The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP treats parents like victims. They should meet these PTA moms.

People hold up signs at a news conference in Houston on March 3, while protesting the proposed takeover of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) by the Texas Education Agency. (Juan A. Lozano/AP)
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America’s moms and dads are a pretty feeble bunch, to hear House Republicans talk. Their signature Parents Bill of Rights Act appears to assume mothers and fathers are too weak to ask what curriculums their kids are being taught; too timid to visit a school library; and too dumb or lazy to look up a local school budget.

The more than 500 parents who turned out for the virtual National Parent-Teacher Association Legislative Conference last week seemed much more capable and creative than this dismal portrait suggests. Lawmakers who genuinely want to assure parents that they have a voice in schools would do well to support many of the experiments these mothers and fathers are running — and to focus on real threats to parent power rather than imagined enemies.

The conference spotlighted the huge material impact parents already have on their districts and states. The Montclair, N.J., PTA championed a $187.7 million bond referendum for school infrastructure. The measure will now fund updates to school buildings, which are 99 years old on average, and new accessible playgrounds and facilities for students with special needs. The Oklahoma PTA helped state legislators with a study of school safety and mental health. The results helped secure $11 million in funding for preventing gun violence in schools.

And individual parents are making heroic differences, too. Utah mother Aspen Brinkerhoff is running a food pantry for students at Spanish Fork High School. In Montgomery County, Md., Laura Mitchell has helped organize forums for hundreds of participants where parents can get Narcan and learn how to use it to reverse fentanyl overdoses. The suggestion that such parents would need help googling a curriculum or reading a school budget would be amusing if it wasn’t so condescending.

Indeed, PTAs are already doing their best to make school systems more accessible in ways both parties in Congress could take note of.

Take Ocean Township, N.J. Here, board of education member Alix Hayes has worked to make district materials accessible in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. She has also ensured that they’re translated into laymen’s terms. Lawmakers who really want to boost parent engagement could provide funding for schools to hire talented, sensitive professional translators.

Lawmakers concerned about the rights of religious parents in public schools might look to the example set by Lissa Zukoff of the New York State PTA. Her organization puts together a calendar so schools and school boards can avoid scheduling important events on days of religious observance, so they don’t exclude observant mothers and fathers — or even entire communities. It is a small detail, but an important sign of respect.

More fundamental — and much harder to tackle — is the way basic inequalities play out in parent participation. Parents who have only so much time and energy might need to focus on securing accommodations for a child with additional needs. Shift workers might not have the same time and leeway as white-collar employees to attend evening school board meetings or morning parent coffees. And while the pandemic led many districts to experiment with broadcasting school board meetings, a return to in-person gatherings might shut out parents with health issues or disabilities.

Lawmakers might not be able to remove all these obstacles. But there are real efforts underway to make it harder for parents to weigh in on how their schools are run. They’re happening on a grander scale than the conservative fantasy of an individual teacher indoctrinating kindergartners. It is this top-down education policymaking that liberals and conservatives should make common cause against.

Take Texas. The state’s education agency is about to eliminate Houston residents’ ability to weigh in on schools with their ballots. The Texas Education Agency is poised to take over the eighth-largest district in the country — one that as of 2019 served more than 210,000 students — using a law that allows it to assume power over a district with a single failing school. This would strip power from the elected board of trustees, removing its ability to make key personnel decisions — and from parents who can no longer vote to retain excellent trustees or kick out rotten ones.

In Virginia, state education officials are using their power to determine what counts toward the state’s graduation requirements in a way that undermines local control of school curriculums. A new Advanced Placement African American studies course is the latest political piñata for lawmakers who see the specter of critical race theory in every corner. If the state won’t grant graduation credit for it, school systems might be dissuaded from offering the course even if parents are convinced of the value of the subject and trust the College Board to provide rigorous courses.

If parents in both parties need a reminder of what it’s like to feel shut out of the decision-making process about their schools, they have a recent example. During the worst of covid-19, many state and municipal mandates left both liberal and conservative parents feeling voiceless. That was as true in Montgomery County, Md., where private school parents wanted to resume in-person instruction before county officials let them, as in cities hamstrung by Republican governors who banned mask mandates.

No policy will eliminate friction over schools in any but the most homogenous of districts. Every school teaches students that to speak up and to compromise are part of the same process. The PTA parents who gathered online last week to share how to be more effective advocates embodied that message. Some federal lawmakers, it seems, could use a refresher course.