The country’s public school system has always reflected the state of politics in America, for better or for worse.
But over the last three years, federal, state and local governments have injected politics into the K-12 system in unprecedented ways – spurred in large part by disparate responses to schooling and safety during the coronavirus pandemic and by those who would force schools to adopt policies in line with their culture war du jour.
Now, with education playing an elevated role in the looming midterm elections, political influence in schools is the No. 1 concern among parents.
A new survey shows that 68% of parents worry some or a lot about having politicians who are not educators making decisions about what happens in the classroom – the biggest concern reported overall and one that far outweighs their concern over someone in the family contracting COVID-19 or being able to pay bills.
Connected to their worries about political influence in schools, the survey found that the next three biggest concerns for parents centered on their children’s happiness and well-being, their children experiencing stress and anxiety and their children being exposed to violence at school.
The survey, “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Way Forward for Equity-Centered Family Engagement,” also polled teachers and principals and found that their biggest concerns were the same. In total, 70% worry about politicians who are not involved in education making decisions about school curriculum, and 64% harbor the same concerns about parents who are not involved in education making decisions about school curriculum.
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“But significant barriers remain as the system is designed to keep parents and teachers apart,” says Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, an education research organization focused on elevating parental involvement, which conducted the survey. “We must listen to parents and educators and put the structures and supports in place we know will return dividends in student outcomes, educator retention and family engagement.”
Notably, while parents say they want the opportunity to express their feelings around some of the issues that have dominated the news, the survey found that only 19% have voiced concerns about school curriculum at a school board meeting, 17% have provided feedback on recommended books and 12% have requested their child be excused from an assignment this school year.
In an effort to elevate their role, the Education Department is creating a parent council to help them better engage in their children’s schools – a move that comes as Republicans tap into parents’ frustrations over a third year of pandemic schooling and threaten to unseat Democrats as the party of education ahead of the midterm elections.
The National Parents and Families Engagement Council consists of 14 organizations that represent families, parents and caregivers of all backgrounds, including the more traditional umbrella groups, like the National Parent Teacher Association, as well as groups like Mocha Moms, Fathers Incorporated and the National Parents Union. The council will also represent parents and caregivers whose children are enrolled across the entire K-12 system, including in public schools, charter schools, private schools and homeschool.
The Biden administration – and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, in particular – has been making a point to elevate the role parents play in their children’s education in the wake of last year’s off-year elections, which exposed mounting frustrations among parents exasperated amid a third year of pandemic schooling and highlighted the inroads Republicans have made in branding themselves as trustworthy on an issue long considered a Democratic stronghold.
“Parents and educators have a Herculean task ahead to address setbacks in children’s learning and well-being,” Hubbard says. “They recognize the key to recovery efforts is to team up in support of students.”