Twenty education advocacy and family support organizations are hoping to redefine “family engagement” at a time when conservative politicians and groups push for parents’ rights policies that the new coalition says polarize America’s schools.
The organizations, led by the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, a professional membership organization focused on family engagement, have all signed on to the “Healing the Growing Divide” initiative, which aims to provide a counterpoint to themes that have dominated the parents’ rights movements of the past two years.
Members of the groups pushing back say they aren’t against parents’ rights as a concept, but have growing concerns over how the term has been used to support policies such as bans on books, efforts to censor classroom instruction about so-called divisive concepts like race, gender, and sexuality, and efforts to exclude transgender and other marginalized students from school-related activities.
“You’re never going to hear our organization suggesting anything other than the fact that parents have an important role in their child’s education,” said Vito Borrello, executive director of NAFSCE. “But what we believe is happening right now is a lot of these parental rights bills are focused on censorship, they’re focused on book banning, they’re focused on exclusion, they’re focused on culture wars and political perspectives. And they’re focused on dividing parents and teachers.”
Through the initiative, NAFSCE hopes to stand against “exclusionary narratives that deploy divisive tactics,” according to its announcement about the initiative. For example, the group is standing against policies that use one group of families to speak out on issues that attack or exclude other students and families; use families as “watchdogs” against educators; and force educators to exclude or stifle the inclusion of students and families due to their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity through restrictions on curriculum, the language they’re allowed to use, and other teaching practices.
NAFSCE plans to use the initiative to highlight schools, districts, and state agencies that exemplify “strategic family partnerships,” Borrello said. He pointed to examples like the Colorado Department of Education, which has a legislative advisory council made up of parents, who are able to recommend best practices and weigh in on new policies. Other states, including Michigan, Massachusetts, and North Dakota, have similar committees.
“There are these kinds of policies that really place the priority of families being at the table … and that’s what we’re going to amplify,” Borrello said.
The initiative stands in contrast to the parents’ rights policies that conservative politicians have proposed and passed in recent years. Often, those policies take the form of a parental bill of rights that gives parents the power to review, amend, or reject school curriculum and to combat what proponents contend is left-wing political indoctrination in the classroom.
The parents’ rights movement has contributed to conservative political victories, including the election of Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021, and the passage in Florida of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education Act, called by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The Florida law explicitly prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.
The parents’ rights momentum has carried into the 2022 elections. Seventy percent of teachers, principals, and district administrators said parental rights in education have taken up some or a lot of the discussion in local political campaigns, according to an October survey by the EdWeek Research Center. Meanwhile, 79 percent of respondents said that parents have the right amount or too much of an influence over schools.
The education organizations that have signed on to the NAFSCE’s initiative include the National Family Support Network, the Parent Institute for Quality Education, the Children’s Equity Coalition, and the National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment, among others. NAFSCE is also part of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Parents and Families Engagement Council, a federal effort launched this summer to help families engage with their schools at the local level.
Election Guide 2022
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