The Biden administration has dissolved its new parent and family engagement council less than six months after its inception, following conservative lawmakers’ and advocacy groups’ claims that the council was one-sided and unlawful.
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Parent and Family Engagement Council originally set out to help families engage with school districts at the local level when it was created in June. But it came under scrutiny by conservative lawmakers and became the subject of a lawsuit from conservative parent advocacy groups, who claimed it was created with a liberal bias.
The department disagrees with the criticisms, according to a statement issued on Dec. 5, but has decided to disband the council anyway.
“We all share a vital concern for the future of our students, and our nation, regardless of our political, social, or cultural backgrounds,” the statement said. “Parents and families have a critical role to play in building a brighter future for our kids and our communities—the Department has always tried to hear from as many parents as possible and to engage with them in the most meaningful and effective way.”
The decision was celebrated by some as a victory for conservative lawmakers and parent groups, while those who planned to participate in the council viewed it as a step backward.
“It would be laughable if this was not just so pathetic, so status quo, and we weren’t in such a critical moment for our children right now,” said Keri Rodrigues, the co-founder and president of the National Parents Union, one of the groups involved in the council.
Allegations of bias
Fourteen education organizations made up the council, including the National Parents Union, the National Parent Teacher Association, and UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights organization. It didn’t include notable conservative parents’ rights groups like Parents Defending Education, Fight for Schools and Families, and Moms for Liberty. Both Fight for Schools and Families and Moms for Liberty have political action committees that campaign for conservative-leaning candidates.
The composition of the council raised alarm bells for conservative politicians and education advocates, who felt their voices weren’t represented on it. All of the groups on the council claim to be nonpartisan, but a few, including the National Parents Union, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and UnidosUS, are more liberal-leaning and political in their work. Others—like Girls Inc., Fathers Incorporated, and the National Military Family Association—generally don’t advocate for political campaigns and focus instead on services and programs for their members.
In July, two conservative parents’ rights groups—Parents Defending Education and Fight for Schools and Families—alongside America First Legal, a conservative legal nonprofit, sued the council, the Education Department, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for violating the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which says that an advisory committee’s membership should be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.”
The groups withdrew the lawsuit Dec. 5 after the department announced it would disband the council.
Last week, a group of five Republican U.S. Senators sent a letter to Cardona and the Education Department criticizing the council for being biased and requesting more information about the council. The Senators, which included Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., asked that the department clarify whether the council required representatives to be parents and asked if the department planned to ensure that not all of the representatives of the council voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
“Most, if not all, of these organizations are liberal advocacy groups that seek to nationalize our education systems into a one-size-fits-all system while eliminating parental choice and leaving the individual needs of our children behind,” the senators wrote.
The groups involved in the council disagree with that characterization. The National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, a nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to parent and family engagement and one of the 14 organizations involved in the council, gave recommendations to the Education Department of other groups that should be involved. None of those recommendations were based on political agendas of any kind, NAFSCE’s Executive Director Vito Borrello said.
“We advanced recommendations of who [we thought] were doing great work that should be considered to be represented,” Borrello said. “That doesn’t speak to a political persuasion, it speaks to who’s effective in advancing family, school, and community engagement.”
The groups who criticized the council celebrated its end.
“This faux parents council was nothing more than the administration trying to rig the system once more by stacking the deck with the very special interest groups that awakened parents across America to their long game to politicize public schools with a far-left, anti-parent agenda,” Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools and Families, said in a statement. “This is a major win for parental rights and should serve as a message to the Biden Administration—we have only just begun to fight for our children’s future.”
The future of parent engagement
In its statement, the Education Department said it would continue to engage parents and families through town halls, resources, and tools for students.
But some people view the council’s end as a major failure for the department and a step in the wrong direction even for the conservative groups that pushed against it.
“This was a moment for courageous leadership to stand up and say, ‘No, we actually do value the voice and the priorities of parents and families. We want them as part of this conversation; we want them helping to lead this conversation because these are their children,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues viewed the senators’ letter as “sad” and “pathetic,” and she hoped to see federal officials take a stand against it.
Rodrigues believed the council would be used as a sounding board for parents to talk about the issues most important to them, including student mental health, falling test scores, and school safety. She envisioned an opportunity for Biden and Cardona to hear from parents about how the education system could better serve them.
Instead, Rodrigues worries that the cancelation of the council will lead to greater distrust between the federal government and the parents it serves.
“This, to me, is just another reason why parents and families don’t like to engage in politics because both [Democrats and Republicans] have claimed to have the best interest of families and students at heart but neither of them has done anything tangible,” she said.
Going forward, the National Parents Union plans to continue pushing for parent and family engagement and working with the Education Department to advocate for the issues that are most important to parents in the organization, Rodrigues said.
NAFSCE recommends that the department focus on “substantive strategic family engagement,” Borrello said. That means expanding school and district capacity to engage families as partners; enhancing federal policies, guidance, and funding for statewide family engagement centers and parent training and information centers; and implementing a higher education focus on training future educators in best practices to engage parents and families.
“It’s just not enough to do town halls, and webinars, and newsletters,” Borrello said. “They may be informative, but in and of themselves it is not strategic around engaging families as partners.”