Corrected: This story has been updated to correct information about Parents Defending Education’s role in political campaigns. The organization does not endorse candidates.
The Biden administration on Wednesday announced $11 million in grants to organizations that work on parent education and family engagement with schools.
The Oct. 11 move is the latest effort to make parent engagement a policy priority for the Democratic administration as conservative politicians hinge their education agendas on parents’ rights policies that empower parents to demand curriculum transparency from their schools and oppose curriculum materials and library books they deem objectionable. The U.S. Department of Education announced it had provided grants to organizations in 11 states, including universities and nonprofit groups like the National Centers for Families Learning in Kentucky and the New Jersey Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.
In total, the department has invested $83 million in efforts to support family and parent engagement, according to a news release.
“As a parent, teacher, and former principal, I’ve seen firsthand how strong and productive relationships between educators and families are the foundation of thriving school communities,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The importance of parent partnerships in our schools is backed by years of research demonstrating how students benefit academically, socially, and emotionally from robust family engagement.”
There’s plentiful research showing that parent involvement makes a difference in their kids’ education. But while the Biden administration has increasingly made parent engagement a talking point in its education agenda, parent engagement advocates say more needs to be done to promote it, especially if the administration hopes to have a response to arguments from conservative parents’ rights advocates like Moms for Liberty and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that schools are disregarding parents and indoctrinating children without their parents’ consent.
“We have been encouraging them to do so much more in terms of doing deep and meaningful authentic engagement with parents and families,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an organization that advocates for parent engagement in schools.
A response to the parents’ rights movement
Parents and how much influence they should have on school decisions has become a mainstay in education politics over the past few years.
After Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won his 2021 campaign on a parents’ rights education agenda, many other Republican candidates saw it as a successful path to winning elections. In the 2022 midterms, gubernatorial, state superintendent, and congressional candidates pledged to support parental bills of rights, legislative documents that often promised to enshrine parental rights to review curriculum and enroll their children in the school of their choice.
Republicans in the U.S. House passed a federal parents’ bill of rights earlier this year, which hasn’t made it through the Democratically controlled Senate. And conservative parent advocacy groups, including Moms for Liberty, have endorsed conservative school board candidates, successfully flipped some school boards and exerted influence over the education agendas of Republican candidates in the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats, including Cardona, have criticized those policies for stoking divisions between educators and parents. In a March op-ed for Newsweek, the secretary wrote that the “approach does nothing to help students across the country.”
“None of the nearly 10,000 parents with whom my team and I have met since the president took office said they wanted more culture wars or partisan politics in schools,” Cardona wrote in the article.
‘It’s always the same parents who are in the room’
But one of the Biden Administration’s highest-profile attempts at counteracting the parents’ rights movements was derailed by conservative backlash. In June 2022, the Education Department announced it would form a National Parent and Family Engagement Council with the goal of helping school districts engage with families.
But while the council included national groups that have traditionally advocated for parent involvement in schools, such as the National Parent Teacher Association, it didn’t include notable conservative parents’ rights groups.
A month after the council’s inception, two of those conservative groups—Parents Defending Education and Fight for Schools and Families—sued the Education Department and Cardona for violating a federal law that requires committee memberships to be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.” And in December, a group of five Republican U.S. senators sent a letter to the department, criticizing it for developing a biased council and requesting more information.
A week later, the department announced it would dissolve the council just six months after it was announced.
The council could have been a prime opportunity for the Education Department to promote positive and constructive parent and family engagement in schools, something past presidential administrations have failed to do, said Rodrigues, who would have participated in the council.
“I can’t point to a single administration that has done a good job with [parent engagement],” Rodrigues said. “It’s always the same parents who are in the room, hijacking the mic.”
“There’s a hell of a lot more that needs to be done” to meet the needs of students and parents, Rodrigues said. And while funding is needed, Rodrigues said she would like to see the department focus more on listening to parents, especially as students fail to recover from pandemic-induced learning loss.
“We’ve been doing everything that we possibly can to get the secretary and his staff to connect with parents and families in communities literally in every state so they can start hearing directly from parents, who are deeply concerned right now that their kids are not OK and we’re not doing everything we possibly can to recover from what is an incredible and unprecedented challenge,” Rodrigues said.