We need lawyers to stand up in their communities and be advocates for parents and be advocates for school board members who are bucking the system. Right now, parents have no recourse within any public education district.

The “no recourse” talking point sits awkwardly next to a description of the recourse (democratic elections) that Justice (who was defeated when she ran for re-election to her own school board seat) plans to take, but sure. Parents will take over school boards, fire everybody, and hire The Right Sort to replace them. And while some training is needed for school board members, the main thing is to run, because

But what my message today is – get out and run for school board. It’s a part-time job. It’s not a full-time job. Anyone can do it. You do not need to have a background in education and we need more people.

Justice was on Bannon’s show War Room: Pandemic, because angling for political victories and advocacy spins is just like what folks are going on in Ukraine these days. She talked about the heroism of Ron DeSantis, and of course parental rights:

Parental rights are rights that every parent has, and the government does not give them to you, and they cannot take them away. Every parent has the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children, their medical care. That includes mental health, by the way, their education and their values, education, their morals, their religious and character training. All of these things lie within the responsibility of the parent. We, as parents, are happy to own those responsibilities within our rights.

It underlines the way in which the parental rights movement at its most extreme seems to have nothing at all to do with a children’s rights movement. I’m a parent, and I absolutely get the rights and responsibilities that parents have to protect and guide their children, but there’s a line past which it all starts to become creepy, as if you own this child and will engineer the tiny human to turn out to be exactly what you choose them to be, and much of the parental rights activist rhetoric lives close to that line. “I have total ownership and control of my child” is exactly how you get to the notion of “My child didn’t turn out exactly the way I demanded they turn out, so somebody else must have messed with their head.” Parental rights are a real thing, and parental responsibilities are a very real thing, but children are actual human beings and not lumps of clay to be crafted by other adult humans.

Justice and Bannon are sad that folks are lying about Florida’s bill, which is just a parental rights and anti-grooming bill and not– they interrupt themselves before they can say what it is. But Justice says she doesn’t see the big deal “We said no sexual orientation instruction or gender identity instruction in grades K through three” and many of her fans and Bannon think it should be K through twelve. Yes, why is everyone so upset that supporters of the bill equate teachers, LGBTQ persons, and pedophiles? (Also, implying that Disney only opposes the law because they are interested in sexualizing children.) As with all talk in support of the law, Justice and Bannon skip past the part where any parent can decide for themselves what constitutes “instruction” about sexual orientation or gender identity, so teachers now have to watch out for any lesson that could lead to Pat talking about having two Mommies at home. Though it would be entertaining if the first parent lawsuit under the bill is some parent arguing that boys and girls restrooms are a means of instructing about gender identity. Maybe fans of the law should just wait until we see how the court challenge turns out.

Justice throws around some numbers about public school failure, which serve mostly as a good example of why school board members and other people who want to talk about education policy should know something about it (she cites 29.8% of Kentucky third graders reading on grade level, but she appears to be talking about proficiency, which is above grade level). This, somehow, is related to talking about gender identity and sexual orientation in first grade.

Justice could be on the show because she was in DC to talk to some GOP House members. She can’t imagine why Dems don’t want to talk to her (I’m not sure, but one possible explanation that comes to mind is that she didn’t call their offices to make an appointment). Which brings us back to the point at the top– Moms For Liberty wants to talk about how to take over the states (because states rights are at the heart of all this stuff).

By now, we have observed that the Koch-Walton-DeVos oligarchs take every opportunity to undermine public confidence in public schools. Wherever there is an organized attack on public schools and their teachers, it’s a safe bet that there’s dark money from libertarian billionaires.

John Merrow wrote recently about the new “parents rights” groups that have led the fight against public schools. His post was condensed by the blog of the Network for Public Education. Read the full post here on John Merrow’s blog..

Opportunistic politicians are also attempting to limit classroom discussion of other controversial topics. In late February Florida’s House of Representatives passed a bill to ban “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. Governor DeSantis has indicated that he will sign the bill if the Senate passes it. [The legislature passed the bill and DeSantis will sign it.]

Of course, the GOP maintains that it’s doing this for parents “Speaking to legislators on the House floor, Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill, said the measure is about “empowering parents” and improving the quality of life for the state’s children.” Florida isn’t alone. According to the highly regarded publication Chalkbeat, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism.

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote recently, “Defenders of this push for censorship say they are simply working to protect the nation’s children from prejudice, psychological distress and inappropriate material. ‘To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another,’ said Tina Descovich, a leader of (a Florida chapter of) Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that seeks to enshrine ‘parental rights’ into law.”

Ms. Descovich, who lost her seat on a local school board in 2020, is a parent, but many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states.

Simply reviewing curricula and banning discussion aren’t enough for some. Legislators in Florida, Iowa, and Mississippi want cameras installed in classrooms so parents can watch what’s going on. “The Iowa bill, H.F. 2177, would require that cameras be placed in every public school classroom in the state, except for physical education and special education classes. The cameras would feed to livestreams that could be viewed on the internet by parents, guardians and others.” Educators who fail to keep the cameras operational would lose 5% of their salary, per infraction. The bill died in Committee, but its supporters haven’t given up.

The pandemic has created opportunities for opponents of public education. Twenty-two states created or enlarged school voucher programs in 2021, and more are in the offing. “School voucher proponents in statehouses across the country have spent much of the past year working to pass legislation that transfers critical public school funding to the private sector. Framing these debates around education “reform” and the inauthentic culture wars surrounding public schools, voucher proponents have been steadily working to undermine public education on the state level.” That’s from the publication of the National Education Association, which explains the loaded language.

But the NEA numbers are correct, as others have reported. ”Nearly half of all state legislatures last year increased funding for school choice programs in their state budgets or passed laws to expand or create new Education Savings Accounts or scholarship programs. They also notably expanded eligibility requirements to include home-schooling, charter schools and private schools. Four states created entirely new programs; three created new and expanded programs, and Ohio created the most improved programs of them all, according to the analysis. The majority, 14, either expanded or improved their existing school choice programs.”

While this isn’t the time or place to debate vouchers, let’s stipulate that money dedicated to vouchers would otherwise have gone to public schools.

COVID and the ensuing closure of most public schools frustrated many parents, some of whom felt that teachers cared more about their own health than their students’ learning. Teacher unions, a favorite whipping boy of the right, may have hurt their own cause by defending members who did not want to risk contracting COVID–but defending their members is what unions are supposed to do.

But what’s happening now has very little to do with education and far more to do with politics. Republicans feel that being ‘pro-parent’ is a winning position, even though barely 20% of households have school age children. I don’t think most Republican politicians really care whether parents dig deeply into curriculum. What they hope is that the other 80%–those without children–will be outraged at the idea of meddling teachers indoctrinating America’s children. Their goal is for the other 80% to go to the polls and vote Republican.

On January 27 at 7 p.m. (Central Time), Illinois Families for Public Schools and other groups will sponsor a Zoom meeting on the subject, “Confronting the Rise of School Board Disruptions.”

Throughout the country and in Illinois, we have seen the rise of well-funded disinformation campaigns targeting school boards and educators.

This event will cover: Who’s behind the disinformation campaign around masks/vaccines mandates, an erosion of LGBTQ+ rights and the way race is being taught in our schools? How can we band together to support our school boards and staff who are being threatened and to protect public education?

Hear from an excellent panel and connect with others around Illinois who are organizing in their communities to stand up for inclusion, safety, and teaching a full and accurate history in our schools that protects all students

Panelists include:
— Jennifer Berkshire, Co-Author “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door”
— State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Former VP Policy for Erikson Institute and ISBE board secretary and member
— Nathaniel Rouse, Director of Equity, Race, and Cultural Diversity Initiatives, Barrington 220
— Julie Harris, Educator of 31 years Tinley Park CCD146

Hosted by Indivisible Illinois, Illinois Families for Public Schools, Indivisible Illinois Social Justice Alliance and more.

Jan 27, 2022 07:00 PM in Central Time (US and Canada)

Open the link to register and get the Zoom link.


Retired professor of political science Maurice Cunningham recently read an article about Randi Weingarten that quoted Kelli Rodrigues as leader of the National Parents Union, and presumably a spokesperson for American parents. Cunningham decided to inform Michelle Goldberg, the author of the article in the New York Times, that Ms. Rodrigues is not exactly a representative parent leader.

He wrote:

Dear Ms. Goldberg,

I read your story on AFT president Randi Weingarten with interest, especially the portion about National Parents Union. I have been researching NPU and similar organizations for the past six years.

Thus it was good to see you accurately characterize NPU “as funded by the pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation” but there is even more about the story of its president, Keri Rodrigues, than she or NPU lets on. So far as I know she did work for SEIU as a communications coordinator from 2008-2014 but since then she has worked for a succession of Walton-funded anti-union fronts: as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) from Nov. 2014-2015, state director of Families for Excellent Schools Inc. in 2015-2016 (omitted from her Linkedin page), president of Massachusetts Parents United from Dec. 2016-present, president of Massachusetts Parents Action from May 2017-present, and president of NPU from March 2019-present. In a concept paper sent to the Walton Family Foundation in 2019, Ms. Rodrigues and her allies specifically cited as a reason for funding NPU that “The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

I first became aware of Ms. Rodrigues in 2016 when I was following the dark money awash in the 2016 charter schools ballot initiative in Massachusetts. She was working for the IRS 501(c)(3) Families for Excellent Schools Inc. and I was exposing the millions in dark money flowing through the IRS 501(c)(4) Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy into the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. After the 62-38% drubbing GSM received in that contest, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigated and ordered FESA to disclose its true donors, to shut down, and to pay the largest civil forfeiture in OCPF history. It also placed severe restrictions on the political activities of Families for Excellent Schools Inc., which was the largest donor to FES Advocacy.

One thing that interests me is what I like to call the “creation story” of privatization fronts. For instance in the Walton Family Foundation story you link to in your story, we see Ms. Rodrigues professes that “I started talking to other parents in my community at coffee shops and libraries and decided we were going to organize.” But the 2016 campaign ended in November, Ms. Rodrigues claims to have started Massachusetts Parents United a month later, and the Waltons poured in several hundred thousand dollars in 2017, mostly through Education Reform Now Inc. (the Walton-funded sister to DFER) as MPU secured its tax status. From 2018-2020, the Waltons put $1.85 million into MPU, with $450,000 of that apparently going to help start up NPU in 2020.

NPU has a similar “creation story”: two Latina moms start a National Parents Union. And then the Waltons jump in with hundreds of thousands of dollars, joined by foundations operating under the bequests of the Gates, Broads, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Schustermans, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, and the Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Waltons and Charles Koch. Immediately the two moms hired international communications firm Mercury LLC and top Republican and Walton pollster Echelon Insights. It seems a bit suspicious.

So, in 2020 I examined the “parent” organizations that NPU seemed to be claiming as its members on Twitter (NPU has declined to provide me a member list and has never provided a list of member organizations on its web site). I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I was able to place 64 organizations into categories and found that many were charter school chains or other privatization organizations. I found only four I could categorize as parent organizations, including MPU and one in Minnesota that had organized at the same time as NPU. I’m not aware of any publicly available evidence that NPU represents parents at all. It represents the Waltons and their billionaire co-investors.

As Ms. Rodrigues’s Linkedin profile indicates, she has a B.S. in communications and that has been her role in professional life, not union organizing. Her career with the Waltons has been lucrative. NPU’s Form 990 tax return for 2020 shows that her reportable compensation from NPU in 2020 was $135,769. Reportable compensation from related organizations was $208,207, and estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations was $34,322. The related organizations are the Walton-funded Massachusetts Parents United and Massachusetts Parents Action. Total compensation across all related organizations for Ms. Rodrigues in 2020 was $378,298. The Form 990 also disclosed that Ms. Rodrigues and COO Tim Langan are engaged. Mr. Langan’s total compensation across related organizations was $248,479 in 2020. Combined total compensation for the two was $626,777.

You were correct to write “Beyond the immediate well-being of families and teachers, the future of public education as we know it is at stake.” Privatizers like the Waltons and their partners are using the Covid crisis as an opportunity to attack and undermine public education. For obvious reasons they can’t become the public face of that activity, so they underwrite Ms. Rodrigues and NPU to masquerade as parent representatives.

Sincerely,

Maurice T. Cunningham

After Cunningham wrote to The Times to complain about the megaphone for a front group for the Waltons, the Hechinger Report published a puff piece about the NPU, mentioning the Waltons but disassociating NPR from the Walton’s anti-public school, anti-union, pro-charter views. The Waltons don’t fund groups that don’t share their ideology.