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When education became a focal point in gubernatorial elections this November, it was no surprise to Keri Rodrigues, president and co-founder of the National Parents Union. Rodrigues had been traveling the country for weeks, meeting with parent advocacy groups in city after city, and working with them to get their grievances heard and addressed by local school boards. The parents she worked with were angry, frustrated and energized.

But these parents, in both their concerns and backgrounds, differed from those to whom politicians seemed to be pandering. While pundits seized upon issues like critical race theory as a driving force in recent election results, Rodrigues talked to parents who just wanted to make sure their kids had a competent bus driver and got a hot school meal. She didn’t see parents angry about culture war issues, but parents who were worried about their kids learning in a safe and inclusive classroom.

“I feel confident when I say the critical race theory stuff is flashy and sexy because people are losing their minds on microphones in meetings, but it’s not what we’re seeing across the country,” said Rodrigues. “We can say with fidelity it’s the transportation crisis, and lack of social-emotional learning.”

Credit: Image provided by National Parents Union

Rodrigues’ organization, the National Parents Union (NPU), launched in January 2020, just before the pandemic upended schools and learning. At the time, the group’s stated mission was to make education a more prominent issue in the upcoming presidential election. Now, nearly two years later, NPU is in a far different position — working to channel all the frustration, anger and motivation of parents from Covid-19-related crises into tangible district-level change.

The organization has emerged as a notable force in the education world, attracting both skepticism and praise. Some education experts point to some of the group’s pro-school-choice foundation backers and worry that Rodrigues is channeling parents’ anger to push those backers’ agenda and undermine teachers. At the same time, she has gained traction as a national spokeswoman for the concerns of parents, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, regularly appearing in national media and meeting with the Biden/Harris transition team. 

The group’s aim is lofty and clear: to carry the torch of underrepresented parents around the country, acting at times as a counterweight to powerful teachers unions, which Rodrigues says don’t speak for families and represent their own separate interests. What’s less clear is what this sky-high goal means in practice, and whether such an aim — which would entail reflecting the interests of millions of diverse parents across regions and political ideologies — is even possible.

What success would look like for the National Parents Union is hard to define. But it’s obvious to Rodrigues that what’s happening now in education — on both the local and federal levels — isn’t working. Even as the issues receive renewed attention on cable news and from politicians and pundits, Rodrigues sees the sorts of parents she partners with left out of the conversation. The organization’s polling has found that three-quarters of parents support the idea of changing K-12 U.S. history curriculums to include more diverse figures and perspectives; yet those who oppose such initiatives continue to receive the biggest microphones, despite being in the minority. (Notably, the group’s polling doesn’t specifically mention the term “critical race theory.”)

“It’s tough getting folks to understand the difference between what’s really happening on the ground and some of the stuff that’s flashier,” said Rodrigues, a Massachusetts native. For parents, “it’s much more the bread-and-butter stuff.”

 Related: Do fraught school board meetings offer a view of the future?

Rodrigues knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up in an education system that doesn’t value your voice. She came from a family dealing with addiction and violence, and was expelled from high school after bringing a weapon to school before earning her GED diploma.

Now she has five kids of her own, including two stepkids. Her oldest son — now in eighth grade — has autism and ADHD. As soon as he started school, he was regularly suspended, beginning in kindergarten, she said. Rodrigues was shocked at the amount of time, resources and knowledge it took to get him the services he needed. Even now as she connects with policymakers to bring change at the federal level, she said she’s “on the phone a couple times a week making sure he’s getting the services he’s supposed to get.”

Rodrigues started her career as a journalist and radio host before pivoting to working in organizing and communications for the Service Employees International Union — a fact she highlights to contrast perceptions of her group’s strained relationship with teachers unions. She became a political consultant and eventually zeroed in on issues of education aftertaking stock of the challenges she was facing in her own family and getting connected with the political action group Democrats for Education Reform. Later, she went to work for Families for Excellent Schools, a group that was working to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.

Donors to the National Parents Union include the Walton Family Foundation and the City Fund, another pro-charter group. Credit: Steve Kenny

Through her work in Massachusetts, Rodrigues met leaders at the Walton Family Foundation —  created by Walmart’s founders and a driving force behind charter school expansion and other education reform efforts — which is now a major funder of NPU. She also started Massachusetts Parents United, but in that work, saw a leadership vacuum at the national level that was keeping local groups from getting advice and resources. From there, she was inspired to start NPU with a co-founder, Alma Marquez, who has since left the group and did not respond to requests for comment.

“I was worried about my own kid. I was failed as a kid and I was worried about my kid being failed,” said Rodrigues. “A crisis point brought me into this work, and now I think we’ve all collectively been through a crisis point.”

Upon launch, Rodrigues had plans to travel the country and connect with parents groups all over. Then the pandemic hit, throwing America’s education system and the group’s priorities into disarray. She had intended to build the organization slowly and deliberately, but kicking its work into high gear suddenly felt urgent.

“It’s very bizarre, the relationship parents and families have with schools — it’s almost as if we’re not full-grown adults that can understand or comprehend.”

Keri Rodrigues, National Parents Union president

After schools closed, NPU handed out $700,000 worth of Walton-funded grants to families and education groups across the country to support them in their efforts to home-school during the pandemic. The idea was for lower-income families to come together to navigate remote learning through the same arrangements that affluent parents were organizing. NPU partnered with polling organizations to fill a gap in data regarding parents’ views on how schools were handling the pandemic. Its leaders met with the Biden/Harris transition team to advise them on education issues. The group became a mainstay in the pages of major media outlets, including The New York Times. And it launched a campaign to hold schools accountable for how they’re choosing to spend federal aid.

NPU’s thesis is simple: that school districts often treat parents — especially those from underrepresented communities — like children, leaving them out of important conversations, as if they weren’t a district’s most important stakeholders. The pandemic, in some ways,  served as a proof of concept.

“It’s very bizarre, the relationship parents and families have with schools — it’s almost as if we’re not full-grown adults that can understand or comprehend,” said Rodrigues, who has three sons in public school and two who switched to in-person Catholic schools during the pandemic after struggling during school closures.

The parents whom the National Parents Union seeks to organize say they’re most upset about bus driver shortages, communication about Covid-19 safety protocols and student mental health and behavior. Credit: Steve Kenny

To combat this tendency, the group has partnered with community parents organizations around the country to provide support and resources for their on-the-ground battles. In recent weeks, Rodrigues traveled to 10 cities to work with local organizations on the issues parents say they’re most upset about: bus driver shortages that make it difficult for their kids to get to school on time; an outbreak of violence at schools among kids who have been traumatized by the last 20 months; lack of clear communication from districts on Covid-19 safety protocols.

Rather than lamenting big-picture culture war issues, these parents are concerned about the day-to-day processes of teaching and learning, Rodrigues says.

NPU has built out a system of 18 parent delegates from around the country, who receive stipends and whose job it is to steer the parents union’s work and advocacy. Some delegate seats are reserved for those representingIndigenous, foster and LGBTQIA families, and families dealing with incarceration. The idea is that these highly mobilized individuals will organize in their communities while receiving mentorship from parents union leaders on speaking at school board meetings and lobbying policymakers.

Rodrigues says that in her ideal world, every school would have a parents council working with school leaders on issues of transportation, hiring more substitute teachers and making sure administrators were acting as responsible stewards of new federal funds designed to support schools after Covid-related upheavals. These councils would differ from PTAs and PTOs, which Rodrigues believes often focus more on fundraising than challenging the status quo.

Related: What the research says about the best ways to engage parents

But beyond this day-to-day advocacy, critics see an organization with larger aims of discrediting teachers unions and public education. They worry that Rodrigues is harnessing the voices of parents to sow dissatisfaction with traditional public schools, rather than to improve them.

An early draft of a concept paper sent to other organizations for feedback before the group’s launch presents it as an adversary to teachers unions, stating that unions “currently have no countervailing force.”

“I feel confident when I say the critical race theory stuff is flashy and sexy because people are losing their minds on microphones in meetings, but it’s not what we’re seeing across the country.”

Keri Rodrigues, National Parents Union president

“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,” the paper said.

NPU continues to receive major donations from the Walton Family Foundation, though Rodrigues says the foundation is not its biggest funder. Other major funders include the City Fund, another pro-charter group; and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) NPU now has a budget of $1.7 million, after being stretched so thin during the first few months after launch that the organization’s leaders didn’t get paid.

But the group’s connection to foundations like Walton that favor charter schools, vouchers and what critics see as other efforts to privatize education have only enhanced the perception that its aims are to undermine traditional public school systems.

Some National Parents Union delegate seats are reserved for those representing Indigenous, foster and LGBTQIA families, and families dealing with incarceration. Credit: Image provided by National Parents Union

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that they represent parents in any way, shape or form. They represent their funders,” said Maurice Cunningham, a retired associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who studies the influence of dark money on politics. “At the end of the day, it all leads to undermining public education and teachers unions.”

In response, Rodrigues notes that little of the group’s advocacy is centered around school choice. “We really view ourselves as being in service of the folks we work with,” she said.

“I think some parents are starting to question what the system looks like and how it works. I think there’s a lot of pressure to go back to normal — whatever that used to be — but was that working? Was that healthy?”

Yvonne Ballesteros, co-founder and staff member, Cihuapactli Collective

But even the group’s allies understand why it has faced its fair share of skepticism. Gwen Samuel is founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union, a state organization that preceded NPU and has been partnering with it since its inception.

Organizers like Samuel have benefited from the group’s help and resources, particularly in connection with basic information technology issues after organizing went digital during Covid-19. But she takes a measured view of both the promise and limitations of the new organization.

“I don’t think there are any similarly situated groups … that have their money,” said Samuel. She describes hearing fears from others that NPU “cater[s] to the highest bidder — if you give a grant to them, they will fulfill your agenda.”

Samuel has also heard complaints from fellow advocates that the national, well-moneyed organization is stomping on the turf of local groups; or that NPU is primarily meant to advocate for Latino families. Once the latter issue was brought to the attention of the group’s leadership, “I think they addressed it accordingly,” said Samuel. (Rodrigues, for her part, said NPU tries not to show up in places where its help isn’t being sought: “We’re very intentional about trusting parents.”)

And despite the criticism the group has generated, Samuel said, she’s been impressed by what it has accomplished in just a short time. When NPU gave out grants to help families jump-start home-schooling pods, she was heartened by the lack of strings attached, especially for families who might not have had the resources or savvy to navigate complicated red tape. The group’s research, too, has been invaluable during the pandemic, reflecting an ability to get good information into the hands of the masses.

“They are most definitely meeting the needs of someof the many parent groups across this country that people don’t even know exist,” said Samuel.

Related: When parents got involved in schools, kids did no better

One of the groups is the Cihuapactli Collective. The Arizona organization, which supports Indigenous mothers and families, has been working with Rodrigues to advise her, helping to build NPU while amplifying the sentiments of parents in its community to the group. One of its founders is on the NPU board of directors.

Increasingly, those sentiments include anger and frustration — not over mask mandates and Covid-19 protocols per se, but over structural racism in schools, the inadequacy of remote learning and the failure to serve students’ varying learning styles. Yvonne Ballesteros, a staff member and co-founder of the group — who hasn’t worked with NPU — said that more families are getting involved with advocating for their families’ needs and reconsidering the value of a 9-to-5, brick-and-mortar school structure. She has also reassessed what works best for her family during this time, pulling two of her three school-aged children out of private schools they were attending in favor of home-schooling, while hearing from neighbors and friends in her community who are suddenly interested in home-schooling as well.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that they represent parents in any way, shape or form. They represent their funders.”

Maurice Cunningham, a retired associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston

“I think some parents are starting to question what the system looks like and how it works,” said Ballesteros. “I think there’s a lot of pressure to go back to normal — whatever that used to be — but was that working? Was that healthy?”

Rodrigues says schools need to get serious about the depths of parental frustration. Many parents have seen their children fall behind academically and socially before their eyes, while receiving little communication from districts about what they were going to do to help make up for it. They don’t feel heard.

“The dream,” says Rodrigues, “is having folks most impacted be able to speak truth to power.”

This story about the National Parents Union was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Rebecca Klein is the senior education reporter at The Huffington Post.

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