Last week, the Biden administration announced the creation of a new National Parents and Families Engagement Council. The press release trumpets that the council’s purpose is to strengthen relations between parents and schools. No sophisticated observer believes that this is true.
The subtext is clear: Facilitating parental engagement is a worthy goal, but it is not the administration’s real goal. One need not be a Beltway cynic to grasp that the council’s real purpose is to protect Democratic office-holders from the fate suffered by Terry McAuliffe after saying, during last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Now, after a year of raucous parental demonstrations at school board meetings, the Biden administration needs to co-opt the powerful parents’ reform effort and protect congressional Democrats from midterm electoral disaster.
Facilitating genuine parental engagement, in a way that’s meaningful in the current political climate, would be excruciatingly difficult for this administration. To see how things can go wrong, recall the administration’s prior response to parental engagement. Last October, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum directing federal prosecutors to protect school boards from harassment and threats of violence. The memorandum responded to a National School Boards Association letter insisting that parental “threats and acts of violence” at school board meetings might be “domestic terrorism.” In response to the ensuing uproar, the School Board Association apologized for the letter, but Mr. Garland has not rescinded his memorandum, despite congressional requests that he do so.
If Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who allegedly solicited the ill-fated School Boards letter, is serious about engaging with parents, he must respect the very parents whom his administration has viewed as terrorists. He cannot collaborate only with those parents whom he already counts as friends. To be taken seriously, the Education Department must engage with parents who are front-and-center in the parental rights movement.
While it is understandable for an administration to appoint people who share their perspectives, the council will fail if it does not listen to the voices of reform. The inclusion of the National Parents Union is a good step, but the council must listen to groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty and Fight for Schools. They must engage with those who brought school reform onto the national agenda, not just those who uphold the national establishment and the status quo.
Harder still, Mr. Cardona must engage with reform-minded parents on their own ground, rather than on issues with which his team is comfortable. The parental rights movement was ignited by school closures and mask mandates. It has expanded to include a push for school transparency, parental choice, and equal rights.
The question is whether the Biden administration is prepared to engage on the hard issues.
Is Mr. Cardona ready to engage, in a serious way, with parents who are outraged by critical race theory in their children’s classroom?
Is he willing to talk to parents of female athletes who are unable to overcome the physical advantages of transgender competitors?
Is he willing to discuss parental concerns about the age-appropriateness of sex education, including teaching about gender identity to the youngest children in public elementary schools?
Is he ready to talk about anti-Asian discrimination in new magnet school student assignment policies, similar to the one a federal court recently struck down at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology?
Is he ready to engage, in a serious way, with parents who are incensed by the antisemitism and racism, as well as the erasure of Jewish identity, in Liberated Ethnic Studies curricula?
Will he speak to parents who are incensed by anti-Israel indoctrination in social studies classes?
And what of parents who insist that they should have a say in what their children are taught?
Or who simply want to receive honest and complete explanations about what their children are being taught?
If Mr. Cardona is willing to engage, in a serious way, with concerned parents, he may just have a chance of succeeding with his lofty goals. That is the opposite of what his political advisers will advise. But it is the only way forward.
• Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and chair of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and author of “The Definition of Anti-Semitism.” He served as the 11th assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights.