Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation

Parent activists gathered in New Orleans recently to brainstorm statements that will serve as a constitution for a National Parents Union spanning diverse voices intent on signaling to elected officials their desire for education choice.

Editor’s note: At the midpoint of National School Choice Week, Step Up For Students’ executive director for advocacy and civic engagement offers her thoughts on a grassroots education choice group launched to exert political influence in the labor union model. You can read about the group’s founding and principles in an article in The 74 at https://www.the74million.org/article/mothers-of-invention-frustrated-with-the-educational-status-quo-and-conventional-parent-organizing-two-latinas-gave-birth-to-a-national-parents-union/.

“Did they just quote the Black Panthers?” I looked around, confused. “I am at an ed choice conference, right?”

I attended the first convening of the National Parents Union recently in New Orleans and found myself asking this question over and again.

As a lifelong organizer and former history teacher, I’ve found a lot to learn from the Black Panthers. I’m just not used to current colleagues who agree.

For years, I lamented the lack of community among those of us advocating, organizing and mobilizing for education choice in this country. Annual conferences are overwhelmingly conservative, white and male, attended mostly by lawmakers, lobbyists and think tank types.

Not really my jam.

So I concentrated on the work, growing advocacy at Step Up For Students, the scholarship administration organization that hosts this blog, to eventually run a team of organizers who’ve been helping nearly half a million parents, faith leaders, students, alumni, teachers and supporters to protect and defend their education options – whether those options include vouchers, scholarships, charters, magnets, homeschool, virtual programs, district schools or, as is often the case, a combination.

I occasionally travel to other states to help folks develop their own organizing programs, meeting colleagues who were, not all the time, but often progressive, female, and multi-racial.

I am grateful the National Parents Union brought so many of us together in one room.


National Parents Union is a new, female-driven organization that is sick to death of negotiating with the status quo while their children suffer in substandard schools. Like those who traveled from every state in the union to attend, co-founders Keri Rodrigues and Alma Marquez, are bold. Unapologetic. Fierce.

This makes people nervous.

All kinds of people.

Those with a vested interest in zip code-based schooling who can afford a certain house in a certain district look down their noses at those who dare to suggest that system isn’t working for everyone.

Privileged liberals who insist they know best, because always, don’t they?

Let’s not forget those on our side of this movement. They will wring their hands and say we should be more inclusive, all the while not following their own advice. You see, they’re used to and enjoy speaking for people who are more than capable of speaking for themselves. They will hear about this conference and subtly suggest tactics that will dilute this strong message. To make rightwing folks more comfortable.

Here’s a suggestion: How about you trust and work with us the way we’ve trusted and worked with you all these years?

Just an idea.  

And cue the usual suspects from the left – men and women – who want to discuss funding and faulty statistics, anything except families in crisis and a movement of parents empowered to change how things are done.

They’d rather condescendingly (and cruelly) deny them agency, saying parents in pain are stupid and easily manipulated. It’s not the first time we’ve heard this – but it’s getting old.

More than 100 of us are over it and no longer interested in remaining silent.

We got together in New Orleans and discussed material from the ACLU in a session called “Civil Disobedience.” We attended another called “How to be Disruptive” led by Christina Laster, Education Chairwoman for NAACP.

Two organizations officially fighting our movement.

Some might wonder how that’s possible.

No one organization or movement can, or should, speak for everyone. No group has ever completely been on point when working to end generational poverty or advocate for the disenfranchised. Too many groups get cozy with those in power and become complacent.

As an Irish, Jewish, feminist, agnostic, democratic-socialist who supports education choice, I’m no stranger to nuance. I gave up the idea of finding groups that encapsulate me a long time ago.

Instead, I find activists who respect and appreciate what I bring to the game – and then we build a coalition.

You know, like the good old days. When cooperation among different groups made us all stronger.

The National Parents Union is bringing it back. Conversation. The art of listening. Bipartisanship. This conference was an open and inclusive happening, participants not at all interested in talking a good game without action and seemed to understand there is strength in diversity of thought.

When an attendee asked Laster why she continued to work for an organization that called for a moratorium on charter schools, she said what I often say to people who ask how I can volunteer for Bernie Sanders.

“I’m fighting for change from within.”

Most women, no matter our ethnic background, get it. We can’t afford the luxury of quitting and walking away. We work behind the scenes to change hearts and minds. That’s how our grandmothers fought for the right to vote, after all, and it’s how we get things done in our communities today.

Nobody goes it alone.

This group called on us to seek assistance from our ancestors. They quoted Frederick Douglass and stood to welcome Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, when she spoke with us. NPU’s co-founders encouraged us to go back home and fight, secure in the knowledge that we have an army on our side.

Sisters. Brothers. Co-conspirators.

Activists who aren’t playing the vouchers vs. charters game. Opponents will not divide us. Warriors for one side and one side only: parents and their right to choose the best education for their kids.

If there is any learning opportunity for National Parents Union, it’s this: Be ever more open to different activists who could be our allies in this struggle, not just those fighting the school to prison pipeline, as important as that is. We must actively involve and hear from parents of disabled children as well as the LGBTQ community, to name just two groups fighting to eradicate discrimination and oppression.

I think Rodrigues and Marquez understand and appreciate that.

Let’s review:

Activists who quoted the Blank Panthers, Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz and Frederick Douglass. ACLU tactics. NAACP-led session. Progressives, former teacher and labor union organizers. Obama administration officials. Celebrating civil disobedience, disruption, revolutionary ideals. A female-driven organization. Minority majority. All at a parent, not lawmaker, education choice conference.

This isn’t your daddy’s movement anymore.