Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was funding the National Parents Union. The statement has since been removed.
On January 16, 2020, veteran union organizers Keri Rodrigues and Alma Marquez hosted the inaugural summit of the National Parents Union. Their new organization’s aim? Advocating on behalf of working-class and poor parents who feel their children are excluded from what they refer to as the “education conversation.” Some 152 delegates, representing all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, showed up to lend their support and draft bylaws.
For those versed in education policy, the so-called union founded by Rodrigues and Marquez, both moms, is confounding. While it’s true that the United States’ public education system is a tale of two cities — one wealthy and rich with educational opportunity, one not — the union does not seem designed to push policy targeting inequality. Prior to this latest gig, Marquez worked for Green Dot Public Schools, a pro-charter school organization. For her part, Rodrigues organized Massachusetts Parent’s United, which was criticized for being anti-union and vague in its goals. The National Parents Union is currently funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by Sam and Helen Walton, who Rodrigues knows well (they gave her organization $500,000) from pro-charter school work. The union is also supported by the Eli & Edyth Broad Foundation. The Broad Foundation is considered one of the “Big Three” organizations that fund education reform and pro-charter initiatives, alongside the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This is all to say that the National Parents Union seems to have been constructed rather specifically to oppose the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, millions-strong member organizations that have historically opposed charters, citing the fact that they serve a small group of students and don’t meaningfully address larger inequities in the public school system. This seems to also explain why an organization built to represent parents is cosplaying as a union. The National Parents Union won’t collect any worker-paid dues o or engage in collective bargaining. It will not, in short, be or behave like a union in any way.
What it will do is present itself as a union in opposition to another union, clouding ongoing debates on labor and education policy. Though not a union in any meaningful way, the National Parents Union will be a union when referenced or quoted in the pages of the New York Times, manufacturing a false equivalency. While there is nothing wrong with representing the interests of parents or with special interest advocacy generally, the presentation here is clearly disingenuous. Rodrigues and Marquez have sought to get ahead of this criticism by claiming their new venture is independent of their previous efforts and will engage on a number of issues. To date, the money tells a different story.
The NEA and the AFT have fought school choice for a long time. That fight flared up in 2018 when a mass wave of teacher strikes took traditionally Republican states by storm. Teachers protested over a lack of adequate teacher pay, policies that disadvantaged public schools and priorities charter schools in lieu of meaningful school funding, and crumbling school buildings. These huge fights led to massive gains for American public school teachers, but that doesn’t mean that the NEA and the AFT are beyond reproach — as Marquez notes in a statement highlighting the need for the NPU, the NEA and the AFT are fighting for teachers, not necessarily students.
But even that is a suspicious thing to say. Teachers first fight for salaries and salaries help keep good teachers in schools at a time when educator attrition is a massive problem; they also fight for the money to be able to supply their classrooms with the necessary tools for education. While they are not necessarily fighting on student issues, these unions have not historically fought directly against student interests. Marquez’s remark seems to indicate an opposition that makes sense on charter schools but not on sick leave or pay. This, coupled with the fact that the NPU’s statement of values is wonderfully vague, represents further reason to suspect the NPU of being a largely one-issue body.
Marquez and Rodriguez say they want to “disrupt that conversation” by bringing parents into the mix in a way they haven’t been before. These parents, they claim, can be any type of parent: a charter partner, a public school parent, a private school parent, a homeschool parent. While this is a noble and admirable goal, coming up with a series of union bylaws or policy proposals that would represent the interests of every single type of parent in this country seems, well, unrealistic. Local or even statewide organizing would seem to make more sense. Unless, of course, this isn’t really the point at all.
Right now, it seems like Rodrigues and Marquez have identified a real need — the need for the public school system to better and more equitably serve disadvantaged children — and used it as a form of misdirection. The broader goal is almost certainly advocacy for charter schools, which, for those keeping track, often aren’t run by licensed educators, subjected to state-run evaluations, or held to any major curriculum standard. It seems like it might just be the National Charter’s Union, but time will tell if that’s a miserly read on the group. Since charter school employees often can’t unionize and are, in most states, exempt from collective bargaining rules in most states, it’s hard to say. As of 2017, only 11 percent of charter schools across the country (781) have collective bargaining agreements while 88 percent (6,158) do not. Without collective bargaining, it is hard to see what a union could do.
All that said, there probably should be a national organization that advocates successfully for better educational standards in disenfranchised communities led by local stakeholders and parents. It doesn’t need to be a union, much less a fake one, but it does need to be well-positioned to work with teachers’ unions. Maybe there could be local meetings? Maybe parents could organize around their children’s school.
If only there were some kind of National Parent Teacher Association. If only such an organization was seeing dwindling participation and looking for new blood to pursue a longstanding goal of educational equality. If only…