Parents whose children are enrolled in public schools across in the United States have traditionally joined the PTA—affiliated with the national Parent Teacher Association—or an unaffiliated PTO—a Parent Teacher Organization, but few would have had the opportunity to join the National Parents Union. PTAs and PTOs embody the principle that parents and teachers are together responsible for the well-being of the school’s students.
On first glance, you might notice how the name of the National Parents Union is different from the names of the more traditional parents’ organizations. First, “teachers” are not named as collaborators. And the National Parents Union is called a “union.” Those two features of the organization’s name might make you suspicious that this is some sort of parents’ group against teachers unions. And, it seems you might be correct.
The National Parents Union is an Astroturf organization founded in 2020. Astroturf organizations pretend to represent the grassroots, but instead they advocate for the interests of their big funders. It is helpful to know who these groups are, so that you can keep straight about what they stand for and who they really represent.
Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has thoroughly researched and exposed the abuses by Astroturf organizations in the past, most notably the New York dark money group, Families for Excellent Schools Action, which was fined $426,466 by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for violating Massachusetts’ campaign laws when it invested $15 million in 2016 to try to pass a referendum to raise the cap on the authorization of charter schools in that state. The referendum failed and later Families for Excellent Schools shut down.
More recently Cunningham has turned his sights on a relatively new group, the National Parents Union. In May of last year, when the National Parents Union was only a few months old, Cunningham explained: “One unsurprising characteristic of the Walton family sponsored National Parents Union is that it has so few parent members… Searches on Twitter, organization websites, and IRS Form 990 tax returns suggested various dominant functions I could use to characterize sixty-four of the seventy organizations (affiliated with the NPU). I found that there are fifteen charter school organizations (like KIPP and Rocketship) and nine charter school trade organizations (like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). That makes 24 of the 64 ‘parent organizations.’ There were another fifteen organizations I categorized as education options/choice, groups which present as helping navigate among different schools but which are designed to funnel students to charter schools. That makes 39 organizations tied into the charter schools industry. There are nineteen organizations I identified as ‘civic’ and some I could further identify, for instance civic/Latinx, civic/civil rights, civic/autism, etc. Within the civic groups that could be identified, there were four I identified as civic/parents. The parent groups are Connecticut Parents Union, Minnesota Parents Union, New Jersey Youth Justice Initiative… and Massachusetts Parents United. Of the four parent groups, Massachusetts Parents United is emblematic since its CEO Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo is also the CEO of National Parents Union. But MPU is not a grassroots parents organization either. It is a privatization front underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation.”
In another recent post, Cunningham details exactly who is funding this supposed grassroots parents’ organization: “National Parents Union has received funding from the following oligarchs through their own foundations or philanthropies they contribute to and control: the Walton family, Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Dell, the late Eli Broad, Reed Hoffman, John Arnold, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Charles Koch.”
So, wonders Cunningham in a post he published on Diane Ravitch’s blog, why has U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona brought the National Parents Union—as the representative of the point of view of parents—into the Department’s new School Climate and Discipline Work Group and as an advisor to the Department’s Office of Parent Engagement and Communication?
Cunningham examines uncritical coverage of Cardona’s move by reporter Linda Jacobson in The 74, a news website with some of the very same funders as the National Parents Union. After reading Jacobson’s article, Cunningham wonders whether Secretary Cardona and his staff are naive enough to believe they are inviting collaboration from a real grassroots parents’ group, or whether Education Department staff are knowingly inviting the input of billionaire corporate accountability school reformers: “The pro-privatization education blog, The 74, recently published ‘To Rebuild Trust with Families, Ed. Dept. Seeks Input from Outspoken Parents Group.’ The story purports to be about how Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona ‘seeks’ the advice of parents and thus turns to the National Parents Union. But the National Parents Union isn’t about parents; it’s a front for oligarchs with ‘parents’ in the name. So who got suckered here, Secretary Cardona or readers of The 74?”
Cunningham concludes: “National Parents Union is a sucker’s game.”