The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a new council to facilitate better working relationships with parents and school boards at the local level, announcing the effort after fierce disputes over critical race theory, masks and LGBTQ issues at schools nationwide.
The Education Department’s new National Parents and Families Engagement Council will consist of parent, family and caregiver representatives from about 15 national organizations who have expertise on public, private, charter and home schooling.
The council will meet to discuss challenges to local schools and how government funds are deployed to schools nationwide. The council will also work to facilitate better relationships with parents and families and help them understand their rights in the education process.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the group will also help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which at its peak led to massive school shutdowns, masks and other virus restriction policies, and the creation of new virtual learning environments.
Cardona said the council will “foster a collaborative environment where we can work together to serve the best interest of students.”
“Parents are a child’s first teachers, and there’s no one better equipped to work with schools and educators to identify what students need to recover,” Cardona said in a statement.
Organizational members who have joined the Education Department’s new council include the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
NAFSCE Executive Director Vito Borrello said in a statement that the council “provides the opportunity to bring diverse parent voices together” while also “serving as a dissemination vehicle for engaging families across the country in equitable education policy.”
The move follows more than a year of contentious infighting at local school boards.
Parents have clashed over mask wearing, the banning of books, the teaching of gay and transgender rights and the academic inclusion of critical race theory, which teaches that race is a social construct and embedded in many institutions across the U.S.
In October, the federal Department of Justice began investigating some parents following a letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which requested the Biden administration look into threats made against school board members and investigate parents as “domestic terrorists” under the 2001 Patriot Act.
The NSBA later apologized for the letter. In May, the organization announced the completion of an outside review of the letter and promised institutional changes.
States continue to grapple with how to teach children about a range of issues. Several Republican-leading states have banned the discussion of critical race theory or similar topics as well as books on race or the LGBTQ community.
Over the spring, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faced backlash after he signed into law a bill banning discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade.
National PTA President Anna King said the new council is “essential to help make sure the needs of students are met coming out of the pandemic and ensure every child has everything they need to make their potential a reality.”
“Parents provide critical perspective, and they should always have a seat at the table whenever decisions are made that impact their children,” she said in a statement.