How political organizers are channeling parents’ education frustrations

Watching from her home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Clarice Schillinger wasn’t surprised when Glenn Youngkin — riding parents’ fears and frustrations with schools — won the Virginia governor’s race. She says she saw the writing on the wall.

“I hope that the race in Virginia really woke a lot of people up and said, OK, there is a groundswell of parents,” Schillinger said.

Tense school board meetings across the country illustrate the political divides playing out in public schools right now, from debates about the teaching of critical race theory to the enforcement of mask and vaccine mandates. But beyond the weekly fireworks, and beyond Virginia, there’s a common thread tying many parents together: the feeling that they’ve been ignored.

Parents’ education concerns

A USA Today/Ipsos poll from early September found 55% of parents said their kids fell behind because of virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic. And some of them blame the districts, teachers unions and politicians.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of parents are in Facebook groups focused on keeping schools open.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 48% of parents said they should have a lot of say in what their child’s school teaches.

Keri Rodrigues is president of the National Parents Union, a collective of organizations that work to empower parents’ voices.

“They’re entirely right to say that we’re angry. They’re entirely wrong about what we’re really angry about,” Rodrigues said. “I would tell you that 90 to 95% of the parents that I talked to are deeply angry, deeply frustrated, and deeply fearful, because they had the catastrophic failure of our public education system actually happen in their living rooms, and they saw it with their own two eyes.”

Rodrigues, a longtime Democratic organizer in Massachusetts, says CRT and other politicized issues serve as a distraction to the sources of more widespread parental concerns, like school shutdowns, transportation shortages, anxiety and depression, and student quarantines due to Covid-19.

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“It’s the fact that we closed schools, that we did not trust public health officials and scientists that told us when to reopen them,” she said. “It’s the fact that Democrats chose to listen to the special interest groups instead of their constituents in this moment … The majority of parents that I’ve talked to are just not willing to back down and assume that the system is going to be able to take it from here.”

Pennsylvania’s school board elections

In Pennsylvania, Schillinger tried to harness those frustrations during this year’s elections. The suburban mother, a Republican, helped run a political action committee called “Back to School PA.” The PAC pumped close to $700,000 into statewide school board elections, backing candidates who vowed to keep classrooms open. Most of the money came from a Republican venture capitalist who worked on the PAC with Schillinger.

“We became a single-issue PAC,” Schillinger said. “How could private do it safely, but public could not? The only thing that I could see that was the difference was special interest groups, like the (teachers) unions.”

Back to School PA supported more than 200 candidates across Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds Republican, according to Schillinger. She says close to 60% of them won.

“We gave the parents a voice to run and try to win,” she said, adding that they’ve heard concerns from thousands of parents across the state.

Kerry Corrigan is one of those frustrated parents. She says she’s on the verge of removing her sons from their public school in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“If it closes down again, that’s going to be the last straw,” Corrigan said.

She’s opposed to school mask and vaccine mandates, but she says her top priority is keeping classrooms open.

“I am frustrated because I feel like the children are still trying to make up for last year,” she said.

Most of Back to School PA’s money stayed in the Pennsylvania suburbs, but Schillinger argues this issue cuts across community lines. The PAC contributed $10,000 to Black Wall, a smaller progressive PAC focused on empowering Black and brown families in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“Some people said, how can you partner with them? They’re supporting Republicans,” Pastor Earl Harris, the founder of Black Wall, said. “I don’t (care) who they support, because there’s an issue that cuts across all ethnic groups and age groups and party lines. It’s your children.”

Harris says he believes schools in Harrisburg failed to provide necessary resources for families after class went virtual during the pandemic. Twenty-six percent of families in Harrisburg, a predominately African American city, were living below the poverty line before the pandemic hit.

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“Most of the parents can’t stay home because they don’t have jobs that allow them to stay home,” Harris said. “They don’t have the hardware. They don’t have the high-speed internet capacity. (They have) food insecurities. All of those factors were important to keeping schools open safely.”

Bethe Suarez, a formerly homeless mother of six in Harrisburg, says she supported virtual learning for the safety of her children, but she quickly faced problems getting them online and getting the help they needed.

Now one of her daughters, who has a learning disability, can’t keep up in class. And her other daughter doesn’t feel challenged, so Suarez moved her from public school to an online program.

“I felt like my voice didn’t matter,” Suarez said. “(The schools) dropped the ball, not being able to provide them with what they needed to brighten their future, to secure their future.”

Harris says that during this year’s elections Black Wall backed three Democratic school board candidates who vowed to keep schools open, and all three won. One of those candidates, supported by Suarez, was Roslyn Copeland.

“Schools are our safe zone for our children,” Copeland said about why she ran on keeping schools open. “We had a lot of our children that were already lacking — from low test scores to attendance to graduation rate.”

Looking ahead to the midterms

It’s not clear the role education will play in next year’s midterm elections in a state like Pennsylvania. A poll from Axios shows three-quarters of American parents believe local schools have done a somewhat or very good job balancing health and safety with other priorities.

In Virginia’s election, just under one-quarter of voters called education the most important issue, behind only the economy, according to CNN’s exit poll.

The recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found voters are split on which party they trust to handle education and schools, with 44% saying Democrats and 41% Republicans.

Organizers from Virginia to Pennsylvania and beyond are already investing money to energize frustrated families, trying to weave that common concern into an electoral pattern.

“It’s a human issue,” Harris said about frustrations with schools, adding that it’s not just a concern in suburban communities. “The biggest frustration is being invisible.”

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