Ed Dept. Launches ‘Unprecedented’ Parent Council

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Recognizing a growing movement for parent rights in education, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday announced the creation of a new “Parents and Families Engagement Council.”

The council will include representatives from 14 organizations that advocate for giving parents a voice in their children’s education — including families involved in charters, homeschooling and private schools.

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In preparation for the 2022-23 school year, the council’s “listening sessions” are slated to explore what schools can do to help students recover from the pandemic, according to the department’s announcement. The meetings will emphasize finding “constructive ways to help families engage at the local level.”

“Would I have liked to see it happen a year ago? Of course,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, one of the groups involved. She began advocating for such an initiative during the Trump administration, but added, “It’s the first time where we’re really getting … a group of folks representing parents and families at the table. It’s unprecedented.”

Other participating groups include the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which supports families who have children with disabilities; Mocha Moms, a network of Black moms’ groups; and the National PTA.

In public comments, Cardona, the father of two teenagers, frequently notes that he’s a “parent first” and has made “roundtable” discussions with parents part of his visits to schools across the country. But his department has also faced criticism from parent leaders who say he’s been more vocal about the pandemic’s strain on educators than on parents who had to endure months of remote learning and are still asking for tutoring to help their children catch up. Meanwhile, parents have gained new political power. Those who felt overlooked by unions and Democratic leaders who were slow to reopen schools helped tilt the 2021 Virginia governor’s race in favor of Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Rodrigues said she pushed for bringing the “boldest, baddest and most beautiful parent organizers in the game” to council gatherings. Ashara Baker, a Rochester, New York, charter school advocate, and Lakisha Young, CEO of The Oakland Reach — which opened remote learning hubs and trains parents to be literacy tutors — are expected to participate in the council’s first gathering in July.

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The next step, Rodrigues said, is for the department to formally define “parent and family engagement” so it can hold districts accountable.

“Right now, family engagement can kind of mean whatever you want it to be,” she said. “It can be, ‘We showed you a PowerPoint. We sent you an email. We sent a flyer home in a backpack.’ That’s not good enough to get big-time federal money.”

Bibb Hubbard, president of Learning Heroes, which helps parents understand their children’s academic progress, said the American Rescue Plan’s requirement that districts include parent perspectives in planning how to spend relief funds was a significant development.

“I have seen this team step up and sincerely make an effort to figure out how to be representative of all parents as they look at their policies and guidance,” she said, adding that Cardona has joined the organization’s parent town hall for the past two years.

Related: From Mask Mandates to Omicron, Ed Secretary Cardona Finishes a ‘Very, Very Difficult’ First Year

But she added that she hopes the department “gives the council some specific authority to shape policy” and includes parents “traditionally not listened to.”

Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of CA Parent Power, said that should include parents in California, “where schools were closed the longest.” State-level committees, she said, haven’t been as inclusive. A task force on enrollment loss, announced in April, doesn’t include parent representatives.

Related: The 74 Interview: After Two Years of Pandemic Schooling, Nashville Parent Advocate Sonya Thomas Asks, ‘What Has Changed?’

Like Rodrigues, Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville Propel, a local advocacy group — and part of the Powerful Parent Movement — told President Joe Biden while he was still campaigning not to ignore parent perspectives.

“Do they have the real-life stories of parents who are from struggling communities?” she asked about the new council. “I want to see real partnership. It’s really taking our feedback and using it, and not being defensive with it.”