Archives for category: Parent Groups

Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times describes the assault on librarians by rightwing groups and parents who want to ban books. Across the country, but especially in red states, librarians are vilified as “the arm of Satan” by those who want to control what books are on the library shelves. If you want to read a concise summary of book-banning, read my book The Language Police, published by Knopf.

He writes:

In her time as a Texas school librarian, Carolyn Foote watched the image of her profession veer from “shrinking violets behind spectacles” cataloging titles to “pedophiles and groomers” out to pollute the minds of the nation’s youth.

“Librarians came from a climate of being so appreciated to hearing this message that we’re reviled,” said Foote, co-founder of Freadom Fighters, an advocacy group for librarians that has nearly 15,000 Twitter followers. “It was an astonishing turn of events.” A lot of librarians are asking themselves whether they want to remain in the profession, she added. “At least five people I know have retired early.”

Once a comforting presence at story circle and book fairs, librarians have been condemned, bullied and drawn into battles over censorship as school and library boards face intensifying pressure from conservatives seeking to ban books exploring racial and LGBTQ themes. Those voices have grown stronger in red states since the pandemic, when parental groups opposed to mask mandates expanded their sights and became more involved in how and what their children were taught.

Recent polls suggest most Americans are not in favor of banning books. But concentrated pressure by politically connected parental groups, said Peter Bromberg, a board member at EveryLibrary, a nonprofit library advisory group, “has librarians facing a great deal of stress. There are signs on people’s lawns calling librarians pedophiles.” They face pressure from principals and administrators over book displays, and “neighbors talk about them being an arm of Satan.”

Books are displayed at the Patmos Library

The Patmos Library in Jamestown, Mich., which lost public funding after a campaign by conservatives, forcing it to rely on donations.

(Joshua Lott / Washington Post via Getty Images)

Some librarians are fighting back; others have lost or left their jobs. The culture wars over books come at a time when about 27% of public libraries have reduced staff because of budget cuts and other reasons, according to a 2021 national survey. Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozado, president of the American Library Assn., said librarians’ problems are compounded by attacks that are part of an effort “seeking to abolish diverse ideas and erode this country of freedom of expression. I see it as the dismantling of education.”

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A number of school board meetings in recent years have become explosive and emblematic of the country’s political animosities. Parents yell, boo, shake fists and hold up sexually graphic images in dramas that play out on social media. Similar scenes have erupted at public libraries, including at the Patmos Library in western Michigan, where at least two librarians have quit amid pressure and harassment from residents demanding the removal of LGBTQ books and young adult graphic novels.

(Joshua Lott / Washington Post via Getty Images)

At the library’s December board meeting, librarian Jean Reicher denounced critics a week after the building closed early over fears for the staff’s safety. She said that signs around town labeled her a pedophile and that she’d received abusive phone calls and had iPhones pointed at her. Her emotional retort came a month after a campaign led by conservatives succeeded in defunding the library, forcing it to rely on donations.

“We have been threatened. We have been cursed,” said Reicher. “How dare you people. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You have said I’ve sexualized your children. I’m grooming your children.”

She raised her hands. Her anger welled.

“I have six grandkids out there,” she said, ticking off the offenses aimed at her. “I moved to this town 2½ years ago, and I regret it every day for the last year. This has been horrible,” she continued. “I wasn’t raised this way. I believe in God. I’m a Catholic. I’m a Christian. I’m everything you are.”

School and library boards are encountering demands from conservative lawmakers and parental groups, such as Moms for Liberty and Mama Bears Rising, and in a few instances the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys, to scour libraries of what they consider upsetting pornographic and LGBTQ depictions. Many conservatives criticize schools as overrun with progressive ideas that are confusing children about race and gender.

“By exposing our children to adult concepts such as gender identity we are asking them to carry a load that is much too heavy for them,” Kit Hart, a Moms for Liberty member, said in a video posted last year from a school board meeting in Carroll County, Md. “A 10-year-old should not be reduced to his sexuality.”

A video posted on the Moms for Liberty website shows another one of its members outlining her concerns at a public meeting in Mecklenburg, N.C.: “Parents beware of terms like social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion. Those inherently good things are being used to disguise a biased political agenda,” she said. “Our schools are becoming indoctrination camps and a breeding ground for hatred and division.”

Florida and other states have placed tougher restrictions on books that schools can stock. A Missouri law passed last year makes it a crime for a school to provide sexually explicit material to a student. After a discrimination complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a Texas school district after a superintendent directed librarians to remove LGBTQ-related books.

“We have been thrown to the forefront of the cultural wars whether we want to be there or not,” said Amanda Jones, a middle school librarian in Livingston Parish, La., who last year broke out in hives and fell into depression after she was threatened for speaking against censorship. “It’s not fun to be vilified in your small town or the country at large. It’s all related to their using political fear and outrage. And they’re using children to do it.”

Jones was skewered by conservative activists, including Citizens for a New Louisiana, after she warned at a library meeting that “hate and fear disguised as moral outrage have no place in Livingston Parish.” A picture of her appeared online with a red circle around her head — resembling a target — and she was called a pig and a supporter of teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds. Someone suggested she should be slapped.

Martha Hickson, a high school librarian in Annandale, N.J., endured similar stress and said she lost 12 pounds in one week after she was accused by a parent at a school board meeting of being a groomer by providing graphic novels and memoirs, such as “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, that could influence children toward “heinous acts.”

“What really stung was that my name was used in that context,” said Hickson, 63,who in 2020 received the American Assn. of School Librarians’ Intellectual Freedom Award. “It was devastating. I broke down and I couldn’t stop crying.” She couldn’t catch her breath, she said, and “couldn’t speak in full sentences. I cracked two teeth from grinding and was fitted with a night guard. I go to the pool now and swim three times a week. It washes the stress away.”

Jessica Brassington, head of the Texas-based Mama Bears Rising, which advocates for increased parental oversight in education, said her intent is not to rebuke librarians or teachers but to get stricter state guidelines on selecting school books in what she sees as a broader war against her Christian faith.

“We want to protect our children. We’ve seen the dark side of what can happen beyond the book. Suicide. Alienation,” said Brassington, whose organization has pressed for the removal of books in school districts and warned against children being indoctrinated by an “evil” sexual agenda. “We want to know what books are available to our children. … The parents are being bypassed.”

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Calls to ban certain books in schools have arisen for generations among liberal and conservative parents, educators and activist groups. Classics such as Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” have been pulled from reading lists. Books deemed to be obscene such as “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Tropic of Cancer” were censored for decades. In the 1980s, well-funded and organized groups like the Christian right Moral Majority condemned books on secular humanism.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed laws to restrict school instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

(Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Those battles echo today and have accelerated as religious conservatives and right-leaning politicians, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have backed bills to limit school instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. Of the 1,648 titles banned in schools across the country in the 2021-22 school year, according to a PEN America study, 41% had prominent LGBTQ characters or explicitly explored LGBTQ themes.

“It’s hard to compare this to anything other than the Red Scare in the 1950s,” said Foote, a retired high school librarian of 29 years who was named a Champion of Change by President Obama. “There’s nothing else remotely close to this.”

Open the link and read the rest of the article. It might be behind a paywall. I subscribe to the Los Angeles Times. It’s a terrific newspaper.

Darcie Cimarusti served on the school board of Highland Park, New Jersey, from 2013 to 2022. She is the communications director of the Network for Public Education. This article appeared in the Bedford Gazette.

She writes:

I have been a local school board member since my daughters, now 11th-graders, were in second-grade. In that time, I have been involved in education policy discussions at the local, state and national levels on issues related to the rights of LGBTQ+ students, standardized testing and the privatization of public education. The rise of the so-called “parental rights” movement in public education has been one of the thorniest, most perplexing issues I have encountered.

There is no doubt that parents play a crucial role in the education of their children. Who would dare argue that they don’t? But in the face of the anti-critical race theory, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-social emotional learning, anti-diversity equity and inclusion juggernaut unleashed by heavily funded, right-leaning astroturf parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, it has become imperative that we have an honest discussion about how much say parents should have in what is (or is not) taught in our public schools.

My district, unlike many, is racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, with 31 languages spoken in the homes of our students. Educating such a diverse student body presents many challenges and requires a nuanced approach to policy and practice that ensures all students have equal opportunities to learn, thrive and grow. While it is easy for school leaders to say they embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s far too challenging to implement policies promoting those principles.

I have spent my time on the school board helping to develop systems that ensure decisions are made collaboratively and with as many voices at the decision-making table as possible. This means making space not only for administrators, teachers, parents and students but also ensuring that historically marginalized groups are represented.

Decisions that affect students should never be based on the whims of those with the most privilege or power and indeed not on who has the loudest voice in the room.

However, the latter has become the hallmark of parental rights activists. They attend meeting after meeting, berating, shouting down and even making death threats against school board members. During the pandemic, battles over masks erupted at podiums at far too many school board meetings across the country and quickly morphed into demands to ban books, censor curriculum and muzzle “woke” teachers that parents accused of “grooming” their children.

In the 2022 midterm elections, parental rights activists were on the ballot in numerous states. With the support and endorsement of Moms for Liberty, they ran campaigns to become school board members in districts in red, blue and purple states. Moms for Liberty operates county chapters that aim to serve as watchdogs “over all 13,000 school districts.” Chapters empower parents to “defend their parental rights” and “identify, recruit & train liberty-minded parents to run for school boards.”

The “anti-woke” agenda espoused by Moms for Liberty endorsed school board candidates who had the greatest successes in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis proudly declared the state being “where woke goes to die.” But in many other parts of the country, parental rights candidates lost their elections, with even conservative political operatives acknowledging that many of their campaigns were “too hyperbolic.”

Chaos has already erupted in several districts where they succeeded and won board majorities, with newly formed, inexperienced boards firing superintendents or forcing them to resign. One board voted to ban the teaching of critical race theory just hours after being sworn in.

After a decade of experience as a school board member, there’s one thing I can say for sure: The majority of parents, teachers and community members do not respond well to instability and disruption in their local public schools. When school boards run amok and rash decisions make headlines, communities work quickly to restore calm. If parental rights school board majorities continue to govern recklessly, they will undoubtedly face a backlash from voters.

Creating and implementing sound school policies and practices that respect and affirm all students requires collaboration. It does not allow for the divisive, polarizing rhetoric and impetuous, rash decision-making that have become the calling cards of the so-called parental rights movement.

Peter Greene was a teacher in Pennsylvania for 39 years. In this post, he covers Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s empty proposal for “parental rights.”

Greene writes:

Last week Doug Mastriano held a campaign event masquerading as a hearing for a parental rights bill so empty and vague that its only possible use could be as a campaign prop.

Mastriano signaled a whole year ago that he was going to wade into the whole “parental rights” thing with his own version of a “legislate the gay away” bill. Soon thereafter, he proposed SB 996, which was turned over to the State Government committee on January 4, 2022.

And yet, the time to hold a hearing on the bill is just before time to vote for Mastriano or his opponent for Pennsylvania’s governor’s seat.

The bill itself is a brief nothingburger. The Parental Rights Protection Act is 41 lines long. 6 lines give its name. 16 lines define the terms “commonwealth agency” and “non-commonwealth agency.” Section 3 in its entirety says:

I

(b) Infringement.–Neither a Commonwealth agency nor a non-Commonwealth agency may infringe upon the right under subsection (a) without demonstrating that the law or ordinance is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means.

In 8 lines, we get the applicability of the law, and two lines to tell us that the law would take effect in 60 days.

The Mastriano campaign has maintained its unwillingness to speak to the press, and so has offered no clarification of the bill’s intent or function. But the parade of witnesses at the hearing brought the usual list of grievances–mask mandates, trans student using rest rooms, “pornographic” books in the school library, and “pronoun games.” The bill, absent any specifics, allows all of these folks to imagine that it would provide them some relief, without including any language that opponents could point to as objectionable….

More specific parental rights legislation has been proposed in Pennsylvania, such as HB 2813, which follows more closely the national template of other Don’t Say Gay bills forbidding discussion of “gender orientation and sexual identity.”

What would the bill actually do? Nobody really knows. Does this mean I can get satisfaction when my kid’s teacher shows a Disney movie when I don’t allow them in my home? Or when my kid has to use Chromebook and we are an Apple household? Will I be able to do something if the teacher mentions Jesus or God and we don’t do religion at our house? What would qualify as an infringement, and what could a parent who felt the law had been broken do? Call the police? File a lawsuit? Should they report the agency to the proper part of the state government–and if so, which department would that be? What penalty would be imposed?

I wonder if there are limits to parental rights? May they beat their children? May they chain them to their beds? May they force them to live in unsanitary conditions??

Maurice Cunningham is the nation’s leading expert on “Dark Money” in education. This is money given to organizations and candidates by anonymous donors. When the donors are occasionally revealed, they are typically billionaires who want to destroy public schools and teachers’ unions.

He recently wrote this post, which I excerpt here, about the “management chaos” at the so-called National Parents Union. As he points out, the two leaders of NPU are a married couple.

He writes:

That must have been some “convening” National Parents Union held in September because by October two of NPU’s five board members had disappeared, as had four of the nine individuals on their September 17 “Our Leadership” page and all—ALL—of NPU’s “delegates.” NPU disappears more people than the entire run of The Sopranos. NPU,—not national, not about parents, not a union—is routinely mismanaged, but it seems to be in more chaos than usual.

Board of Directors

Let’s start with the board of directors, a spin-the-bottle operation if there ever was one. Here are the board members identified on the NPU website on September 17 and October 12, 2022:Sept 17, 2022 Board of DirectorsOct 12, 2022 boardPeter CunninghamPeter CunninghamArthur SorianoVincent SlaughterVincent SlaughterMaria Del Carmen Parro CanoDr. Paul BloombergDr. Paul BloombergAnashay Wright

It’s worse than it looks. Ms. Wright was added as a board member on July 28, 2022 along with Shirley Irizarry, On October 3, after two months on the board, Ms. Irizarry was apparently dropped from the board and hired for a staff position as National Organizing Director West Region (according to a Twitter post; she is not on the October 12 website). Mr. Soriano, Mr. Slaughter, Ms. Del Carmen Parro Cano, Dr. Paul Bloomberg, and Vivett Dukes were all added to the board on July 28, 2021. Now Mr. Soriano, Ms. Del Carmen Parro Cano, and Vivett Dukes are all gone. That’s peculiar since Mr. Soriano is supposed to act as president until 2026.

There were three original board members. Mr. Cunningham, Bibb Hubbard (connected to the Gates Foundation), Gerard Robinson (a possible proxy for Charles Koch), and Dan Weisberg. Except for Mr. Cunningham they’re all gone, most within a year of NPU’s launch.

Then there’s the fact that NPU has two boards of directors, the one on the website for public consumption and the one on file with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Corporations Division, where NPU is incorporated. Currently NPU lists a board with the Secretary that consists of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Soriano, Mr. Slaughter, Ms. Del Carmen Parro Cano, Dr. Paul Bloomberg—and Keri Rodrigues and Tim Langan, also identified with the Secretary as president and treasurer, respectively. So far as is known neither Ms. Rodrigues nor Mr. Langan have ever appeared on the website as directors. On the original corporate filings the board was listed as Ms. Rodrigues, Mr. Langan, and Alma Marquez. Ms. Marquez was also on the website as a co-founder and elected treasurer but NPU listed Jennifer Rego as treasurer with the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ms. Rego disappeared. Ms. Marquez disappeared and Mr. Langan is treasurer. Mr. Langan and Ms. Rodrigues are married. Their compensation from NPU when combined with another Walton family operation named Massachusetts Parents United was $626,777 in 2020 which appears to be wildly out of line with industry standards. But when you’ve replaced the treasurer with . . .

Nancy Flanagan taught music for many years in Michigan. She draws on her deep experience in this post to set the record straight about what parents really want from their schools.

Extremist groups funded by rightwing autocrats claim to speak for parents, but they use their platform to spread propaganda and lies. They say they speak for “parental rights,” but they spread fear, distrust and lies.

John Gibbs, the Republican candidate for Congress in western Michigan, said that:

Folks, did you ever think that one day in America, we’d have to worry about schools putting obscene books in their libraries? This is simply insane–we must stop the madness. Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries.

Flanagan answers Gibbs:

Well—folks. I’m not worried about obscene or sexually explicit books in public school libraries. Because there is no madness, no insanity, no pornography in school libraries.

Teachers and school leaders also overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in school libraries. The word we use is ‘inappropriate’—materials are selected by trained school media specialists, who know inappropriate when they see it.

The entire slate of MI Republicans running for statewide or national office, not just Gibbs, is hell-bent on insisting that schools have become (in the past two years) hotbeds of sexual orientation and gender identity transformation, not to mention racial tension and guilt-inducement. They are led in this effort by the Republican candidate for Governor, Tudor Dixon.

Gibbs goes on to say, on behalf of Republican candidate for Governor in Michigan, Tudor Dixon:

What Tudor wants to accomplish is very simple and common sense. She wants to get radical sex and gender theory out of our schools, remove classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3, make sure gender specific sports remain gender specific given biological differences in boys vs. girls and post all curriculum online for parents to see and be involved in their child’s education. Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it.

Flanagan answers:

So let’s break this down.

Radical sex and gender theory? (Not a part of the curriculum in any school I’ve been in.)

Classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for the littles? (Likewise—nope, nope.)

Gender specific sports? (The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. The group received and approved 10 applications in the past five years—so this is hardly a burning statewide issue.)

Post all curriculum online? (Sure. Most districts post their standards framework—what gets taught, when– and public high schools in Michigan have adapted the Michigan Merit Curriculum.)

Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it. (Right out of the Glenn Youngkin playbook, a statement like this, which is mostly true, really resonates.)

But here’s the truth (from 32 years of classroom experience): What bubbles up in classroom discussions and playgrounds is what’s on the minds of the kids in that classroom. This starts early, in Tudor Dixon’s forbidden zone, grades K-3—like this story about the boy who chose a ‘Frozen’ backpack.

Kids are curious and they’re paying attention to what their parents and their screens (and their friends, and their older siblings) are telling them. I taught music and math, two subjects you’d think were pretty straightforward and controversy-free, but can testify that anytime you get a cluster of kids together, provocative issues emerge.

Please open the link and read the rest of this common sense, informed commentary. Parents are not fooled by this fear mingering. They know their children’s teachers, and they trust them.

Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, is a specialist on the subject of Dark Money. That’s money given to a group or campaign where the donor’s name is hidden. His most recent book is Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

Cunningham was instrumental in the defeat of a referendum in Massachusetts in 2016 to expand the number of charter schools. Early polling showed it would pass easily. But Cunningham dug into the funders and discovered that the proposition was funded by billionaires, including the Waltons and Bloomberg. He learned of an astroturf parent group called the National Parents Union, funded by the Waltons to promote charters and pretend there was a huge parent demand for them. The proposition was overwhelmingly defeated.

Imagine his surprise when he learned recently that the U.S. Department of Education was creating a Nation Parents & Families Council, and the National Parents Union was a member. He wrote to Secretary Miguel Cardona to express his concern that NPU was a Walton-funded astroturf group whose goal was to discredit public schools and promote charter schools.

He received a boilerplate response from the U.S. Department of Education’s communications office, dismissing his concerns.

Maurice T. Cunningham Maurice.Cunningham153@gmail.com


Dear Mr. Cunningham,
August 1, 2022


Thank you for your email to Secretary Miguel Cardona regarding National Parents Union (NPU) representation on the Department of Education’s (the Department) National Parents & Families Engagement Council (the Council). Your letter has been forwarded to the Office of Communications and Outreach and I am pleased to respond.
The Department acknowledges your concern and appreciates the in-depth information shared from your research regarding NPU. The Council is an opportunity for the Department to listen, learn and engage families and caregivers and will be a channel for parents and families to constructively participate in their children’s education. The goal of the Council is to be reflective of the diversity of the country and our public schools and the Department is open and accepting of all parent voices.
Again, thank you for your concern regarding organizations participating on the Council. Please know that the Department’s commitment to all parents, and their crucial role in their children’s education, is unwavering. The Secretary and staff here at the Department will continue to not just listen to parents but seek out their counsel and feedback because a school community works best when parents and educators are working together.
Sincerely,
/S/
Kelly Leon
Press Secretary, Office of Communications and Outreach, Delegated the Authority to Perform the
Functions and Duties of the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Communications and Outreach

Undeterred, Cunningham wrote another letter, going into greater detail.

MAURICE T. CUNNINGHAM, PhD, JD

August 16, 2022

The Honorable Miguel Cardona

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

Ms. Kelly Leon, Press Secretary, Office of Communications and Outreach

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

Dear Secretary Cardona and Ms. Leon:

I am in receipt of Ms. Leon’s August 1, 2022 reply to my letter to Secretary Cardona of June 28, 2022 in which I detail some of my research showing that National Parents Union does not belong on the Department of Education’s National Parents and Families Engagement Council. Ms. Leon’s response, which simply recites boilerplate about the council seeking to solicit the views of parent, is disappointing and inadequate. National Parents Union is not a parents’ organization at all. That’s the point.

I would have thought that an organization like NPU that was founded in 2020 and almost immediately received $700,000 in funding from the Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Charles Koch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, might elicit DOE’s curiosity as to NPU’s authenticity. The WFF and individual Walton family members have been involved in school privatization efforts for years. WalMart, the company inherited by the family, is one of the most virulently anti-labor corporations in the world. As the labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes, WFF is “the single largest source of funding for the ‘school choice’ movement and a powerful advocate of charter schools and voucher initiatives.” The Waltons’ support for privatization is an entirely ideological project, based on a desire to enhance the social and cultural value of a free market in which government is weak while public goods like . . . education . . . are the fodder for entrepreneurial transformation. . . . Since public schools are by far the most pervasive of public institutions, and highly unionized to boot, this “$700-plus-billion-a-year industry”—John Walton’s phrase—has been a good place to start.

Charles Koch came to K-12 privatization only in recent years, announcing his intentions in a 2018 Koch Seminar in which another Koch network member ($100,000 required simply to attend) called K-12 privatization “low-hanging fruit.” As reported by the Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “Making a long-term play, the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his like-minded friends on the right are increasingly focused on melding the minds of the next generation by making massive, targeted investments in both K-12 and higher education.” The Koch network “dreamed . . . of breaking the teachers unions.” Charles Koch, skeptical for years about impacting K-12, had a Koch Industries vice-president named Meredith Olson investigate, and her strategic scheme spurred him on.

Meredith Olson is also important because by June 2019 Koch and WFF (both members of Stand Together) were announcing matching $5 million investments in a joint venture named “4.0”to “transform America’s education system” in their corporate image. Ms. Olson was K-12 Initiative Vice President at Stand Together. More importantly for considering the legitimacy of NPU, Ms. Olson is CEO and a board member of Vela Education Foundation. As her LinkedIn page shows, Ms. Olson is an oil and gas executive. She has no background in or understanding of education. She would have been responsible for the $700,000grant Vela made in August 2020 to NPU—an eight month old organization with no track record in grants administration.

Charles Koch’s “interest” in education was discussed on the podcast “Have You Heard” by Christopher Leonard, author of the best-selling Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America. Leonard described Charles Koch, like the Waltons, as an ideological libertarian. Leonard confirmed Koch’s intense anti-unionism and continued: “when you have public education … one of the biggest problems for the libertarians is that it’s funded through taxes. . . they see taxation truly as a form of of (sic) theft and robbery.” An extensive remark by Leonard is worth your careful consideration:

Know what the blueprint is. The Koch influence machine is multifaceted and complex and I am just telling you in a very honest way, there’s a huge difference between the marketing materials produced by Americans for Prosperity (Koch’s political organization, a parallel to NPU) and the behind the scenes actual politicalphilosophy. There’s a huge difference. And here’s the actual political philosophy. Government is bad. Public education must be destroyed for the good of all American citizens in this view.

So the ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system, which the operatives in this group believe in a sincere way is better for everybody. Now, whether you agree with that or not as the big question, but we cannot have any doubt, there’s going to be a lot of glossy marketing materials about opportunity, innovation, efficiency. At its core though the the (sic) network seeks to dismantle the public education system because they see it as destructive. So that is what’s the actual aim of this group. And don’t let them tell you anything different.

One person who is not fooled by the Koch network’s PR machine is Charles Siler and that is because he was once part of it as a lobbyist and communications expert for the Goldwater Institute and Foundation for Government Accountability. Siler describes his former bosses: “Their ideal is a world with as minimal public infrastructure and investment as possible. They want the weakest and leanest government possible in order to protect the interests of a few wealthy individuals and families . . .” Siler describes one public relations technique as the “human shield.” Privatizers front a vulnerable and politically sympathetic population to protect them from progressive criticisms. They also understand that public schools are enormously popular. Thus, their proxies employ a steady drumbeat of messaging about “failing schools.” The goals are the same: destroy unions, strangle public schools, and privatizeeducation.

National Parents Union is a vehicle for the plans of the Waltons and Charles Koch. It presents as representing parents of color in search of a better life for their children, right out of the playbook Siler describes. The NPU team is drawn from alumni of the failed Families for Excellent Schools/Great Schools Massachusetts operations in New York and Massachusetts and as I explain in Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization FES was in reality the surrogate for Boston hedge funders and yes, the Waltons. NPU has used the Vela money to fund homeschooling pods that weaken public schools. At nearly every media opportunity, NPU spokespersons parrot the “failing schools” script.

Is there any conceivable reason to believe that National Parents Union is the blessed exception to the Waltons’ and Charles Koch’s laser-like focus on destroying public education? As Siler and Leonard teach us, DOE must ignore the elaborate marketing blitz that NPU can deploy and recognize NPU for what it is: an agent of wealthy libertarians with a wildly different and unpopular prescription for what is good for parents and children.

I understand that the council is on hold pending litigation brought by among others Parents Defending Education. As I explained in my letter of June 28, PDE is also a franchise in Charles Koch’s attack on public education. It is in alliance with Moms for Liberty, created by the right wing directorate Council for National Policy; and with Fight for Schools and Families, also a plaintiff in the litigation and headed by a former Trump administration and Republican Party communications executive. Should PDE prevail in its lawsuit and gain a seat on the council that would give Koch two seats on it. Even Betsy DeVos would blush.

The Department of Education should rescind its offer to National Parents Union to join the National Parents and Families Engagement Council.

Respectfully submitted,

Maurice T. Cunningham

Associate Professor (retired)

Department of Political Science

University of Massachusetts at Boston

cc: The Honorable Martin J. Walsh

Secretary of Labor

You can see the writing on the wall. All the astroturf parent groups will demand a place at the table. They fought masking, they fought vaccines, now they fight teaching about racism and gender, and they demand gag orders and book banning.

Will Secretary Cardona invite them to join his Council?

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.