Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

In education politics, mad mamas are on the move 

State Superintendent Mark Johnson (front row, center) joined students from Bear Grass Charter School Jan. 23, 2018, at the N.C. Museum of History for a rally celebrating National School Choice Week. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
State Superintendent Mark Johnson (front row, center) joined students from Bear Grass Charter School Jan. 23, 2018, at the N.C. Museum of History for a rally celebrating National School Choice Week. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

The relatively new year, 2020, has ushered in some surprises. Hold for another, this one in education politics: Parent power is rising. This isn’t PTA power. This parent power aims to disrupt the status quo on a grand scale. Parents are mobilizing in new ways, demanding voice and choice in education. 

Get ready, K-12 establishment. Here come the mad mamas.   

Advocacy from mad mamas (and mad dads) isn’t new, certainly. The National Congress of Mothers was founded more than a century ago, later becoming the National PTA with an “Every child. One voice” tagline. More recently, parent groups have mobilized to fight excess testing, failed reading strategies, and more. Mad mamas launched the war against Common Core. But frustration, in our political moment, has reached a tipping point. Advocacy is activism. 

The Powerful Parent Network, led by Sarah Carpenter, an African-American grandmother and head of Memphis Lift, has taken demands for educational choice, quality, and accountability directly to presidential candidates. In February, PPN mobilized a Freedom Ride for Education Equity before South Carolina’s primary. A reported mantra: “Our children, our choice.” 

“We believe it’s time for new power in education and the new power is parent power … Our children deserve the same rights other people, including many of these candidates, have exercised for their own families,” noted a PPN statement 

In January, the National Parents Union launched as a network for parent groups and activists. Featuring the tagline, “Our kids. Our voice,” NPU was founded by two moms: Keri Rodrigues, mom-in-chief of Massachusetts Parents United, and Alma Marquez, co-founder of the Los Angeles Parent Union.  

Meanwhile, in recent years, myriad other parent groups have organized, pushing reform. Fueling frustration: Parent voices are disenfranchised by the K-12 system, candidates, and elected officials.   

Circumstances are emergent. Progress has stalled on narrowing racial achievement gaps in reading and math, according to 2019 federal test scores. Political support for charter schools which enjoy bipartisan support from voters is eroding. For parents and activists who are Democrats and usually live in Democratic strongholds, part of the frustration is the feeling that their views are being ignored by elected officials, says Todd Ziebarth, senior vice President, State Advocacy and Support, at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

“The political apparatus in both parties has obviously been moving away, and on the Democratic side, it’s being driven by the teachers’ unions primarily,” Ziebarth says. “On the Republican side, it’s actually more being driven by other priorities that people like (President) Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos have around reducing the size of the federal government and increasing support for private school choice.” 

Data from Open Secrets, an initiative from the Center for Responsive Politics, show the enormous, unprecedented power teachers’ unions, which oppose private school choice and charter growth, wield in politics and policy. Most political contributions come from the two major unions the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In 2000, union contributions were under $7 million. In 2016, contributions jumped to $36 million. For the 2020 cycle, contributions have already reached $14 million, 98% going to Democrats.   

Money talks. But moms and dads talk, too; their voices are louder now. Millions of students nationwide benefit from educational choice, with more than 3 million enrolled in charter schools alone. Parents want to safeguard choices. Greater numbers mean greater impact, if parents come together, says Ziebarth: “They’re harder to ignore.”   

Time to listen. COVID-19 developments mean activism, for now, will largely be online. But parent power is rising. Still.  

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.  

Disclosure: She does consulting work for a charter advocacy organization.