Parents, frustrated with shifting political winds in K-12 education, are doing what parents have been known to do for centuries: Go it alone.
Two Latina mothers from opposite sides of the country have joined forces to form their own union to disrupt an education agenda they say is pushing out parents like them and, more importantly, leaving behind poor students and students of color.
With high-profile advisers, foundation funding and bona fide union credentials of their own, Keri Rodrigues and Alma Marquez are set to officially launch the National Parents Union on Jan. 16, when they’ll hold an inaugural summit in New Orleans with 125 delegates from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Over the course of two days, the group plans to evaluate, vote and adopt various education platforms that will form the basis of the union’s bylaws, which will be drafted by a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association – now a supporter of the burgeoning effort.
Editorial Cartoons on Education
“This is going to be a very intersectional movement where we are not just going to have the district parent or charter parent kind of fight,” Rodrigues says. “We are building a broad tapestry of parents – urban, rural, suburban, parochial, private, home school, parents who like vouchers, parents who do not like vouchers – you name it, they will be at the table with us.”
“It’s not for me or Alma to parachute into anyone’s community and tell them how to run things,” she says. “People are going to have different ideas and we should have different ideas.”
Rodrigues, the founder of Massachusetts Parents United and formerly a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union, and Marquez, co-founder of the Los Angeles Parents Union who also worked for Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network, have built inroads with parent groups across the country for the last two years, slowly mounting a reform-friendly coalition that they hope will reframe the debate over K-12 education.
They insist that challenging teachers unions isn’t the goal.
“We are not anti-union as some of the reformers have been,” Marquez says. “We believe in the power of working class people coming together. Who we are is a big part of the story and I think why some folks are afraid of us. We know the book. We’ve helped write the book in our respective states. We are respected in our respective states and across the country. Because of that, people in education circles – they don’t know what to do with us. We can’t be accused of being anti-union.”
Advising the pair is Andy Stern, the former president of the SEIU who famously supercharged the union’s membership by more than 1 million workers before leading its controversial defection from the AFL-CIO. He says he’s explicitly counseled Rodrigues and Marquez to partner with the two national teachers unions.
“I have said to Keri that the teachers unions should be their allies,” Stern says. “Not that they’re going to agree on everything, but they have certainly a stated belief that kids of color and poor kids need a quality education and they believe that parents are important. This is a chance for everyone to show they mean that.”
“For poor kids and kids of color, someone better disrupt the system,” he continues. “And the system is not teachers unions. It’s a whole infrastructure of school boards and administrations and think tanks. The problem is that for all the work that has gone on, the results for kids of color and kids in poor communities are mediocre. Not having those voices of parents at the table just hurts the entire system.”
As insistent as Rodrigues and Marquez are that the National Parents Union isn’t trying to present a direct challenge to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the reality is that the formation of the group is specifically designed to disrupt the state of K-12 politics, which, as it stands, is largely controlled by the two national teachers unions. And their millions of members have notched major victories in rolling back the education reform movement of the last decade, striking and protesting in dozens of state capitals and cities across the country to oppose the expansion of charter schools, high-stakes testing and new ways to evaluate and pay teachers – the very policies that the National Parents Union will consider this week, among others.
“They are in an ongoing battle,” says Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education and the director of the Politics & Education Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It’s like an arms race in international foreign policy where you can’t stand still or the other side gets the advantage.”
Though Rodrigues and Marquez have been putting the pieces together to launch the National Parents Union for more than two years now, the timing for its inaugural summit – just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses – is no fluke.
The two national teachers unions have a veritable stranglehold over the majority of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls who have, to varying degrees, rolled out education platforms that mirror the unions’ agenda in an arms race to nab powerful endorsements. The NEA and its 3.2 million members and the AFT and its 1.7 million members are primed to flex their political muscle and open their purses this election cycle.
In addition to their boots-on-the-ground power, the two national teachers unions made $64 million in combined contributions to candidates, political parties, 527 committees and outside spending groups during the 2016 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit tracker of money in politics.
Rodrigues and Marquez acknowledge that they won’t be able to play on that same level when the National Parents Union launches later this month, though they are planning to launch “an aggressive, rapid response ground campaign” in a handful of early primary and swing states where “a ripe policy environment conducive to education reform efforts” exists.
“The teachers unions have about 50 years on us and they have an unrelenting, insurmountable resource model that we will never be able to compete against,” Rodrigues says. “It’s unreasonable to expect that the parents union will be immediately up and able to launch an army. But what we do not have in monetary resources we have in community resources and political power.”
Enter some of their high-profile advisers, who in addition to Stern, include the former education secretary for President Barack Obama, John King, who is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a powerful political action committee that supports candidates who favor, among other things, school choice policies.
But the National Parents Union isn’t broke, either. Influential and deep-pocketed groups like the Walton Family Foundation are helping underwrite their efforts – a boon that gives them viability but also invites the intense criticism that comes along with taking money from groups like Walton, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others that have been accused of using their collective wealth to push a reform-friendly education agenda.
In 2018 alone, the Walton Family Foundation awarded more than $595 million in grants, according to its own financial reports, much of which flowed to education reform organizations or to back education reform policies, like the expansion of charter schools. The foundation also gave $500,000 that year to Rodrigues’ Massachusetts Parents United.
“These organizations and foundations have burrowed into the Democratic Party to try to push it in a certain direction with regard to education reform,” says Lee Howard Adler, a labor, criminal law and civil rights practitioner who teaches at Cornell University’s’ School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“The real battle is who is going to shape the education policies within the Democratic Party,” he says. “Essentially they wish to unionize parents as a counterforce to educational unions to influence policy in the Democratic Party. They’re not functioning as parents, per se. They’re making it look like a grassroots, community organization, but they’re really fronting for dark money billionaires who wish to shape education policy in America.”
Rodrigues refutes that narrative, underscoring that she doesn’t have the benefit of a dues-backed funding model like the teachers unions and that she relies instead on grants from philanthropies.
“I’m a single mom of three little boys and I shop at Walmart almost every single week,” she says. “I’m a Walmart shopper. The parents I represent are Walmart shoppers. They do a lot of business in our communities and they should be giving back. I’m proud they support us and I hope they continue supporting us in the future.”
“This is yet another politically savvy move,” she says. “When you can’t out organize us, you attack our revenue sources to try to dilute the power of parents. We are not going away. You can say we are too stupid to think for ourselves and that I’m handed a piece of paper from the Walton Family Foundation and given my marching orders. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not how I operate.”
Henig, who’s been studying for the last decade the influence of money in elections, and specifically what that means for education policy, says what Rodrigues and Marquez are doing with the National Parents Union is a new and smart iteration of a political game with a long history.
“By hooking up with parent and progressive groups that are already operating in key cities and states and building alliances with them where they are, they’re operating like a front organization,” Henig says. “It’s almost like, and this should be in quotes, ‘hiring’ or ‘bringing on to contract’ existing parent and progressive groups, so that they can have something more resembling a genuine link to a genuine community-based, grassroots set of organizations.”
“To the critics of privatization and to the supporters of the teachers unions, this is still disingenuous, this is still superficial and it’s still buying support,” he continues. “But it’s a little bit harder to make this case when these are folks who have been active at the local level and credible at the local level for a long time. The real test is whether these groups are setting the agenda with support from these national organizations or are they carrying the water for these national organizations. And that’s where opinions would be sharply divided.”