From bake sales to ballot boxes: How the pandemic intensified parent activism
PTAs and PTOs are declining as a new generation of activist parents are emerging across the U.S., new report says
Given “emerging parent power” in the nation’s public schools, school districts would be wise to embrace such convictions, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s public policy think tank FutureEd.
“Prioritizing more meaningful parental engagement stands to increase parents’ trust, reduce rancor and provide local education leaders with valuable new insight into student needs, especially from low-income parents and parents of color who have long been relegated to public education’s periphery,” the report states.
The report, titled “Leaning In, The New Power of Parents in Public Education,” notes the rise of a new generation of activist parent organizations in public education, some of them groups that represent underrepresented families and communities. Others represent conservatives “who see education as a means to push back against what they view as damaging cultural shifts.”
According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified this new wave of parent activism as their kitchen tables were turned into classrooms, stoking parental frustrations with school closures and online learning.
“It has spawned new conservative parent organizations opposed to mask mandates, vaccines, and district attempts to confront issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools — agendas that at times put them in direct opposition to parents pursuing educational equity, and agendas that have turned more than a few school board meetings into civic punch-ups,” the report’s forward states.
The report also examines new parent organizations’ role in lobbying state lawmakers to support parents’ legislation, some of them drafting legislative language.
Organizations spurred GOP lawmakers in more than two dozen states to introduce legislation to give parents more say in local school curricula, according to the report.
The topics have included curriculum transparency, establishing or amending a parents’ bill of rights, race and gender/sexuality.
The report lists three such bills introduced during the general session of the Utah Legislature, although none of them passed: HB234, HB366 and SB114.
HB234, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, would have required all Utah public school teachers to post all learning materials and syllabi for each day of instruction.
Teuscher abandoned the bill after strong pushback from the Utah Education Association, with some 20,000 educators responding to an online petition titled “Stop making more work for teachers.”
SB114, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Education Committee on a 4-2 vote but did not receive a Senate vote. Fillmore said the bill “simply opens a door by which parents and school boards can work together in the adoption of district wide curriculum.”
The third bill, HB366, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, was also a transparency measure. It was defeated in the House Education Committee on a 5-5 vote.
“The potency of the conservative parental backlash helped Republican Glenn Youngkin win the recent Virginia gubernatorial race on a ‘parents’ rights’ platform,” it states.
Speak UP United Parents, formed in 2016 in response to what members called systemic failures in the Los Angeles Unified School District, used its $1 million budget and organization to unseat the school board president in 2017.
In recent months, Utah Parents United, a nonprofit parents’ rights organization, encouraged parents to run for local school boards as well as the Utah State Board of Education.
Utah Parents United is also encouraging parents to research the voting records of their board members “so they can decide whether that person really represents their voice on the school board or whether they need to find another person who might represent their views better,” UPU President Nichole Mason told the Deseret News in a previous interview.
Local affiliates of UPU have demanded that school districts remove books from school libraries that parent members deemed objectionable or inappropriate for students, with mixed success.
The report also examines the decline of traditional organizations such as the National PTA as nascent “more activist parent organizations” have sprung up around the country propelled by the internet, video conferencing, social media and financial support from foundations.
“More interested in school district budgets and ballot boxes than bake sales, they’re pushing policymakers and local education leaders for better schools, greater transparency, resource equity, teacher diversity, more school options and other remedies,” the report states.
The report said the shrinkage of the National PTA has been driven, in part, “by perceptions among parents and activists ... that it is too white in the face of a diversifying student population, too affluent, too cautious, too connected to the education establishment (particularly teacher unions) and diverts too much money away from local affiliates to the national organization.”
According to the report, National PTA President Anna King acknowledges the criticism leveled at the organization.
“Sometimes people don’t feel we are taking a firm enough stand” on issues, King said.
It’s difficult for a membership organization that represents parents with a wide range of perspectives and priorities to get consensus on many topics, King told the report’s authors.
The report also speaks to the role of social media changing power dynamics and parents’ “pandemic-sharpened expectations for their children’s learning.”
The movement is expected to persist, according to the report’s authors, Greg Toppo, author of “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter”; Jo Napolitano, a writer at The 74 and author of “The School I Deserve: Six Young Refugees and Their Fight for Equality in America”; and Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd.
Lakisha Young, who launched The Oakland REACH, “which has trained hundreds of parents historically shut out of school decisions to advocate for their children’s needs just as many affluent white families do routinely,” said parents have enhanced expectations for their children.
“We’re not interested in ‘going back to normal.’ We’re not interested in any ‘continuity of learning’ because the continuity of learning and ‘normal’ left our kids not being able to read,” Young said.